In­ter­view

Fri­day’s do­mes­tic diva and celebrity chef Sil­vena Rowe on the sweet suc­cess of her healthy desserts.

Friday - - Friday Contents - SIL­VENA ROWE:

S he’s a top celebrity chef, in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned restau­ra­teur and Fri­day’s very own do­mes­tic diva, but just like the rest of us Sil­vena Rowe can’t re­sist a de­li­cious dessert. So when the culi­nary queen felt her pris­tine chef whites get­ting a lit­tle tight, she took ac­tion. “Savoury-wise I eat quite healthily. I just love desserts!” she tells Fri­day.

“I felt I didn’t want to eat heavy cream, choco­late and su­gar any more and should ad­just my diet.”

But Sil­vena didn’t turn to the lat­est fad diet to shed a few pounds. Nor was she pre­pared to shun the sweet stuff all to­gether. So what did this Bul­gar­i­an­born chef do to slim down? She came up with an en­tirely new ap­proach to our favourite course.

“The in­cred­i­ble qual­ity about me is that I can rein­vent,” she says. “To­mor­row if some­one copies me, on In­sta­gram, twit­ter, every­where! With no su­gar or gluten how can you put on weight?”

Sil­vena ad­mits she has a sweet tooth and wor­ries about our ad­dic­tion to su­gar in the UAE, with 18.9 per cent of people here (ac­cord­ing to In­ter­na­tional Di­a­betes Fed­er­a­tion) suf­fer­ing from di­a­betes. “But now those people can eat desserts and lose weight,” she prom­ises.

You’d ex­pect a menu packed full of dry and taste­less sub­sti­tutes for the scrump­tious puddings we crave. But there are nine de­li­cious desserts in­clud­ing a rich choco­late ganache tart, rasp­berry and choco­late brownie (which Sil­vena re­veals “people are go­ing crazy for al­ready”) and cashew cheese­cake with fresh berries, along with three kinds of cakes all free from waist-ex­pand­ing nas­ties.

“The choco­late ganache tart is made from or­ganic co­coa pow­der and an en­tirely raw co­conut, date, and pecan nut base,” Sil­vena says. “For people like me who love food, these dishes are per­fect.”

The idea for the range was sparked af­ter Sil­vena dis­cov­ered she was gluten in­tol­er­ant. She found it hard to find de­cent desserts that were gluten-free. “It’s easy to give up bread and pasta, but when it comes to desserts you can­not avoid gluten – that’s why I cre­ated spe­cial gluten-free desserts,” she says. “Su­gar is killing us but the silent killer re­ally is gluten. It is ac­tu­ally more lethal and a lot more dan­ger­ous than people re­alise.”

She may have a point. Stud­ies show that high-carb and gluten-rich di­ets may cause Alzheimer’s dis­ease, de­men­tia, de­pres­sion and ADHD*.

Sil­vena also re­fuses to use su­gar sub­sti­tutes, like sac­cha­rine, in her recipes – in­stead opt­ing for nat­u­ral sweet­en­ers like “a bit of honey or maple syrup”. And she only uses lo­cal and

‘Su­gar is killing us but the silent killer re­ally is gluten. It is more lethal than people re­alise’

I’ll come up with some­thing bet­ter, some­thing new.”

This time her ‘some­thing new’ is a range of desserts she has named “Slim while you sin” and put on the menu at her new restau­rant, Om­nia Gourmet, which has just opened in the quaint souq at the Jumeirah Fish­ing Vil­lage.

The words ‘gourmet’ and ‘slim’ don’t nor­mally sit well to­gether in the same sen­tence, but Sil­vena in­sists you can eat desserts and lose weight. The ques­tion on all our lips – how is that pos­si­ble?

“The desserts are pre­dom­i­nantly raw with gluten-free, su­gar-free, dairy-free and pa­leo and ve­gan qual­i­ties,” Sil­vena ex­plains. “I’ve lost about 7 ki­los. I’m look­ing bet­ter and I’ve posted pic­tures

or­ganic in­gre­di­ents wher­ever pos­si­ble. “Ninety-eight per cent of food in the UAE is im­ported and I don’t do that – be­cause I’m a chef who sup­ports the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment,” she says.

But Sil­vena ad­mits go­ing raw in the UAE hasn’t been easy. “Raw desserts are dif­fi­cult to make, no­body re­ally knows how to do them,” she says. “That’s why this is the first place in Dubai that’s do­ing it and I’m the first chef to per­fect all these desserts.”

Be­ing first is im­por­tant to Sil­vena. “We chefs have to con­tinue to cre­ate,” she says. “We can’t do the same thing all the time. Rein­ven­tion is a very im­por­tant qual­ity. I know I will get copied, be­cause Dubai is a very copy and paste cul­ture.”

Does this make her the Madonna of the culi­nary world? “Well, I’ve got a few more years be­fore I get to Madonna’s age,” she laughs.

Sil­vena’s age is strictly off-lim­its, as is any talk of fam­ily life with her hus­band of 28 years and their two adult sons. She’s happy to chat about her weight though.

“I was 88 ki­los; I don’t mind shar­ing that,” she says. “Now I feel healthy, I don’t have a big stomach, my legs are smaller. I’ve been slim­ming by eat­ing lots of sweet­ness.”

Sil­vena is quick to point out her new menu is not a diet; it’s about im­prov­ing over­all health one bite at a time. “For me it’s very im­por­tant to ed­u­cate people at home as well.”

Talk­ing of ed­u­ca­tion, Sil­vena, who re­lo­cated from Lon­don to Dubai a year ago, was self-taught thanks to a stack of Delia Smith books and lots of trial and er­ror. “It’s true, I’ve never ever gone to school to learn to cook,” she says. “But some of the best chefs in the world are self-taught, like my close friends He­ston Blu­men­thal and Michel Roux. I don’t need to de­fend it. Cook­ing is about pas­sion and I hap­pen to be ex­cep­tion­ally good at what I do.”

I f cook­ing is about pas­sion, Sil­vena’s ca­reer suc­cesses must come down to risk tak­ing? “All my life has been about risks,” she says. “I took a mas­sive risk with Quince. Gor­don Ram­say wanted that restau­rant be­cause he started his ca­reer [in May­fair, Lon­don] and I took it as mine.”

Quince, now May Fair Restau­rant, was Sil­vena’s first restau­rant and opened to rave re­views at Lon­don’s May Fair Ho­tel three years ago. “I don’t sup­pose [Ram­say] was very happy,” she laughs. “Ev­ery­body wanted that restau­rant. Then I come out of nowhere, take over and say, right, this

‘In Dubai ev­ery­one comes and goes but I am here to stay… I want to be a part of lo­cal cul­ture’

is my space. I cre­ated Quince. I built it up to be a huge suc­cess, then closed it to spread what I am do­ing in Dubai.

Sil­vena ad­mits open­ing a restau­rant in Dubai just be­fore Ra­madan was a “rad­i­cal move” but prom­ises a unique if­tar ex­pe­ri­ence. “I’ve taken the big­gest risk right now with this gluten-free, su­gar-free pa­leo-style range at this time of year,” she says. “People eat some­thing that’s de­li­cious but some­where in their mind they’ll won­der, ‘what’s go­ing on? This isn’t as I know it’.”

She adds, “Most if­tar meals are cooked with lots of oil and fat and will make you big and obese. It’s not right bi­o­log­i­cally to not eat all day then stuff your body with rich food.”

Sil­vena’s Mus­lim fa­ther is Turk­ish and she will be fast­ing. “I will eat my own food ev­ery night,” she says. “I am stay­ing away from the if­tar buf­fets as I re­ally want to see the re­sults of slim­ming dur­ing Ra­madan.”

Sil­vena tells us that Om­nia Gourmet will cook up healthy if­tar meals to en­joy in the restau­rant or at home. “We’re not just about desserts,” she says. “I don’t use fat in my cook­ing and I don’t use salt. I’ve had big fights with chefs in my kitchen – if I see them put salt in any­thing I go crazy.”

Ex­pect to see dishes such as white bean soup with za’atar pesto, grilled chicken kofta with sautéed spinach, sweet potato mash and co­rian­der salsa verde with golden spices and “pulled” lamb mous­saka on the menu.

“You have healthy, you have or­ganic and you have sat­is­fy­ing,” she says. “These are de­li­cious foods that won’t make you fat.”

Sil­vena be­lieves Ara­bic cui­sine still gets a hard time, even here in Dubai. “I am here to show that Ara­bic food can be just as al­lur­ing as French and Ja­panese,” she says. “I look to my Ot­toman roots and un­der­stand Ara­bic food very well. I want to be seen as some­body who has de­vel­oped very healthy, whole­some, Emi­rati-Ara­bic in­flu­enced food. In Dubai ev­ery­one comes and goes, but I’m here to stay, I want to em­brace lo­cal­ity and ver­sa­til­ity and be a part of lo­cal cul­ture.”

So much so, she has taken to wear­ing an abaya wher­ever she goes.

No one has cre­ated a [restau­rant] con­cept like this be­fore, it just doesn’t ex­ist,” she says.

Be­ing so unique is a dif­fi­cult task, but Sil­vena says it’s made all the more dif­fi­cult as a woman in a male­dom­i­nated in­dus­try. “As a woman you get ac­cused of be­ing ag­gres­sive, but if Gor­don Ram­say is ag­gres­sive they say, ‘Well done mate’. It can be tough,” she says. “I don’t want to be seen to be like Gor­don Ram­say. I don’t think he’s seen to be very re­spect­ful to the pro­fes­sion. I don’t go around swear­ing and shout­ing and I never en­force fear in the kitchen.”

Known for her strap­ping six-foot stature (1.8 me­tres), fe­line smokey eyes and crop of plat­inum spikes, she’s never been ac­cused of be­ing a shrink­ing vi­o­let. “I’m no dif­fer­ent than any man in the kitchen,” she says. “You need dis­ci­pline; it’s like a mil­i­tary field. But I’m also very car­ing. I’m like a mother who en­cour­ages great qual­ity.”

Be­ing ‘there and present’ in the kitchen is very im­por­tant to Sil­vena. In fact she told The Guardian news­pa­per; “Plas­ter­ing your name all over a place and then not be­ing there seems ob­vi­ously OK to the people who do it, and ob­vi­ously not OK to me.”

That’s some­thing she stands by as her own em­pire grows. “For me it’s not good to put your name to a restau­rant like Marco Pierre White has in Dubai, while you’re not there to look af­ter it,” she says. “It’s like hav­ing a child and then leav­ing it on the street. It’s very im­por­tant to say ‘I’m here; this is what I’m do­ing’.”

And she’s very much here. “It’s all about Dubai for me, its shine, its over-the-top lux­ury. My restau­rant re­flects Dubai life in­side and out.”

As a woman who can call her­self a celebrity chef, au­thor, food writer, en­tre­pre­neur, mother and wife, Sil­vena has her fin­gers in many pies. But as her rave re­views flood in for her new restau­rant, what’s next for Sil­vena, what’s the plan?

“I want to in­spire, ed­u­cate and get people ex­cited about life,” she says. “I work very hard, I’m a very happy per­son. I have to say that Dubai is the best place in the world to be do­ing what I’m do­ing now.”

An Om­nia slim food range is to be launched in Waitrose and Spin­ney’s later this year.

“We’re work­ing in a very strict in­dus­trial kitchen in Al Quoz do­ing some­thing quite colos­sal,” she re­veals.

We have a feel­ing she will cause a rip­ple ef­fect, with out­lets try­ing their hand at raw gourmet desserts through­out the city. Copy, paste and done. But by that time Sil­vena will be on to some­thing new.

Can a dessert taste good and be healthy? Of course it can, says Sil­vena

IN­TER­VIEW The desserts taste as good as they look

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