Chef Sara Aqel of Fi’lia: 'We’re doing a great job because we’re women, not despite it'

The chef de cuisine on paying tribute to her grandmothers’ recipes and running a successful female-led restaurant in the UAE

“It’s called Nonna’s lasagne because nonna made a great lasagne. But who knew it back then apart from the neighbourhood?” chef Sara Aqel says.

We’re browsing through the menu at Fi’lia, the Italian-Mediterranean restaurant that opened at SLS Dubai Hotel & Residences in June, and the word “nonna” (Italian for grandmother) pops up a lot. The menu is divided into dishes by nonna, mamma and fi’lia, the last word being a truncated form of the Italian word for daughter, figlia, in what is clearly a conscious decision to highlight the achievements – and recipes – of women.

Tasked with having to create much of the menu herself, Aqel relied heavily on traditional recipes from grandmothers – her friends' as well as her own – and her mother. “I would randomly send messages to people asking, ‘Do you remember that dish your mum served? Can you send me the recipe?’” she says, with a laugh.

It explains why Aqel humbly refuses to take full credit for the dishes served.

“The fried calamari is exactly the way someone’s grandmother makes it; the feta al forno is exactly the way my mother and sisters like it,” she says.

However, she does admit that she played a role in tweaking the traditional dishes for Fi’lia.

Taking inspiration from grandmothers and mothers has clearly paid off. Besides the fact it has led to dishes that are authentic and delicious – just one bite of the bresaola burrata pizza or the 18-hour veal ragu and you’ll probably agree – there’s another reason.

“Most of our grandmothers never had a platform where they could actually do it as a profession, earn from it, shine as stars in cooking. Their talent just wasn’t taken seriously,” she says. “This isn’t just about empowering women now, but the generations that have passed and didn’t have the opportunities we do.”

A female-led restaurant in the UAE

Fi’lia's ethos goes beyond its menu. The restaurant prides itself on being women-led, with Aqel heading the team in the kitchen. Aqel, who is of Palestinian-Jordanian descent, trained under Michelin-lauded chef Massimo Bottura, and worked at Burj Al Arab, Four Seasons Hotel Amman and in a club house in Hong Kong. Even more impressive is that she has all of this under her chef’s hat at the age of 25.

She admits, however, to having faced stereotypes related to female chefs during her various jobs. “People think chefs need to look a certain way, act a certain way. It was always either you’re too young or too feminine. And I don’t want to be anything else to be honest. I don’t want to be any less of a girl when I’m cooking.”

While Fi’lia is a female-led team, it’s important to note that it is not exclusively female run. About 70 per cent of the staff are women, with the top position, both in the kitchen and in management, belonging to women.

“We don’t want to exclude men,” Aqel says. “If we did, how are we any different from the previous generations excluding women?”

“I don’t want to take away credit from the men working at Fi’lia. I represent them, too, and they are supportive and want us to succeed. It’s wonderful to have a kitchen that successfully integrates this.”

While it was easy to find highly qualified women to form part of the staff, Aqel says they faced another stereotype. “The question became: can you put so many women in one place and will they work well together?”

“And the answer to that is: it’s the best thing ever. I know them all, right down to their food choices. On my worst days, they’re the ones who give me a hug.”

What women are bringing to the table

Despite the fact the kitchen has largely been considered the woman’s domain for decades, there is still a gender gap in professional settings. According to research by the UK’s Office for National Statistics in 2018, women represent less than one in five (17 per cent) of chefs in the country. With the food and drinks industry hard hit over the past year, many believe the pandemic might have exacerbated the situation.

Meanwhile, despite it having only recently opened, Fi’lia has been busy during the summer months. Aqel believes this is definitely thanks to the team, and their gender cannot be discounted. “How many times have you heard people complain that women never let things go, they never forget, that they notice these tiny details? These are actually great – because there’s no task that’s too small.”

She cites examples of changing the fresh flowers on the table on a daily basis, checking to see if the air conditioning is cooling from all angles and even asking guests if they’re doing OK.

“Women are just trained to have more patience, and we’re known for multitasking. We’re doing a great job because we’re women not despite it.”

Aqel hopes that in the months to come Fi’lia will be seen as more than simply a restaurant that empowers women. She hopes it will be viewed as representative of a larger idea.

“Maybe it won’t be Fi’lia, a female-led restaurant, but simply Fi’lia, as more women in hospitality become the norm. There are other women-led restaurants out there and we’re glad to be at the forefront of this movement.

“But we want to be known for more than just the ideology.”

The latter part is definitely possible. All you’d have to do is taste Fi’lia's desserts – we recommend the pavlova or chocolate budino – to agree.

Updated: August 20th 2021, 7:23 AM