Celebrity chef Silvena Rowe is getting in a stew. Steamed up. Boiling, even. Known as Friday’s Domestic Diva it’s no surprise that she doesn’t mince her words – and the object of her rage today? Organic food. Or rather the lack of it in the UAE.
“The fact is,” she says, “98 per cent of food in the UAE is imported and it’s been like that for too long. There is a huge opportunity to introduce and use locally – especially organic – sourced food. Not only is it healthy and delicious but we have the opportunity of hugely reducing our carbon footprint.’’
She has a point. They’re crooked, misshapen and more often than not ugly but as the old adage goes ‘never judge a book by its cover’. It’s said organic foods, born from farming practices that restrict the use of artificial chemicals, are not only tastier, healthier and beautiful on the inside, but when locally grown they also treat the planet sympathetically.
In a country where 98 per cent of food products are imported, we’re being told (firmly) that locally grown organic produce is not only plentiful but deserves to feature far higher on our shopping lists. Silvena is leading the charge for a locally healthy lifestyle and is obviously a woman on a mission to change the slothful habits of Dubai’s couch potatoes.
Having arrived in the UAE a mere six months ago, the feisty chef is already changing the country’s culinary landscape, advising residents to cook local, counselling people on where to buy local, and teaming up with some of the country’s organic forefathers to help sow the locally produced seed.
As the first consultant chef for the London Farmers’ Market in the UK, a concept that provides high-quality local and seasonal produce to city dwellers while encouraging sustainable food production, Silvena is no newcomer to promoting locally produced fare. The star of prime-time TV shows in the UK – such as the BBC’s Country Show Cook-Off, which sees master chefs tour villages and compete in traditional country shows – Silvena stepped on to UAE soil with lashings of revolutionary spirit.
“I arrived in Dubai and I made it my business to know about markets and chefs and who was doing what,” says the opinionated Turk/Bulgarian chef. “It didn’t take me long to realise that many chefs were not aware of the local supply of fruit and vegetables.
“At the moment there is not enough to supply the whole network but it is enough to introduce an element and support the local environment because the only way it will grow is by us using it and promoting it.”
With approximately $8 billion (Dh28.3 billion) spent every year on food imports and as the GCC’s largest food consumer, it’s obvious Silvena’s argument for encouraging more of Made in the UAE is a valid one. She is not alone in her quest, however, and the country’s organic, local trend is veering in the right direction.
Today there are 38 certified organic farms in the UAE, up from only eight in 2012, and although many hotels across the country are jumping (or perhaps less enthusiastically, stepping) on to the locally grown bandwagon, our Domestic Diva says there’s still much to be done.
“Here in Dubai the cost of food is phenomenally high, which is unusual,” she says. “It is partly expected because we need to import a lot but there is also a great element of wastage. There is also no such thing as an organic restaurant but what chefs here can do is designate certain dishes as organic.”
Although a study last year of the emirate’s hotels seemed to demonstrate that restaurant-goers weren’t overly interested in organic produce primarily due to its heftier price tag, in true Battle of the Chefs style, Silvena says in actual fact it often simply boils down to pure laziness on the chef’s behalf.
“Chefs haven’t been using [locally sourced, organic food] because they are very ignorant,” she says.
“They like to stay in the comfort of their own kitchen, and they won’t necessarily venture out. Here, you start a job, your previous chef will leave you with a list of suppliers from all over Europe, and it’s nice and easy. You put it on the list and then the produce arrives and it’s good quality because it comes from the best places.”
However, changing practices requires effort and resilience, which are not new to our favourite chef. She is known and loved for not only taking on the big boys in London to become head chef at Quince, a super-smart restaurant adjoining the famed Mayfair Hotel – “every male chef wanted that restaurant” she proudly quips – but also for the tough task of establishing herself as an authority on Middle Eastern cooking through award-winning cook books and as a tough-talking judge on Chopped, the reality TV show where chefs pit their skills against each other, in the US. Testament to her natural ability to reinvent, Silvena is now stamping her mark on the UAE not only through her role as consultant chef for the five-star H Hotel Dubai but also as she lays the foundations for her own much-anticipated modern Ottoman-inspired venue.
“I want it to be an incredible surprise and I don’t want to really talk about it before it happens,” she says. “All I can say is Ramadan is never going to be the same again! I fast during Ramadan and for me it is a very special time so I am working on my menu already and trust me, it is phenomenal. It is definitely going to offer guests a 1,001 culinary Arabian night’s experience.”
To whet your appetite while you wait however, the Bulgarian-born blonde will this weekend in conjunction with the H Hotel, be leading the pack at this year’s very first Dubai Food Carnival, a two-day family-friendly food extravaganza served up by a host of global gastronomes at Dubai’s Festival City.
Silvena’s carefully created pop-up restaurant, Carnival Rowe, a purpose-built fine-dining experience offering three daily seating sessions for 50 people, will not only champion the native organic cause but reveal authentically exotic Emirati food over a three-course journey.
“Basically what I am doing with this menu is applying what I do best, a European style with Mediterranean touches. It will be an elevated Emirati menu, which promises to be very alluring and modern,” says Silvena.
“My dishes are cooked using 98 per cent locally sourced ingredients but because my strapline is ‘98 per cent of food in Dubai is imported, 98 per cent of my menu is locally sourced,’ I have 2 per cent to play with! So two of the ingredients, the rice and the truffle, have come from elsewhere.”
Befitting of the organic Arabia theme is Silvena’s partnership with Elena Kinane, the founder of Greenheart Organic Farms and a woman she refers to as “fabulous, a revolutionary” and “a guru of organic thinking here”. Alongside the restaurant the pair will run Silvena’s Souq, a dedicated locally sourced organic market where visitors will be able to purchase fresh UAE produce.
“It is a small room full of the most pristine, amazing, mind-blowing, organic produce from just 40km away from Dubai,” she says.
“It is done in association with Green Heart and I advise people to come and have a look because it is special. Once you have cooked Elena’s leeks or her cauliflower, for example, you will see that it tastes like something you have never tasted before.”
Supporting local farmers, improving the health of the UAE’s diabetes sufferers and helping to reduce the country’s carbon footprint are all pivotal components of Silvena’s master plan, and while she admits that organic local produce may be a little more expensive, she argues that ultimately you’re paying with your wallet instead of your health.
“We are what we eat, after all,” she says. “And as a chef and someone who wants to look after herself and her family I become very aware, very quickly of the amazing wealth of locally produced food here. The prices are a little more expensive but not that much more when you consider that it’s organic and locally grown, perhaps you’ll pay 30 per cent more than for conventional food that had been flown here and subsequently is not fresh.
“And there is a way of making sure you can afford it. I’ve always advocated instead of buying more, buy less and stretch it. I can do two meals for four people with a big organic chicken, maybe even three, because it’s about imagination and any good housewife should be able to do this. So you get the goodness from one healthy chicken instead of buying three [conventionally farmed] chickens and stuffing yourself.”
And the easiest way to add a dash of goodness to our cooking, she says, is by beginning at our local, organic journey every Friday morning at the farmers’ market at Emirates Towers.
“Ultimately you have to believe in it,” Silvena says, adding, “Not everything has to be organic but you should eat sensibly sourced food with responsibility and if it’s organic that’s even better.”