Sil­vena Rowe

Fri­day’s do­mes­tic diva on the ben­e­fits of go­ing or­ganic.

Friday - - Contents -

C elebrity chef Sil­vena Rowe is get­ting in a stew. Steamed up. Boil­ing, even. Known as

Fri­day’s Fri­day’s Do­mes­tic Diva it’s no sur­prise that she doesn’t mince her words – and the ob­ject of her rage to­day? Or­ganic food. Or rather the lack of it in the UAE.

“The fact is,” she says, “98 per cent of food in the UAE is im­ported and it’s been like that for too long. There is a huge op­por­tu­nity to in­tro­duce and use lo­cally – es­pe­cially or­ganic – sourced food. Not only is it healthy and de­li­cious but we have the op­por­tu­nity of hugely re­duc­ing our car­bon foot­print.’’

She has a point. They’re crooked, mis­shapen and more of­ten than not ugly but as the old adage goes ‘never judge a book by its cover’. It’s said or­ganic foods, born from farm­ing prac­tices that re­strict the use of ar­ti­fi­cial chem­i­cals, are not only tastier, health­ier and beau­ti­ful on the in­side, but when lo­cally grown they also treat the planet sym­pa­thet­i­cally.

In a coun­try where 98 per cent of food prod­ucts are im­ported, we’re be­ing told (firmly) that lo­cally grown or­ganic pro­duce is not only plen­ti­ful but de­serves to fea­ture far higher on our shop­ping lists. Sil­vena is leading the charge for a lo­cally healthy life­style and is ob­vi­ously a woman on a mis­sion to change the sloth­ful habits of Dubai’s couch pota­toes.

Hav­ing ar­rived in the UAE a mere six months ago, the feisty chef is al­ready chang­ing the coun­try’s culi­nary land­scape, ad­vis­ing res­i­dents to cook lo­cal, coun­selling people on where to buy lo­cal, and team­ing up with some of the coun­try’s or­ganic fore­fa­thers to help sow the lo­cally pro­duced seed.

As the first con­sul­tant chef for the Lon­don Farm­ers’ Mar­ket in the UK, a con­cept that pro­vides high­qual­ity lo­cal and sea­sonal pro­duce

Or­ganic veg are crooked and more of­ten then not ugly, but never judge a book by its cover

to city dwellers while en­cour­ag­ing sus­tain­able food pro­duc­tion, Sil­vena is no new­comer to pro­mot­ing lo­cally pro­duced fare. The star of prime-time TV shows in the UK – such as the BBC’s

Coun­try Show Cook-Off, which sees mas­ter chefs tour vil­lages and com­pete in tra­di­tional coun­try shows – Sil­vena stepped on to UAE soil with lash­ings of rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit.

“I ar­rived in Dubai and I made it my busi­ness to know about mar­kets and chefs and who was do­ing what,” says the opin­ion­ated Turk/Bul­gar­ian chef. “It didn’t take me long to re­alise that many chefs were not aware of the lo­cal sup­ply of fruit and veg­eta­bles.

“At the mo­ment there is not enough to sup­ply the whole net­work but it is enough to in­tro­duce an el­e­ment and sup­port the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment be­cause the only way it will grow is by us us­ing it and pro­mot­ing it.”

W ith ap­prox­i­mately $8 bil­lion (Dh28.3 bil­lion) spent ev­ery year on food im­ports and as the GCC’s largest food con­sumer, it’s ob­vi­ous Sil­vena’s ar­gu­ment for en­cour­ag­ing more of Made in the UAE is a valid one. She is not alone in her quest, how­ever, and the coun­try’s or­ganic, lo­cal trend is veer­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

To­day there are 38 cer­ti­fied or­ganic farms in the UAE, up from only eight in 2012, and al­though many ho­tels across the coun­try are jump­ing (or per­haps less en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, step­ping) on to the lo­cally grown band­wagon, our Do­mes­tic Diva says there’s still much to be done.

“Here in Dubai the cost of food is phe­nom­e­nally high, which is un­usual,” she says. “It is partly ex­pected be­cause we need to im­port a lot but there is also a great el­e­ment of wastage. There is also no such thing as an or­ganic restau­rant but what chefs here can do is des­ig­nate cer­tain dishes as or­ganic.”

Al­though a study last year of the emi­rate’s ho­tels seemed to demon­strate that restau­rant-go­ers weren’t overly in­ter­ested in or­ganic pro­duce pri­mar­ily due to its heftier price tag, in true Bat­tle

of the Chefs style, Sil­vena says in ac­tual fact it of­ten sim­ply boils down to pure lazi­ness on the chef’s be­half.

“Chefs haven’t been us­ing [lo­cally sourced, or­ganic food] be­cause they are very ig­no­rant,” she says.

“They like to stay in the com­fort of their own kitchen, and they won’t nec­es­sar­ily ven­ture out. Here, you start a job, your pre­vi­ous chef will leave you with a list of sup­pli­ers from all over Europe, and it’s nice and easy. You put it on the list and then the pro­duce ar­rives and it’s good qual­ity be­cause it comes from the best places.”

How­ever, chang­ing prac­tices re­quires ef­fort and re­silience, which are not new to our favourite chef. She is known and loved for not only tak­ing on the big boys in Lon­don to be­come head chef at Quince, a su­per-smart restau­rant ad­join­ing the famed May­fair Ho­tel – “ev­ery male chef wanted that restau­rant” she proudly quips – but also for the tough task of es­tab­lish­ing her­self as an author­ity on Mid­dle East­ern cook­ing through award-win­ning cook books and as a tough-talk­ing judge on

Chopped, the re­al­ity TV show where

‘It will be an el­e­vated Emi­rati menu, which prom­ises to be very al­lur­ing and mod­ern’

chefs pit their skills against each other, in the US. Tes­ta­ment to her nat­u­ral abil­ity to rein­vent, Sil­vena is now stamp­ing her mark on the UAE not only through her role as con­sul­tant chef for the five-star H Ho­tel Dubai but also as she lays the foun­da­tions for her own much-an­tic­i­pated mod­ern Ot­tomanin­spired venue.

“I want it to be an in­cred­i­ble sur­prise and I don’t want to re­ally talk about it be­fore it hap­pens,” she says. “All I can say is Ra­madan is never go­ing to be the same again! I fast dur­ing Ra­madan and for me it is a very spe­cial time so I am work­ing on my menu al­ready and trust me, it is phenom­e­nal. It is def­i­nitely go­ing to of­fer guests a 1,001 culi­nary Ara­bian night’s ex­pe­ri­ence.”

To whet your ap­petite while you wait how­ever, the Bul­gar­ian-born blonde will this weekend in con­junc­tion with the H Ho­tel, be leading the pack at this year’s very first Dubai Food Car­ni­val, a two-day fam­ily-friendly food ex­trav­a­ganza served up by a host of global gas­tronomes at Dubai’s Fes­ti­val City.

S il­vena’s care­fully cre­ated pop-up restau­rant, Car­ni­val Rowe, a pur­pose-built fine-din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of­fer­ing three daily seat­ing ses­sions for 50 people, will not only cham­pion the na­tive or­ganic cause but re­veal au­then­ti­cally ex­otic Emi­rati food over a three-course jour­ney (see the box, right, for de­tails).

“Ba­si­cally what I am do­ing with this menu is ap­ply­ing what I do best, a Euro­pean style with Mediter­ranean touches. It will be an el­e­vated Emi­rati menu, which prom­ises to be very al­lur­ing and mod­ern,” says Sil­vena.

“My dishes are cooked us­ing 98 per cent lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents but be­cause my strapline is ‘98 per cent of food in Dubai is im­ported, 98 per cent of my menu is lo­cally sourced,’ I have 2 per cent to play with! So two of the in­gre­di­ents, the rice and the truf­fle, have come from else­where.”

Be­fit­ting of the or­ganic Ara­bia theme is Sil­vena’s part­ner­ship with Elena Ki­nane, the founder of Green­heart Or­ganic Farms and a woman she refers to as “fab­u­lous, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary” and “a guru of or­ganic think­ing here”. Along­side the restau­rant the pair will run Sil­vena’s Souq, a ded­i­cated lo­cally sourced or­ganic mar­ket where vis­i­tors will be able to pur­chase fresh UAE pro­duce.

“It is a small room full of the most pris­tine, amaz­ing, mind-blow­ing, or­ganic pro­duce from just 40km away from Dubai,” she says.

“It is done in as­so­ci­a­tion with Green Heart and I ad­vise people to come and have a look be­cause it is spe­cial. Once you have cooked Elena’s leeks or her cau­li­flower, for ex­am­ple, you will see that it tastes like some­thing you have never tasted be­fore.”

Sup­port­ing lo­cal farm­ers, im­prov­ing the health of the UAE’s di­a­betes sufferers and help­ing to re­duce the

coun­try’s car­bon foot­print are all piv­otal com­po­nents of Sil­vena’s mas­ter plan, and while she ad­mits that or­ganic lo­cal pro­duce may be a lit­tle more ex­pen­sive, she ar­gues that ul­ti­mately you’re pay­ing with your wal­let in­stead of your health.

“We are what we eat, af­ter all,” she says. “And as a chef and some­one who wants to look af­ter her­self and her fam­ily I be­come very aware, very quickly of the amaz­ing wealth of lo­cally pro­duced food here. The prices are a lit­tle more ex­pen­sive but not that much more when you con­sider that it’s or­ganic and lo­cally grown, per­haps you’ll pay 30 per cent more than for con­ven­tional food that had been flown here and sub­se­quently is not fresh.

“And there is a way of mak­ing sure you can af­ford it. I’ve al­ways ad­vo­cated in­stead of buy­ing more, buy less and stretch it. I can do two meals for four people with a big or­ganic chicken, maybe even three, be­cause it’s about imag­i­na­tion and any good house­wife should be able to do this. So you get the good­ness from one healthy chicken in­stead of buy­ing three [con­ven­tion­ally farmed] chick­ens and stuff­ing yourself.”

And the eas­i­est way to add a dash of good­ness to our cook­ing, she says, is by be­gin­ning at our lo­cal, or­ganic jour­ney ev­ery Fri­day morn­ing at the farm­ers’ mar­ket at Emi­rates Tow­ers.

“Ul­ti­mately you have to be­lieve in it,” Sil­vena says, adding, “Not ev­ery­thing has to be or­ganic but you should eat sen­si­bly sourced food with re­spon­si­bil­ity and if it’s or­ganic that’s even bet­ter.”

Sil­vena wants us to go back to our (or­ganic) roots

Fresh, lo­cal veg: great for your health and the en­vi­ron­ment

Want to sam­ple some of Sil­vena’s recipes? See The Break­fast Club on page 66.

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