It was a big night for chefs on Monday as Mena's 50 Best Restaurants returned to Abu Dhabi to name the region's top places to eat.
Among them was Bahraini chef Tala Bashmi, who last year was crowned best female chef in the region and her restaurant, Fusions by Tala, was ranked at No 39.
This year, at the city's second successive ceremony, her restaurant rose to third place, just behind Michelin-starred restaurant Tresind Studio and Orfali Bros Bistro, both in Dubai, and was given the Highest Climber Award.
"I am beyond words, really," she tells The National. "As they were working through the list, and they reached number 10, I thought they'd forgotten about us.
"To go from 39 to three, to represent a small island that gets very little credit and representation, in terms of food and culture ... I'm still in shock."
Bashmi's restaurant is in Gulf Hotel Bahrain, in the city of Adliya. In her kitchen, where she is part of a team of four, she works hard to reinvent traditional Bahraini cuisine, modernise it and put it on the world's stage. This includes dishes such as the standout bamia, a traditional okra and meat stew, for which she uses Wagyu beef cheek, crispy okra glass and tomato broth rice.
Bashmi inherited an interest in cuisine and cultural identity from her father through his in-depth knowledge of the ingredients used. She utilised it to launch Baked by T, before joining the Culinary Arts Academy in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Staying in the Central European country, she had roles at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel and the Michelin-starred restaurant Prisma in Vitznau, where she learnt more about restaurant operations, as well as working in fast-paced kitchen environments.
She took over her restaurant in 2017, when it was known simply as Fusions, and has gone from strength to strength.
After returning to the Mena region, Bashmi competed on MBC's Top Chef Middle East television show in 2020, where she reached the finals.
Last year, alongside the Mena's 50 Best accolades, she was also the only Arab chef to appear on the top 100 list for The Best Chef Awards, alongside Heston Blumenthal, Clare Smyth, Yannick Alleno and Massimo Bottura, who presented Bashmi with her award in Abu Dhabi.
"To be given the award by Massimo Bottura is crazy and amazing," she says. "What he did with Italian cuisine back in the day, I'm still fighting that fight for our cuisine."
She says to compete with the "big boys" in Dubai's food scene, which receives more exposure than her home country's, left her speechless.
"To compete with everyone else who's on the list, who have a much bigger team, more equipment, more spending power," she says, getting audibly emotional. "We're just a little restaurant from a little island that made it to number three."
Women at Mena's 50 Best
Bashmi is not the only woman carving out a path for female chefs in the region. Neha Mishra's ramen restaurant Kinoya Dubai also ranked within the top 10, while Lowe, co-founded by Kate Christou, came in at No 15.
Among the special awards, Lebanese-Syrian cookbook author Anissa Helou won the Foodics Icon Award, and Opa in Tel Aviv, run by twin sisters Shirel and Sharona Berger, won the One to Watch Award, given to restaurants that have the potential to be included in the 50 Best list in the near future.
Palestinian-Jordanian chef Salam Dakkak took home Mena’s Best Female Chef Award. Dakkak, who runs Bait Maryam in Dubai, follows in Bashmi's footsteps. And yet the two could not be more different: where Bashmi — who Dakkak describes as “amazing” — is known for her highly experimental fusion cuisine, Salam is all about simple, home-cooked meals.
“I am now convinced that hard work pays off,” Dakkak says of her 50 Best award. “It makes me feel happy and accomplished, yes, but with it also comes the desire to do more and the responsibility to be both more successful and more supportive of others in my field.”
Scroll through the gallery below to see all the restaurants on the Mena's 50 Best Restaurants 2023 list