Emirati chef and restaurateur Amna Al Hashemi may not have been born in the kitchen, but she’s always been ready for a challenge. Switching to cooking from a career as a social media researcher despite a degree in graphic design, Al Hashemi was introduced to baking thanks to her sister-in-law. Starting as a pastry chef with a professional certification from Dubai’s International Centre for Culinary Arts, she began a small home bakery business before exploring hot dishes with a degree from SCAFA, and then opening her first restaurant, Mitts & Trays, by late 2016. Now with two locations, City Walk and a newly opened outlet Bluewaters Island, Al Hashemi edges forward with a humble, straightforward approach.
“After my third child I was tired and wanted to stay home for some time, but I’m not the kind who can do that and not go crazy,” she admits. Dabbling halfheartedly in various hobbies, it was her relative’s cheesecake that sparked the realisation that food was not only a joy but also something that could keep her creatively engaged, her hands busy, and the desire for challenge fed. “When my sister-in-law gave me her recipe, it was the first time I had done something from scratch and not a box!” says Al Hashemi. “I fell in love. I had a sense of achievement after every dish – that’s what hooked me.” A sensation shared by her family, she recounts that traveling for food was a common motivation. “The most memorable dish was in Milan. I’d had risotto before, but this was the first actual Risotto Milanese, a saffron risotto, and it was so delicious, and having it where it originated…” she trails off, adding, “to this day I’ve been trying to recreate it, but I can’t!”
Quinoa and Halloumi Salad. ITP images
Energy around the kitchen and a passion for culinary exploration impacted the start of Al Hashemi’s professional journey. Though her initiation involved sweets – of which she admits she does not have a sweet tooth for – she embraced the trials and tribulations of savoury dishes. This included confusion over reestablishing kitchen patterns to accommodate the need to fully prep ingredients as compared to the precise measuring out necessary for baking, but Al Hashemi’s commitment paid off and facilitated the creation of a full restaurant menu.
“At first I just jotted down all the places I’d traveled to that had made an impression on me, and then remember the dishes and the happy memories that came with them, including what my mother and grandmother used to cook,” she explains of the menu engineering. Mitts & Trays has an international offering worked on collectively by Al Hashemi, her husband, the kitchen team and restaurant manager. It features tried-and-true dishes alongside new creations, all linked by a personal preference for sweet-meets-savoury flavours, as well as the fact that “they all bring me joy!” she laughs.
While one of the first dishes to make it was salty shortrib balanced with sweetness from a veal jus – which Al Hashemi admits persevered due to it being the first protein she could cook “without ruining” – her signature plate is the Wagyu Sizzler. “Six small cubes of melt-in-your-mouth high-grade Wagyu beef skewers on a bed of smooth mashed potatoes drizzled with veal jus and served on a hot pan,” she details. “I love it.” Interestingly however, despite belief in and love of her culinary output, she reveals: “Every Tuesday I do a live feed of me cooking dinner but I barely taste it, only to check the seasoning. I don’t eat my own food, so if I cooked at home, I’d never eat, I’d starve!”
Mini naked Victoria cake. ITP images
Focusing on quality ingredients, the year-round menu features a wholesome approach to cooking that includes butter, salt and sugar, but carefully balanced. “It reminds you of home,” she explains. “Nothing is over-decorated, over-finished, over-plated. It’s homey and warm.” The approach is simple but genuine, and what keeps diners coming. “I used to bake my own cookies and cakes and send them to friends and family, but when they started asking for more, I made an Instagram page for people to order,” says Al Hashemi. “People ordered all the way from Ras Al Khaimah and Al Ain – it surprised me and was very humbling. But I was cooking alone, washing alone, doing everything, and with three kids at home, I told my husband I needed to stop because of the back pain, but my husband is an optimist. He said, ‘Don’t stop, do what makes you happy, let’s get a location.’ And that’s how we opened the restaurant.”
Chef Amna Al Hashemi in her Bluewaters kitchen. ITP images
Al Hashemi has maintained a grounded approach, and admits she didn’t expect to take off as quickly or as well as she has, especially given the challenging, bustling Dubai food scene. “Touch wood, we are doing very well and we’re proud it’s a homegrown concept. It’s nice to know you’re representing the country in a beautiful way that people appreciate. I still have doubts everyday and am surprised that people keep coming, but when I go on weekends and see one-hour waiting lists, I feel confident again. I guess it’s because of the food, the environment, our team is very kind, people come to feed their kids here… maybe people sense the genuineness and passion for all the ambiance, food, everything.”
Al Hashemi shares she would like to keep growing professionally and personally. At a time in the UAE where her generation benefits from a renewed openness, she outlines her desire to work as a hotel line chef to continue developing her culinary skills, as well as to explore fresh culinary concepts. “I’d like to open restaurants with other flavour profiles,” she says. Why? “Because I like challenges and it’s fun.”
Press play to go behind the scenes with Morah Dubai's Executive Chef, Stuart Cameron