Roaya Saleh of Villa Mamas, Fact’s inaugural Chef of The Year, tells us how it started and how it’s going.

You’ve said you are a self-taught cook, did you learn in your family kitchen? How do you come up with the ideas for your recipes?
I was raised in a dual nationality household, my dad Bahraini and mum from Shiraz. My mother’s family were farmers and through her, I learned to grow and harvest, while spending summer holidays at my family farm. I started cooking at a really young age, I used to watch as my relatives prepared meals with whatever was harvested. Gradually, I built off that experience and began developing my own recipes inspired by those very traditional dishes I cooked with my family and began experimenting with international cuisines as I travelled. Travelling allowed me to get a taste of the different flavours from around the world. I learnt about herbs and spices and how to incorporate them to create unique flavours.

What three things – either ingredients or tools – do you always have in all your kitchens?
Rosemary sea salt that I make myself. Using sea salt from the shores of Bahrain and rosemary that I grow in my garden. Also, my cutting board and knives.

When you launched Villa Mamas, in 2012, Bahraini food was hard, if not impossible, to find on the dining scene here in its home country. What inspired you, a former banker, to take a leap into the unknown and how was that first year?
I had a sincere desire to offer the true Bahraini hospitality experience to the Western community living on the island and to visitors to the country. At that time, no restaurant offered a high-end casual dining experience with Bahraini cuisine on the menu. The decision was made to share this cuisine and it came from a heartfelt belief in what we have to offer. It was an instant success!

You now have restaurants across the Gulf and also in London. Please tell us about your expansion – particularly London, that one must have been a hard nut to crack?
Opening a London outlet was in the plans from the very first day of operations in Bahrain! My plan was to introduce the delicious, untapped Bahraini cuisine to the West. I Worked hard to achieve this goal and I was able to in 2017.
Prior to establishing my business in London, I did a five-day pop up in Mayfair. Guests arrived from all over the UK to experience Bahraini food! It was so successful that my team and I had to make the decision to close earlier than planned as we ran out of supplies!
Villa Mamas London is now ranked among the best restaurants offering Modern Middle Eastern cuisine in London.

What is your signature dish, how was it developed and what makes it popular?
I have plenty of signature dishes! If I had to choose one, it would be Tahchin Chicken. Originally a Farsi upside down rice cake, I’ve played with the ingredients to make it more of a fusion between Farsi and Bahraini flavours. So, the name stayed Farsi but it is infused with Bahraini elements at the core. You’ll find this Bahraini influence with ‘Chef Roaya’s twist’ in all my dishes. ✤