‘No men, women in the kitchen, we’re all chefs in there’: Dubai-based Ukrainian chef opens up on her journey

Chef Alena Solodovichenko on overcoming gender biases in the culinary world, harnessing the feminine power in creating empathetic, innovative cuisines, and the emerging gastronomy trends in the city

by

Somya Mehta

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Published: Fri 18 Aug 2023, 3:29 PM

Last updated: Fri 18 Aug 2023, 10:32 PM

Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Chef Alena Solodovichenko forayed into the world of restaurants in her late teens. What started as a childhood dream quickly turned into her lifelong calling, after which there was no turning back. Her journey to the kitchen has taken her to countries she never dreamed of settling in, latest one being the UAE, where she now works as an Executive Chef for Sfumato, a homegrown gastro atelier, and Soirée DXB.

Before her move to Dubai, Chef Alena was based in Moscow, working for one of the most popular Russian restaurants, Doctor Zhivago. The chef proudly affirms that her multicultural background serves as the backbone in her cooking. “Living in different countries has definitely impacted the way I perceive food,” says Chef Alena. “Upon moving to Dubai, I realised that ingredients can be so varied. This understanding helps broaden the horizons and shows us how the world is much bigger than what we’ve always imagined.”


Reminiscing her formative years, she says, “It might sound clichéd to say this, but it all comes from my childhood,” Being brought up in Ukraine meant that a lot of family traditions were closely connected with food for little Alena. “Sometimes, I’d cook a meal for my mum to calm her down when I got bad grades at school,” says the chef. “Everyone in my family was a great cook — my mom, my grandmothers, my aunt — and I have always enjoyed helping them, especially during holiday gatherings.”

Her observations growing up and keen interest to pursue the culinary field led Chef Alena to get her first restaurant job at age 19. “A year later, I went to the chef and told him ‘I want to become a sous chef one day’. He laughed at me and said no girl could ever reach that position’,” she recounts, adding that being a female chef in a male-dominated industry has been a rocky road to navigate. “But after two years, I actually got appointed as sous chef and proved him wrong, despite all the mockery,” she adds. Later, Chef Alena went on to receive GQ Russia’s Super Woman of the Year Award among other significant awards.


“At the beginning of my journey, I faced a lot of ridicule and mockery from men. Some of them would even bet on how long I’d last. It wasn’t an easy time but I’m truly grateful for the experience because it has made me stronger and more resilient. It’s made me who I am,” the chef recounts.

Though she had to endure several unpleasant statements passed on callously by her male counterparts, the chef didn’t let the discouraging remarks deter her from her path. “Let’s face the truth: kitchen is a harsh world,” she adds. “But at the same time, there’s no place for negative emotions in the kitchen. It gives you no time to cry and whine. Either you choose this profession and grow steadily in it, or you just leave and find something else,” she continues. “I’ve made my choices, I’ve accepted the rules, and I’ve proven that women can be great managers, chefs, and that we should be taken seriously. There are no men and women in the kitchen — we are all chefs in there.”

At Sfumato, Chef Alena’s goal is to create a very honest, sensual and graceful gastronomy experience, accentuating her unique feminine touch, for which she was initially ridiculed, with the underlying goals of changing the way in which gastronomy is perceived worldwide. “The core principle for us is to pay attention to the original ingredients,” says the chef. “My aim is to highlight the original taste, make it brighter and more interesting, without killing it with sauces and spices.”

With an astute focus on sustainably-sourced ingredients in her cooking, Chef Alena believes that “Sustainability is important for every chef in every region. When I first came to Dubai I was amazed by the quality of local food. I’ve tried a variety of ingredients, and the impression was so immense, that I realised I must use it somehow,” she adds. “I want to show that vegetables can be superstars, they can be luxury, and they can play the main role in the dish.”

Highlighting the key gastronomy trends she has witnessed in the city so far, Chef Alena adds, “Dubai is rapidly evolving as a city. So, the importance of having an identity is more crucial for restaurants than ever before. For now, the majority of fine dining projects are located within certain clusters, around 5-star hotels, while outside of these areas, there are a lot of city concepts, premium casual dining projects and so on. This might change in the next few years.”

According to the chef, the new culinary concepts that are being launched around the city have set world class standards. “Concepts that are opening in signature destinations like Atlantis The Royal or One & Only One, Za’abeel, have set the bar very high.” The chef will be launching an all-new menu at Sfumato, located at The Opus Tower, starting this Monday (August 21).

somya@khaleejtimes.com

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