Minute on the clock: Sara Aqel, global executive chef of Fi'lia for Ennismore

23 August 2022 by
Minute on the clock: Sara Aqel, global executive chef of Fi'lia for Ennismore

The global executive chef of Fi'lia for Ennismore tells how she developed a restaurant with the first female-only brigade in Dubai

When did you join Fi'lia, and was the concept already established?

I joined Fi'lia in March 2021. At the time Ennismore explained that they wanted the first all-female-led restaurant in Dubai [in the SLS Dubai hotel]. It sounded like an ambitious thing to do, but once we started hiring, the team quickly came together.

We've used local talent but had to look further afield, too. The restaurant officially opened in April 2021 and there were challenges, but we managed to build the restaurant from scratch.

Ennismore showed a lot of faith in you...

I realised after a while none of us in the brigade needed empowerment, we just needed an opportunity. We needed someone to say, "I trust you to lead this 225-cover restaurant and this kitchen, even though you are just 25 years old"

None of us in the brigade needed empowerment, we just needed an opportunity

What was the thinking behind the Italian menu and the three different generations represented?

The menu became nonna, mamma, fi'lia (grandmother, mother, daughter) as our mums and grandparents were the best cooks we knew growing up.

It's three generations of food. The nonna side is the classics that we don't play with. Mamma is the dishes you'd like from your grandmother, but done the way you prefer – you'd never ask your grandmother to add onions, but your mum would do it for you. And the fi'lia part is where we can do whatever inspires us.

How has it been received?

As a female-led restaurant it has made a lot of noise in Dubai. After that it became ‘who would hire a 25-year-old to lead a restaurant?'. But this is where I need to give credit to Nick Comaty [vice-president of F&B – operations and development, Middle East and Africa for Ennismore] who interviewed me and championed my appointment.

Are all the Fi'lia restaurants female-only brigades?

It started in Dubai. In the Bahamas 80% are female, though the lead isn't, and in Paris the challenge is it's a nightmare to hire. We have four women out of 10 in the kitchen, which I consider a win!

Do you have a background in Italian cooking?

I worked with Massimo Bottura for a year and a half, opening his first restaurant outside of Italy in the Palm in Dubai. It closed briefly during the pandemic so I left to create a dark kitchen concept with a partner, but I left that to open Fi'lia.

What are the dishes that stay on the menu?

The baked feta (feta al forno) is one of our best-selling dishes, and the gnocchi and caviar sells well too, as does the vitello tonnato, which is light on the stomach and heavy on the heart. The tiramisu is to die for – it's like a cloud in a cloud in a cloud.

You are now global executive chef of Fi'lia. What does that entail?

I travel around to see the other Fi'lia restaurants in Miami and the Bahamas and work on menu development. The idea is to celebrate women of all generations in each company and localise 20%-30% of the menu.

Last month we opened in Paris and though there is nothing official, London is in the plans.

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