BY ANAAM IKRAM
Aajeeb! Latheeth! Yeyenin! Coining the famous phrase, Bahraini chef Roaya Saleh, has quickly accumulated an impressive number of customers through her home-style delicious Middle Eastern food. Judging by the wholesome taste, cosy environment, and her personal interaction with each and every customer, it is clear that Roaya is wholly involved in creating the food, as well as the atmosphere, herself. Roaya spoke with Perle Magazine about how her dream of opening a restaurant during her retirement turned into a present-day reality.
As a result of her mixed Bahraini and Iranian background, Roaya throughout her childhood was surrounded by a variety of food from both cultures and quickly developed an interest in cooking from the tender age of 6. Watching her parents cook food from their native backgrounds, Roaya says she learnt how to appreciate the individual ingredients. “My father always told me to not be in a hurry, let the food be, and not add too much in”, she says, adding, “I remember his every word till today”. Keeping her passion for cooking as a hobby, Roaya pursued banking for 20 years, followed by a career in real estate.
Closing her real estate business in 2008, Roaya says she spent the next four years focusing on her cooking and developed her skills by watching different food channels and cooking shows to help her learn and grow. Used to hosting large dinner parties and cooking for them herself, Roaya ventured into catering and launched her website ‘Roaya’s Kitchen’, through which she shared her wide range of cooking and baking skills. Working from home initially and doing everything herself, Roaya says when she started her catering business she would drive to various locations to sell her famous Machbous. Roaya’s catering business allowed her to establish a base for herself, which she used to expand into opening Villa Mamas in 2012.
The road to setting up a restaurant was not easy for Roaya, but her diligence and determination to serve home cooked, healthy, and traditional Middle Eastern food was the drive behind making her a household name across the GCC. Roaya explains when she first came across the location for Villa Mamas, though externally the structure was stable, internally she had to rework everything in order to have a fully functioning restaurant. By creating a patio extension to accommodate her large number of customers and a cobbled pathway to give Villa Mama’s a rustic feel, Roaya says she designed the restaurant in a manner that emulates her own home. Her passion for food was eminent and resulted in customers visiting the restaurant before it was officially open for business. Roaya says initially she did not have any kitchen equipment or cutlery so to serve the customers, she brought all the utensils from her house. “We had not opened because we were not ready, but people were coming anyway, and we were cooking and serving food. Word of mouth spread really fast”, she adds. With the help of family and friends and three chefs in the kitchen, including herself, Roaya launched Villa Mamas. Throughout all the hardships faced while setting up the restaurant, Roaya says she was amazed that people were supportive of her and were as passionate about the restaurant as she was. “I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that people would flock in from everywhere. It was a new concept and it wasn’t just about eating, it was about the whole experience.”
When deciding a theme for her restaurant, Roaya says she wanted to create a menu for the expat community in the region to educate them about authentic Middle Eastern cuisine. Using home-grown ingredients, Roaya says she encourages the use of local produce. As well as visiting fresh fruit & vegetable vendors everyday to handpick the best ingredients, the talented chef also has allotted land where she grows her own herbs to be used in her recipes. Creating the recipes herself, Roaya says she aims to serve the taste of the world using local produce and by adding her personal touch to each of the dishes. “With food, you need to be imaginative, I use worldwide recipes but use local ingredients”, she says. Placing great emphasis on quality, everything is prepared fresh and if an ingredient is not available in the market, Roaya says she will not prepare the dish. To ensure that every dish leaving the kitchen uses the right ingredients, Roaya carries out a taste test every day. “I create recipes based on some of the spices that I make. With recipes that I have created, I also have complementary spices that go with them”, she says of her cooking style. Creating an assorted menu to cater to everyone’s dining needs, Villa Mamas has a wide selection of Arabic food to choose from with best sellers such as the Quinoa Salad, Eggplant Explosion, Hammour Sayadieh, Chicken Tagine, and Lamb Shank. Villa Mamas also offers an impressive breakfast menu serving a mix of traditional Arabic breakfast as well as egg options for those who like to keep their first meal simple but delicious. For those who prefer sweet to savoury, the scrumptious cake selection and traditional Arabic dessert are ideal.
Going a step further, Roaya also retails her homemade spices, sauces, pickles, and her highly sought after jams. Roaya’s most famous item is her citron jam as it sells instantly. She adds that some of her customers even bring their fruit to her to make the jams for them. Making sure to work with the seasons, she incorporates the seasonal ingredients in her food. “I love to experience different textures and different tastes when I create my food and even when I eat food. I love to be excited and be curious about what is in the food and I do that throughout my dishes”, she says.
Aiming to expand further, Roaya plans to launch a sister company, Mama Gourmet, which will have the same menu as Villa Mamas but with added refrigerated shelving. To further incorporate local produce in her menu, Roaya says she wants to introduce products like camel milk and serve it in various forms. Hoping to take her restaurant concept outside of the GCC, Roaya says she wants to set up her restaurant in London, Istanbul and New York.
Personally greeting all her customers, as well as her hands-on approach to every aspect of Villa Mamas has unsurprisingly lead Roaya and the restaurant to being favoured by adults and children alike, not only in Bahrain, but around the GCC. “I work passionately with people. I am giving to people and I always say you have to give to get back.”
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