FOOD Silvena Rowe’s Ottoman empire
British celebrity chef plans to launch a Turkish-inpired chain in Dubai
For someone who hasn’t lived in the city, Silvena Rowe has an eerily accurate assessment of Dubai’s restaurant scene. Among the things she’s noted: Few restaurants that have attempted to modernise Arabic or Turkish cuisine; and there are very few homegrown, independent restaurants.
So watch out Dubai — because she’s going to do both.
“I’ve always had this concept called Ottoman Cafe, democratizing Middle Eastern,” Rowe tells me during a visit to Dubai last month. Rowe, a Amazonian-looking Bulgarian-Turkish chef based in the UK, caused a stir last month when she quit her London restaurant Quince, saying she wanted to launch her own concept. She’s well-known in the UK for her stints on television (a new series started on BBC last week) and is completely self-taught.
“I left Quince because it was only going to be one restaurant,” she says. “I have an investor in the UK who wants to create Ottoman Cafe and there are people here interested.” The purpose of her trip was to put out feelers about launching the chain here, and she says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. “I saw five major operators. I’m not interested in running a one-off place — and I am not interested in just putting my name like a celebrity chef as a signature and then making a courtesy visit once a year,” she adds firmly. “I’m looking to more or less relocate here, and am prioritising this over Britain.”
Her main target for criticism is the city’s Middle Eastern restaurants, which she says are stuck in a time warp, refusing to move with the times. She’s certainly got a point. “Everybody is paying so much attention, putting so much time and money in recreating British and Western concepts like Pierre Gagnaire, Gary Rhodes, Marco Pierre White. I was amazed nobody was doing anything about local cuisine.
“It is important to apply imagination, to make it lighter, more vibrant, to basically sex it up, because that has not been done. Even if you go to the best Lebanese restaurant in Dubai, it’s all the usual suspects — it’s always the same hummous, tabbouleh, fattoush, varying from good to very good — but it’s always the same. It’s amazing how none of them can see how things can be developed. This is what I intend to do. And I’ve been amazed by the interest – these people are big operators. There are deals already – it’s who I go with. A partner is someone who can hold my hand, knows the local market, who understands my vision.”
Rowe has big ideas and she knows her Middle Eastern cuisine inside out — especially her beloved Ottoman (“one of the three greatest in the world”). She has travelled extensively in the region (Syria is a particular favourite, she notes with sadness, remembering her visit to the home of a hakawati, or storyteller. She plans to have one in her restaurants).
She describes her take on tradition as “light, modernised Middle Eastern cooking, taking traditional recipes and modernizing it. I used to love Zuma, so I started reworking Zuma dishes into Middle Eastern recipes – Ottoman I should say. Ottoman cuisine is neglected in its own environment and space.”
She’s not just coming here to launch her concept -- a media takeover is planned. Expect her on your TV screen soon, too. “I’m coming to make an impact,” she says. “I have every intention of starting my own TV show. I don’t care what they say, that no-one watches TV here. Yeah, well, because there’s nothing [to watch]. “I say the proof is in the pudding – come and eat my food. One thing I can tell you – my food is delicious. It’s in me, it’s in my pores, the whole culture. I have respect and understanding for this world.”