SILVENA ROWE’S RAW DIET
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
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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