Don't call me a 'lady chef' says Silvena Rowe as she opens new Dubai restaurant Nassau
As she opens Nassau at Jumeirah Golf Estates, chef Silvena Rowe chats to us about local products and loquacious peers
Gone are the days when the best meal you could get in Dubai was in DIFC or Dubai Marina. As the city expands, away from the coastline, so does the culinary scene. Joining Maine, the Hillhouse Brasserie and Larte in the suburbs is chic new eatery Nassau, from chef Silvena Rowe.
Located in Jumeirah Golf Estates, the bright, fresh Mediterranean offering can be found in the club house, packed full of lush greenery and chic neutral decor. Following a soft opening for residents and members on Friday, November 8, Nassau will be open to the general public from Friday, November 27, although we’re assured by Rowe they won’t turn any wandering foodies away.
The menu boasts everything from salads and tartares, to pasta, meat and seafood dishes. “It’s a focus on wholesome, organic, plant-based eating,” Rowe says. “However, if you’re a meat eater, I have some of the best meat and fish, all the best possible sources. Everything adheres to principles of healthy, wholesome Mediterranean cuisine.”
Her priority has been to offer top quality food at fair prices, which is reflected on the menu. Starters begin from Dh45 for the celeriac and lentil salad, while mains, including the mushroom risotto and Wagyu bolognese conchiglioni, cost about Dh90. That said, you could get the Grade 9 Wagyu tenderloin for Dh389.
In Dubai, Rowe already runs Omnia Gourmet, a sugar, gluten and dairy-free cafe at Jumeirah Fishing Harbour, but Nassau, she says, is a culinary homecoming of sorts. “I’m half Turkish, half Bulgarian. So my roots are in eastern Mediterranean cooking … I’ve been around for a long time now, so I keep coming back to the same thing.”
When it comes to the dishes she expects to be most popular, she identifies the pappardelle with 72-hour slow-cooked short beef ragu, the quattro formaggi tortellini and the mile-high lemon meringue tart. While she pinpoints desserts as her “passion”, Rowe really lights up when it comes to describing the black truffle labneh, which she anticipates will be another particularly popular order, describing it as “a creamy, luxurious, delectable, velvety labneh”, that tops a bed of fresh baby vegetables. “It’s simple, wholesome, delicious food,” she says.
Sourcing locally is something Rowe champions. She claims that when she started Omnia in 2014, it was “almost unheard of” for UAE restaurants to source from regional farmers. It’s a trend she’s happy to have seen change. “You need to have a very personal relationship with the suppliers. I started sourcing with that in mind,” she says.
“We have so many farms popping up everywhere, especially on the road between here [Dubai] and Al Ain and Abu Dhabi. I have a personal relationship with most of those farmers,” she adds. “I go to one for my okra, another for baby aubergine, somewhere else for the sweet cherry tomatoes that look like little jewels.”
To say Rowe has a hands-on work ethic is an understatement. While I’m at Nassau, she darts about, making sure dishes are picture-perfect for the photographer, bustling in and out of the kitchen to check on the progress of plates, as well as finding menus, procuring coffees and welcoming a team of workmen for finishing touches. “I’m the boss,” she jokes when I ask if she is always this involved. “Nobody touches anything without me. I don’t micromanage, but I control everything and, believe me, if they changed a recipe, I would know!” As to whether she prefers being in the kitchen or creating the dishes, she says: “I do both. Menu development is great, but actually creating the dishes is amazing … that is what I do.”
Despite Rowe’s presence, the Dubai food scene is vastly underserved when it comes to female chefs making their way to the UAE to head up restaurants. Last month, British chef Heston Blumenthal weighed in on the lack of female representation in the kitchen, telling India’s Economic Times: “Historically and ultimately, the body clock starts working. It’s evolution, and it is one thing to have a 9 to 5 job and quite another to be a chef with kids. So, that makes it difficult. [And the] heavy pots and pans …” His comment came weeks after Marco Pierre White declared “women are more emotional in the kitchen”.
“The real positive with men is that men can absorb pressure better, that’s the main difference, because they are not as emotional and they don’t take things personally,” White told Irish Independent in August. “Look at the size of some of the pans you are carrying. Can you imagine you’re a lady in the kitchen and saying: ‘Will you carry that pan for me?’”
I ask Rowe if their quotes and the general attitude bothers her. “I know them personally, and I know them well. I have not seen them for years, but grew up in the same environment. Heston is one of the best guys and a good, dear friend, but I would say that he’s had it easier,” she says. “Men do have it easier in the kitchen, when they show that they’re aggressive or angry, or even use bad language, it’s OK … they’re considered big or strong. [But] if a woman, God forbid, shows an attitude or introduces discipline in the kitchen, she is dismissed as hormonal or too emotional.
“I don’t think they saw me as a woman, [but] as their equal, as competition. I’m taller than most of them … OK, maybe not Marco, but I’m a tall girl, and I’ve always been very strong, very physical,” she adds. “I’ve always done my own lifting in the kitchen … stocks or bouillons can be 20 or 30 litres to lift. I do it all myself.”
Her rather diplomatic take on the situation is that she’s “grateful they never gave me any concessions. I don’t want to be a ‘lady chef’ … you don’t want to be a ‘lady journalist’. No, you’re a journalist.”
Now that Nassau is open, don’t expect Rowe to sit still for long – she has Botanica, a second eatery, also opening at Jumeirah Golf Estates “very soon”. She describes this one as a “younger sister to Omnia”, with gluten, sugar and dairy-free dishes. “I love my chias,” she says, so these will be on the menu along with waffles, home-made Nutella, granola, delectable cakes and vibrant salads made using local ingredients.
Updated: November 13, 2019 06:43 PM