Meet the 25-year-old heading Dubai’s first fully female-led restaurant
Sara Aqel hopes to replicate the nostalgic emotions associated with food from her childhood in her role as Chef De Cuisine at Dubai restaurant, Fi’lia
What’s for lunch? This is a query most of us have heard or articulated during the course of the day. It’s a question brimming with potential specially if you are at the receiving end and not the one tasked with whipping up the meal! From a young child barging into the kitchen for his afternoon bite to a grown up adult calling home to find out what to expect, to a casual conversation among friends, it’s the question we’ve all been privy to.
For 25-year old Sara Aqel, the innocuous query is an aromatic trip back to childhood in Amman, Jordan, when she’d try to make out from the smell wafting from her family kitchen, as to what to expect when she sits down for lunch.
It is this same nostalgia that Sara hopes to recreate in the newly opened award-winning Italian restaurant concept, Fi’lia in Dubai where she serves the role of Chef De Cuisine. Led by a completely female-driven team from management to service, the restaurant, which has its presence in the US and the Bahamas, brings its incredible female power to the Middle East.
While the entire restaurant from the kitchen to the services to the floor is packed with a power team of women from chefs to mixologists to managers, the menu further pays homage to the female power, inspired as it is from recipes and traditions passed on from one generation of women to the next.
Fi’lia, interestingly is also Italian for ‘daughter’ and their Mediterranean inspired Italian cuisine served up on the 70th floor of SLS Hotel & Residences, Marasi Drive, Business Bay hopes to be a venue for memorable get-togethers coupled with some hearty fare.
Here we talk to Sara to find out more about Dubai’s first fully female-led restaurant and her involvement with it.
Do you believe your cultural identity (Palestinian-Jordanian) has helped in your role as a chef over the years?
Yes definitely! Coming from a culture where food is essentially seen as something that connects people and brings families and friends together, whether that’s for special occasions or just to gather as a group, created an emotional tie for me. I associate food with precious memories, moments and feelings with those closest to me. This had a huge impact on how I want my food to be perceived, being a chef. My goal is to translate this feeling into Fi’lia. When people think of the restaurant, I want them to think of the good times, the good company and most importantly the good food they have enjoyed there.
What’s your earliest memory of food? At what stage did you know you wanted to take it to the next level and train professionally as a chef?
As a child, I always got excited when it came to asking, “what’s for lunch”? My fondest memory is getting dropped home by the school bus and trying to smell the food and guess what’s for lunch when entering our home. I knew I wanted to train as a chef professionally when I was watching my mother cook and having no explanation for how a liquid batter could turn into a spongy cake from heaven; or how a simple mix of ingredients could turn into bread, leaving a smell in the kitchen that makes me homesick just by thinking of it. In simple terms — curiosity is what got me into wanting to be a chef.
You trained under Michelin star Chef Massimo Bottura in Italian cuisine — but why Italian?
I have always had an affinity for Italian cuisine, the way the dishes are prepared reminds me a lot of how we used to cook at home. There is so much passion, love and attention to detail when cooking Italian. I find it very relatable and it’s something that comes naturally to me. Training under Bottura made me fall in love with Italian cuisine even more and helped me to perfect my craft.
At 25, you now head your own team — what is your motto when it comes to the kitchen and leading a female team?
We all came to work at Fi’lia for a reason and that’s because the concept, the story and the people we work with, are so unique. You won’t find it anywhere else. We have a social and professional responsibility to showcase that this is not your usual Italian eatery; but that it’s a place with heart, soul, a great team and even better food. I want my team to see it as a challenge and prove that Fi’lia is like no other restaurant in Dubai.
Ever since the pandemic restricted our social life, food has taken on a new identity, with many turning to their own kitchens to replicate the flavours and aroma they are nostalgic about. How was it for you?
I’ve never had this much time to cook for myself at home and it made me realise how much I love a little flavour from each corner of the world; I cooked all the way from Palestine to France and it helped me keep peace and balance. It also gave me more time to reassess some of my dishes and try something new and different.
The hospitality industry in particular has been hit because of the current social restrictions. Do you think this will change the way restaurants function and how?
I try to see the bright side of it. It will keep us more alert, more careful. I believe that if we handle it right, it can actually make things better. I am thankful that we are in a city like Dubai where we can still operate and do what we love.
Traditionally hotel kitchens were seen as the bastion of male chefs — why do you think it was so and how do you hope to change the narrative with Fi’lia?
I think it was a misconception! People mistake being tough for strict, emotional for passionate, stubborn for organised and delicate for sensitive, and I think these are some good qualities of a chef which happen to be natural qualities of women. With Fi’lia I want to show that we can be all of the above and more. Just because something is done a little differently doesn’t mean that it is wrong or not acceptable. I want to change people’s perception and open their horizons. We see women taking over more and more important positions in the world, why should it be any different in a professional kitchen?
What do women bring to the table that makes it so authentic, according to you, as against a restaurant run by men with just a sprinkling of women?
I think that women have more attention to detail, a little more passion, cheekiness, and a heart-warming approach when it comes to cooking. We can also expertly maneuver our way through ‘an organised chaos’, as I like to call it.
Personally, what was the biggest draw for you to work with Fi’lia apart from the fact it is a totally women led initiative?
The concept and culinary experience that Fi’lia offers was a huge draw for me. I loved the idea of dishes that are inspired by three generations of women: Nonna (Italian for grandmother), Mamma (Italian for mother) and Fi’lia which stems from the word Figlia, Italian for daughter. The concept was so relatable to me and my own experiences. I just instantly knew that it would be a great fit and something I wanted to be part of.
Take five with Chef Sara
If you could pick one inspirational woman to cook for, who would it be? Oprah Winfrey.
If you could have only three dishes for the rest of your life, what would they be? I can’t even imagine having to spend the rest of my life with three dishes only!
What’s a woman’s topmost trait that serves her best in the kitchen? Commitment.
Your pick-me-up food - a dish that can pep up your mood instantly? Pizza!
If not a chef, you’d have been a… Captain.