She’s banned salt and pro­cessed foods from her diet and restau­rant and now Fri­day’s do­mes­tic diva plans to trans­form Dubai’s eat­ing habits and put the city on­the global food map. Colin Drury meets her

Friday - - Front Page -

W hen once asked how she man­ages to keep her skin look­ing so fresh de­spite a lifetime work­ing in kitchens, celebrity chef Silvena Rowe re­port­edly an­swered in jest, “I drink young men’s blood”.

With her shock of plat­inum hair and no-non­sense con­fi­dence (“once seen, never for­got­ten,” is how she de­scribes her­self), you could almost be­lieve it. And, since she stands 183cm tall in her socks and is well-versed in how to use a rolling pin, you cer­tainly wouldn’t want to have ar­gued the point.

But it seems Fri­day’s do­mes­tic diva – owner and chef at Om­nia Gourmet in Jumeirah Fish­ing Har­bour – has a far sim­pler se­cret for stay­ing healthy and look­ing ter­rific: swap­ping carbs for raw food. She’s been do­ing it for some time (she lost 7kg ear­lier this year), and now she wants to share her se­cret.

“When you load up meals with com­plex car­bo­hy­drates, like pota­toes, you’re putting some­thing into your body that is dif­fi­cult for it to burn up and process,” she ex­plains. “That re­sults in you feel­ing sleepy after eat­ing and makes you heav­ier, too.

“With vegetables and raw food, you’re eat­ing com­pletely nat­u­ral and un­pro­cessed foods. There are no E num­bers, colourants or ar­ti­fi­cial in­gre­di­ents and more vi­ta­mins and nu­tri­ents. It’s whole­some and healthy. Th­ese foods give you more en­ergy, im­prove your im­mu­nity, and make you feel and look great. It’s the clos­est thing to eat­ing the way na­ture in­tended.”

That doesn’t mean she’s ad­vo­cat­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, though. She loves her meat too much for that. But not for Silvena stodgy pasta, noo­dles or rice­based dishes; nor bulk­ing up meals with por­tions of bread and fries. In­stead, she reck­ons cre­at­ing in­no­va­tive veg­gie ver­sions of those dishes will help us shed the ki­los, keep us look­ing young and boost our sense of well-be­ing. And, since this is some­one ap­proach­ing 50 (she fa­mously re­fuses to re­veal her ex­act age) who would still turn heads when she slipped out of her whites and into the trade­mark leather trousers she would wear when she lived in London, her words are worth lis­ten­ing to.

Think zuc­chini ‘lin­guine’ (an imi­ta­tion pasta dish made from zuc­chini), ‘raw­cotta’ (made us­ing cashew nuts and herbs), ‘cour­getti’ (raw cour­gette sliced in the shape of spaghetti strands), or ‘cauliflower rice’ (steamed grated cauliflower). Th­ese join superfoods such as chia seeds, goji berries, pomegranate pow­der and spinach as some of the flag­ship in­gre­di­ents in her own diet and much of her restau­rant cook­ing. Th­ese can be served with a green salad, a piece of chicken or fish, or even as cour­ses in their own right.

“If you fo­cus on your diet in this way, you will reap the ben­e­fits,” says Silvena. “You are what you eat, so eat­ing nat­u­ral makes sense. I my­self try to make sure 25 per cent of all my food is raw and I don’t eat carbs in any quan­tity. We have a say­ing at the restau­rant: raw to glow. Please note: this doesn’t mean the food will lit­er­ally make your skin glow but has a metaphor­i­cal mean­ing in that eat­ing raw food, it’s com­monly be­lieved, has the po­ten­tial to make you feel very healthy, give you clearer skin and even more lus­trous hair.

“It’s not easy, be­cause it means you have to change the na­ture of food with­out cook­ing it – us­ing tech­niques such as de­hy­dra­tion, soaking and fer­men­ta­tion – but the re­wards are there. You stay fit­ter and younger longer. You feel bet­ter. You have more en­ergy.”

There’s a sci­ence be­hind all this, of course. Stud­ies have found that di­ets fea­tur­ing lower carb in­take gen­er­ally re­sult in re­duced body in­sulin, blood sugar and triglyc­erides (a type of fat found in your blood), lead­ing to weight loss and lower blood pres­sure. They also de­crease choles­terol and could po­ten­tially help to re­duce the chances of suf­fer­ing from Alzheimer’s, de­men­tia and de­pres­sion.

Raw foods, by con­trast, are brim­ming with up to 33 per cent more vi­ta­mins, nu­tri­ents and min­er­als than cooked ones. Potas­sium and an­tiox­i­dant be­taC­arotene, found in many vegetables in­clud­ing car­rots, pep­pers and cu­cum­bers, are both great for the skin and re­duce can­cer-re­lated free rad­i­cals.

Ad­vo­cates reckon that eat­ing raw also re­sults in more en­ergy – be­cause the body re­quires less en­ergy to process

‘You are what you eat, so eat­ing nat­u­ral makes sense. You feel bet­ter and you havemore en­ergy’

what’s eaten – and in­creased men­tal clar­ity. In­deed, in Dubai, where almost 20 per cent of peo­ple suf­fer with type 2 di­a­betes and where obe­sity is a well-ac­knowl­edged is­sue, it could be ar­gued that such a diet is needed more than any­where else in the world.

Ithink there is a prob­lem with un­healthy eat­ing here,” says Silvena, a woman who never shies away from say­ing it how she sees it. “We im­port 98 per cent of our food, which means more frozen, more pro­cessed, less fresh pro­duce.

“But I want to change that. There are great or­ganic farm­ers here and we should be us­ing them more – and that’s what I do be­cause I be­lieve it is right.

“I want to make Dubai a health­ier city. There is a small shift start­ing to hap­pen to­wards raw foods and or­ganic pro­duce, and I am at the fore­front of that. It won’t be easy to change peo­ple’s habits but the ben­e­fits are there for all.”

Her aver­sion to the un­healthy goes as far as clamp­ing down on any of her chefs who use so much as a pinch of salt or spoon of sugar. “If I saw one do­ing that I would fire him,” she says.

In fact, Silvena had a cus­tomer com­plain about a lack of salt re­cently. “For me, the cus­tomer is al­ways right,” she says. “I will sit down and lis­ten to any­thing they have to say be­cause I am

‘There are great or­ganic farm­ers here and we all should be us­ing them more – that’s what I do’

so hon­oured that they have cho­sen my restau­rant out of more than 7,000 in Dubai to eat at. But no, we still will not be us­ing salt.”

Silvena en­sures food isn’t bland by us­ing nat­u­ral spices, herbs and berries.

If eat­ing habits are to be changed in the UAE, dishes like Silvena’s cashew nut but­ter, peanut and broc­coli quiche, or her choco­late ganache tart may help.

The for­mer has a base of pis­ta­chio nuts and herbs, and a top cre­ated from a cashew nut but­ter, peanuts and broc­coli. The lat­ter is made with or­ganic co­coa pow­der and has an en­tirely raw co­conut, date, and pecan nut base.

Both have be­come hits at her restau­rant, which, since it opened in July, has be­come a firm city favourite.

Which brings us nicely to Silvena’s own Dubai grand plans – for when she’s not sav­ing the city from carb over­load, that is. The daugh­ter of a Turk­ish-born jour­nal­ist and a Bul­gar­ian housewife, she left London with hus­band Mal­colm to come here some 12 months ago after es­tab­lish­ing her name in the UK as a chef of con­sid­er­able tal­ent. She learned to cook at home while bring­ing up her two sons, and then rose from chef at a Not­ting Hill café to open­ing up the restau­rant, Quince, at­tached to the world-fa­mous May Fair Ho­tel.

She also be­came some­thing of a TV star, ap­pear­ing as the guest chef on UK sta­ples such as This Morn­ing and Satur­day Kitchen. She says she has cooked for ev­ery­one from mi­nor mem­bers of the UK royal fam­ily to the boy band One Di­rec­tion. “They were so cute and fresh,” she says of them.

She moved to the UAE, ul­ti­mately, be­cause of the sheer range of op­por­tu­ni­ties. “There’s a say­ing in the UK that the sky is the limit,” she says. “Well, in Dubai, not even the sky is the limit. If you work hard and have ideas, there are no lim­its to what you can achieve here. It’s lim­it­less.”

Om­nia Gourmet is al­ready prov­ing that. It has 35 cov­ers and it’s of­ten fully booked. But later this year Silvena plans to ex­pand her em­pire with a sec­ond restau­rant.

Om­nia by Silvena will be a far more glitzy and glam­orous af­fair than the cur­rent bistro. With typ­i­cal mod­esty, she de­scribes the new ven­ture – which will be based in Down­town Dubai– as set to of­fer a “mind-blow­ing, earth­shat­ter­ing” ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It will be an evoca­tive, al­lur­ing place that cap­tures the spirit of Dubai com­pletely,” she goes on. “Lots of glitz with food that will take Dubai’s restau­rant scene to another level.”

The food, she adds, will be based around her Turk­ish and Balkan up­bring­ing, done with Euro­pean fi­nesse, but given an Emi­rati twist.

And after that, she has plans for another three more ca­sual places – one of which, set to open in 2015, will serve noth­ing but pure food.

“I can’t tell you where those will be at the mo­ment,” she says. “But I do think the cus­tom is there, yes.”

And then – phew! – she has even more plans. Even­tu­ally she wants to take Om­nia by Silvena, and turn it into an in­ter­na­tional brand.

“There are so many restau­rants in Dubai that have come from other places – London, New York, Tokyo, Paris – but I don’t know of one that’s done it the other way round, started life here and gone else­where,” she ex­plains.

“That’s what I will do. I will take this very Dubai con­cept to the West. I want to put Dubai on the food map.”

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Green good­ness that makes you glow with health

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