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