Article in brief: our writer Shaima Al Tamimi interviewed Shaikha Al Kaabi about the recent opening of Meylas, her Emirati Restaurant in Abu Dhabi, and the cultural implication of this delicious venture.
If there’s one thing I’m ecstatic about discussing, it is the sparse pop-up of Emirati restaurants in the country and how more needs to be done about this. Surprisingly, in its 4 decades of existence, there haven’t been proper restaurants where people could go out to try an Emirati meal. This is partly due to the fact that Emiratis didn’t think it made sense to go out to eat something they could have at home, hence the non-existence of Emirati restaurants.
This is now changing because people are realizing that Emirati food is worth paying for. Would you be surprised to know that most westerners think Arabic food is limited to the likes of tabbouleh, Fattoush, stuffed vine leaves and grilled meat? This is where the opportunity arises to show that Middle Eastern food is quite varied in its look, texture and taste. With the food scene in Abu Dhabi rapidly picking up, it takes visionaries like Shaikha Al Kaabi to not only introduce Emirati cuisine to the city, but also have plans to go global.
I’ve had the pleasure of being hosted by Shaikha at her newly opened Meylas restaurant this week. We spoke about all things business, culture and food.
Sail: We’ve seen the Meylas Food truck for a couple of years now, when did the concept first start?
Shaikha: Meylas started as a kiosk selling Emirati snacks in 2012, and its first catering gig was at the official event of the UAE’s 40th National Day at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. We launched with nothing but a simple logo and simple menu to provide local snacks during National Day.
We slowly introduced the food truck to cater in public events upon request and that’s when I realized the huge demand of Emirati food. At the time, I was also hunting for the right location and working with the right team to design and conceptualize a full-fledged restaurant. We opened during this year at Al Muneera, on the Raha Beach development.
I am very blessed with this location because even though it is in a new development that is away from downtown Abu Dhabi, we still get a lot of people. It is a good sign that many want to come and try our food. Also, a good chunk of our customers are also Emiratis, and I consider this as a testament to the authenticity of the food we serve.
Sail: As a first time restaurant owner, how did you go on about learning how to launch a food business?
Shaikha: I researched a lot and made sure to seek advice from people who are in the business. With that said, I still struggled with the pre-opening operations and had to surround myself with a knowledgeable and trustworthy team to get to where Meylas is today. For me, staff training, food safety and hygiene is of utmost importance. In addition to random pop up visits from the food authorities, I also send other people from my side as mystery clients to get their honest feedback on the restaurant.
Sail: Tell us more about the design of Meylas, and we must say we’re loving the part traditional, part industrial chic look it has going on.
Shaikha: Let me ask you something, what did you feel when you walked in?
Sail: A burst of nostalgia, of course, with an Emirati twist.
Shaikha: True! Everything you see here is derived from something from our past. Whether it’s the rustic iron doors, the school chairs that people sit on, the classroom tiles on the floor and even the condiments and fizzy drink art installations on the wall! I worked with local designers to get this look and I’m very pleased with the outcome.
Sail: Fabulous. So what more can we expect from Meylas?
Shaikha: Meylas is not just a place where people come to eat and go. We want to constantly present new ideas and have our diners also participate with the menu. Soon, we will work on allowing people to submit home-based recipes that our chefs will happily try and test accordingly. If some make the cut, those dishes will be placed on the specials menu for a period of time.
Once we are up on our feet, we expect to try our cuisine somewhere outside the region. Just like how the UAE hosts a plethora of restaurants from around the world, I want the world to taste and love our food. Always dream big.