“Food is one of the most heartfelt and authentic expressions of tradition, history and culture. To share a meal is to share who we are with others, to tell a story and, at the same time, create new traditions and friendships.”

Villa Mamas is a restaurant which serves excellently-made dishes that reflect the famous Bahraini generosity within a love-filled homey atmosphere.

Employing a multinational team of chefs, it boasts numerous prizes, including Travelers Choice Awards.

The restaurant has gained a lot of success and drawn customers from all over the Arab Gulf countries. Her success has helped her open another branch in London under the name Villa Mamas.

In this article, Chef Roaya Saleh speaks to us about her restaurant and how she achieved such success through diversifying her menu and using fresh and high-quality ingredients which she uses in her dishes including  jams, sauces, pickles and spices.

This interview gives us some insight into Roaya’s journey and how she came up with the name of her restaurant.

 

What is your cooking philosophy?

In my opinion, there is no land nor border that can confine cooking. These days, any chef can learn about other cuisines. For instance, German chefs can easily learn more about Indian dishes, Indian chefs can learn about the French cuisine, and that applies to Bahraini chefs and so on and so forth.

Furthermore, I feel that all chefs share one universal concept; choosing ingredients from our surrounding environment. All chefs concentrate on utilizing locally produced ingredients, whether those ingredients are meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, fruits, etc. Any chef in his or her right mind will definitely utilize locally-sourced products.

 

Was there something that encouraged the younger you to bring out such talent?

I was brought up in a rural area, and I still vividly remember when I used to accompany my aunts and grandmother while doing daily chores, such as firing the wood stove, milking the cows in the early morning, and preparing food for the family. Those were wonderful times, and I still remember when family and relatives would gather around and share tasks, like sorting the vegetables, defeathering and cleaning the chickens, and so on.

When I was six, the idea of becoming a chef had never crossed my mind. However, the affection I’ve had for farming and fresh vegetables grew inside me and opened my appetite for cooking.

My mom comes from Irani origins, and she used to frequently travel to visit her family. In the meantime, my sister and I would take care of our brothers and our late father, which means that I started doing kitchen chores from an early age. Then, and after I grew up, I started working at a bank, but that had never dissuaded me from cooking and farming.

 

How would you describe your cooking style?

My style is easy and my social media followers can recognize it easily; I gain my inspiration from international dishes in order to improve some of the Bahraini dishes. Moreover, I also create subtle fusion between some dishes and introduce new flavors to traditional dishes.

I really love it when people eat our food and say that these dishes are made with love; whether those dishes were cooked by me or by any of my team members. We cook with great care, and that is manifested in each and every fresh ingredient we pick from the farm.

Generally speaking, I follow simplicity in my cooking; I don’t overuse spices and I always use fresh ingredients; a fresh ingredient can make the greatest dish no matter how simple it is; even if was as simple as bread with white cheese and mint. When it comes to simplicity and the use of fresh ingredients, many chefs who I have worked with, including Michelin Star recipients, agree with this fact.

No man in his right mind would hate to eat food made from ingredients that have been selected with love. For example, some restaurants serve some leafy crops, like arugula, yellow and wilted. They simply don’t care about what their customers would eat. Additionally, and in terms of quality, walnuts that grow in Syria aren’t the same as those that grow in America, we can see a clear distinction between both in terms of taste, quality and price as well.

I always do my best to use fresh and natural ingredients rather than using artificial ones; I simply rely on what nature serves. When it comes to food waste, I try to reuse it in the farm, even if it is as simple as onion skin; we compost food waste to be used later as an organic fertilizer.

 

How did you settle on Villa Mamas as a name for your restaurant?

In the Gulf, we refer to our family house, or the house we grew up in, as “mother’s home” instead of dad’s home, that especially applies to working women who leave their kids at their mom’s care until they come back from work, and hence the inspiration!

 

 

What recipe do you feel proud of the most and wish to share with us?

That would be my stuffed chicken tagine. The ingredients of this dish arethe following:

For the chicken marinade:

  • 50 grams pitted chopped olives (any kind)
  • 50 grams butter, diced small cubes
  • 20 grams Parsley finely chopped
  • 10 grams chopped rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp. Aleppo chili
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 8 grams minced garlic
  • 10 grams freshly-grated parmigiana
  • 1 preserved deseeded lemon chopped
  • 2 tsp. “Harissa” paste

 

  • With mix the ingredients by hand to create a nice homogenous paste OR use blender on pulse mode. As or the ingredients. Next, pick a 2kg- chicken 2 kg OR 2 chickens, 1 kg each and rub marinate the chicken all over its skin and under skin as well
  • For the stuffing
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 1 medium yellow onion or 150 grams finely diced onions.
    • 1 cup washed medium grain rice (Egyptian, arborio or Turkish) best used
    • 8 grams minced garlic
    • 10 grams raisins
    • 10 grams chopped and pitted olives
    • 20 grams chopped dried prunes
    • 20 grams apricots dried chopped
    • 1 tsp. salt
    • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon powder
    • 1/4 tsp. coriander powder
    • 1/4 tsp. crushed black pepper
    • 1 preserved lemon, pitted and chopped, and finally
    • 20 grams chopped parsley

 

Now we move to the cooking steps:

  • In a medium pot, on low to medium heat, heat the oil and add the onions. Sauté it for 1 minute then add garlic and quickly sauté the mixture.
  • Next, add the rice and follow it with spices and dried fruits.
  • Mix everything well and add the rest of the ingredients. Add 1/2 cup of hot water and simmer the rice until it boils then cover the pan until the rice absorbs all the water and becomes almost done.
  • Turn off the heat and cool down the rice mixture to stuff the chicken. Be advised that the chicken must be stuffed up to 3/4 its cavity. Secure the end of the cavity with half a lemon
  • Place chicken on a roasting casserole or a Pyrex casserole and add the extra rice around. This way, the juices released by the chicken will be absorbed by the rice.
  • Place the casserole in a preheated oven with a temperature of 180° C
  • The doneness depends on chicken size; the larger the chicken, the more time it needs to cook in the oven
  • Generally, the whole dish shouldn’t take more than 1.5 hours until the chicken is fully roasted and the rice done.
  • Note: if you feel the rice isn’t fully cooked just add a little hot water and continue cooking

 

What is the toughest challenge you have faced to etch your name in the market?

It is true that I have learned cooking at home and on the farm, and this may not be the expected background of a person who has established a restaurant and a catering business. Challenges are numerous for a person like me, but probably one of the toughest challenges is Human Resources Management; barging into the cooking business is not easy, it is almost like being on a theater performing and the customers are your fussy audience.

Now that I have culminated a great deal of experience, I am confident to say that the success of any chef relies entirely on the way they manage their kitchen in addition to inoculating the values of craftsmanship and the love of cooking, and thank God I managed to achieve that. Furthermore, my team of chefs give self-development a great deal of time and they work together in harmony. If you eat In Manama or London, you will not notice the difference taste-wise.

It should be noted that here in the Gulf area, people have a hard time accepting the fact that there are women who own restaurants, especially when it comes to serving traditional dishes within international standards. Regardless, I managed to make this “bizarre idea” a reality and everyone accepts it.

 

How did you take into consideration the cultural differences when it comes to cooking and serving dishes in Bahrain vs. in the UK?

In Bahrain and the Arab Gulf countries, our diet relies mainly on rice, while the people in Europe rely mostly on vegetables. Therefore, I designed the menus according to the style followed internationally in a way that would appeal to the western customer through diversifying the dishes and adding more healthy dishes such as grilled meats, vegetables, salads and so on.

Either way, I put a lot of effort into helping my customers have a unique and extraordinary experience, whether that was through serving extraordinary dishes or surrounding the customers with a homey environment.

It is worth noting that the European customer doubted that Gulf dishes can be presented and served within international standards. However, I did what I did to change this stereotype and served my dishes differently and in smaller portions. And let me say, some of my customers always ask why dishes served in London are smaller than those served in Manama. The reason is that we need to serve meals that would appeal to the European customer given the diversity of our customer base who are not exclusively Arab nor from the Gulf region.

 

 

What ingredients do like adding to your dishes?

I really love adding nuts and dried fruits to my dishes!

 

What is a slogan you use and believe it works well with what you serve?

“Feed your senses” is the slogan I chose for my restaurant. The reason behind this slogan comes from the very fact that hospitality must be integrated; when I go out for dinner, I don’t only go to eat, but I also want to enjoy the place and the atmosphere.

Whenever I go to a restaurant, I choose a place with excellent service; the vast majority of people hate going to a place that lacks proper hospitality. Additionally, I love going to places with a clean and fragrant atmosphere filled with beautiful music playing in the background and friendly waiters serving me. I want food to be served in an alluring way that would make a person salivate at the first glance and enjoy its excellent taste and amazing aroma. This way, you feed the senses of your customers.

For your information, “feed your senses” is also the title of a book I wrote and it has my favorite recipes.

 

What is the kindest compliment you have received from a customer?

No need for compliments actually; it is enough for me to see my customers have their first bite, close their eyes, and enjoy the taste, regardless of knowing who the owner of the restaurant is. Then, I go to that customer and tell them that I am the owner and they suddenly rush to kiss me on my forehead! That happened to me a couple of times, really!

At Villa Mamas, we are committed to serving high quality products and do our best to prepare our dishes with locally-sourced, healthy, and organic ingredients.

 

Is there a recipe that you enjoy making the most?

Well, I enjoy cooking everything; pasta, fish, stews, you name it. I also get inspired while going to the farms and if I try a dish in some restaurant and like what I had, I am not satisfied until I remake it with my own touch.

 

How did traveling inspire you?

Without traveling, inspiration never comes. Traveling allows you to learn about new cultures; whenever I visit a country, the first thing I look for is when and where is the farmers’ market is set. In addition, I have never hesitated to travel to a neighboring country to purchase ingredients from its place of origin. In my humble opinion, each chef must travel to 3 or 4 different countries each year.

 

What is the most prestigious prize the restaurant has ever received?

My restaurant received numerous prizes in the field of travel and tourism and was nominated for other prizes as well. Nonetheless, the people’s admiration and affection are the real prizes in my opinion.

 

Do you have any special cooking rituals?

At home, it is impossible for me to cook without music. While at the restaurant, that option is not viable due to work pressure. Still, my team and I work like an orchestra, so organized and so harmonized.

 

What is your advice for the amateur cook?

My advice is: sharpen your skills; work in kitchen and train, put great effort in learning from others and never be shy to ask questions. Just face your demons and know for a fact that success cannot be achieved overnight!

 

 Thank you so much Roaya!

 

You are a talented and passionate chef; interested in working in an international team in London?
We’re a friendly, passionate, dedicated and talented team who love what we do and we’re always looking for enthusiastic people to join us.  Detailed below are the roles we’re particularly looking to fill at the moment: http://www.villamamas.co.uk/careers
If you don’t see a position you’re looking for, do email us enquiries@villamamas.com with your CV and a little about yourself.

 

From the deserts and souks of Bahrain to South Kensington, a taste of the Middle East arrives in Chelsea. Serving the seasonal home-style dishes, flavours and culinary traditions from across the Khaleej, Persia and beyond; in a tradition of local, seasonal ingredients,
We serve the warmth of khaleeji food and hospitality an international audience: www.villamamas.co.uk