As many women continue to make a mark on the UAE, the first fully female-led Italian Mediterranean restaurant recently opened its doors.

The new eatery, Fi’lia, which opened at the end of May is located at the SLS Dubai Hotel & Residences and delivers both in style and substance.

With incredible views of the Dubai skyline from its terrace, accompanied by traditional Italian cuisine, it’s yet another restaurant experience in the emirate to add to your list.

At just 25-years-old, Sara Aqel is heading up the team as Chef de Cuisine at Fi’lia. Emirates Woman sat down with the Palestinian-Jordanian chef to find out more about her career so far, what brought her to Dubai and the responsibility she feels breaking down barriers in this region.

Can you talk us through your career history?

I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a Chef, because I always loved cooking. After graduating from High School in Amman, Jordan I pursued my dream and studied Culinary Arts and Hotel Management at Les Roches. Then, I moved to Hong Kong where I worked at the Hong Kong Jockey Club and later returned to the Middle East. After working in Jordan, I moved to Dubai to further grow my career. I have worked under Massimo Bottura at Torno Subito and my journey is what paved the way for Fi’lia, where I am now Chef de Cuisine.

Fi'lia Dubai

Where does your love for food and cooking come from?

It comes from my beautiful mom and the way she used to gather family and friends around the table with warm, memorable flavours and laughter. I was also influenced by my dad who always taught my sisters and me to come together, sit at the dining table and have a meal – no matter what happened throughout the day. The feeling of togetherness is what would make everything better; even a bad day.

What do you love about what you do?

I love being able to express myself through food with a passionate team by my side that always makes me feel like we speak the same language.
In a successful restaurant, the team is very passionate and creative and this is what feeds the soul. Every noise in the kitchen means something; it’s like listening to music, followed by the challenge to satisfy our guests, or try a new trick to make the menu even better. This is what drives me and makes me feel content after a long night.

What eventually brought you to Dubai?

I felt that Dubai is home to so many great restaurants and new culinary ventures. It is a city where the F&B industry truly thrives and I wanted to be in such an environment to grow my career and open myself up for more opportunities.

Fi'lia Dubai

How does the food and beverage industry here differ from other places around the world?

Because Dubai is such a dynamic city in terms of F&B, the competition and the challenges that come with it are very high compared to other places around the world. There’s always an up-and-coming restaurant that offers something new and different. It’s a good market to learn from.

Fi’lia is breaking down barriers as the first fully female-run restaurant in Dubai. What does it feel like to be paving the way?

It’s a big responsibility! Since it’s the first restaurant of its kind in the region, I feel that the whole team carries an extra responsibility on their shoulders to make it a success. We want to prove that women are capable of running a restaurant, no matter their age or background. We want to show everyone that Fi’lia has great food, an amazing story and is run by an incredible team of women who strive for culinary greatness together!

What are the hero dishes, in your opinion, at Fi’lia?

  • Jerusalem artichoke pizza
  • Vitello tonnato
  • Sea bass with feta crust
  • Pizza burrata and bresaola
  • Pappardelle with veal osso buco

What is the inspiration behind Fi’lia?

It’s the Italian-Mediterranean dishes, inspired by recipes that were passed on from generations of women: Nonna (Italian for grandmother), Mamma (Italian for mother) and Fi’lia (originally figlia meaning daughter in Italian). This is what creates the fun, colourful and homey atmosphere, all whilst in a modern surrounding. With our team of driven and committed women, we want to make Fi’lia your home away from home.

Fi'lia Dubai

What are the hurdles you’ve experienced during your career?

I often felt that I was being taken for granted, whether that was for my gender or age, or the fact that I specialized in food that I don’t share the same nationality with.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, what are the milestones?

I learned a lot in the process and the hurdles only made me hungrier and more eager to acquire more knowledge. The more I did it, the more I fell in love with it and the more I was able to turn hurdles into positives. Right now, I know that I am in the right place and exactly where I am supposed to be. It feels like Fi’lia was made for me and I was made for Fi’lia. The connection I have with the restaurant from the olive trees at the entrance to the food we make, my Directors and Executive Chef who are always empowering me and the team that supports me and our guests daily is very strong.

What do you see next for Fi’lia Dubai?

I want to establish Fi’lia not only as a dining destination but as a place that guests feel at home. I hope that Fi’lia Dubai will break stereotypes in the industry and become the region’s ‘go to’ female-led restaurant, known for its impeccable food and service.

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