These women are finding new ways to keep it simple: taking their own flexible approaches to plant-based eating and producing nourishing, healing food that is thoughtful, delicious and very, very good for you.
Founder, The Snack Society, Dubai
Kamilla Omarzay came to the practice of making good, healthy food that helped her heal the many people do: She felt terrible.
Born in Afghanistan, raised in Dubai, Omarzay found herself at a low point after losing her job in marketing and advertising. She’d already given up gluten and dairy in an attempt to address digestive issues that included bloating and stomach discomfort, and had started experimenting with how to make a variety of clean treats with whole ingredients, when “the universe” kicked her into gear.
She launched her business, The Snack Society, in early 2016, and started sneaking up on Dubai with her fun how-to YouTube videos, mouthwatering Instagram posts and a parade of hard-to-believe-they-are-healthy treats. (Think Chocolate Caramel Fondants, No Bake Marble Cake and Peanut Butter Cups) Affordability and taste have been her guiding principles, as has a relentless drive. Omarzy wants to open a cafe, have her treats in grocery stores and, as a long-term goal, for The Snack Society to become the leading nutritious and healthy food company in the GCC and eventually worldwide.
This September comes a big step on that road: the print release of her first cookbook (an e-book will be ready next month).
“Launching my own cookbook has been a dream of mine for a long time,” says Omarzy. “I just didn’t know how to go about it.”
In the works for 10 months, the cookbook is all about swapping traditional treats with nutritious ‘good-for-you’ versions. There are 80 vegan recipes ranging from breakfast items, to cookies, muffins, cakes and desserts.
When it comes to her sweets, Omarzy is firm with one caveat:
“I am in no way claiming that you can eat a lot of it and not gain weight,” she says. “The ingredients are nutritious as opposed to all the nasties that go into a traditional bar of chocolate.”
Kismerlly Alvarez and Eda Gungor
At Life ‘n One Cafe, Dubai
Life ‘n One Cafe’s chef Kismerlly Alvarez, commonly referred to as Kiki, won’t say that she’ll never eat meat of fish again.
Sure, she cried and refused when her old chef asked her to kill a lobster, but she also realises she has no way of knowing what the future holds.
“I don’t like labels. I don’t like to say to myself, ‘I’m this or I’m that’,” the soft-spoken 29-year-old vegan chef from Venezuela says. “Maybe if one day I’m in a place that I feel it’s safe to try cheese for example, I want it because it’s fresh and it’s made there and they’re treating the cows well. I’m going to try. If I want.”
But, she adds, “I respect life.”
Eda Gungor, owner of the down-to-earth Dubai wellness centre Life’n One, says she and Alvarez “flirted for about a year”, with Alvarez coming over to help out in the cafe on her days off from Coya, until she was ready to join a few months ago. “We all needed to come to a place, she needed to be ready, she needed time to teach some stuff in the kitchen,” says Gungor. “It was the right time.”
A luscious new menu followed, with all the vegan bestsellers Alvarez helped to create, including a trio of robust burgers and a lip-smacking Snickers Pie. Back when Gungor opened Life ‘n One in 2014 it was one of the only games in town; now both wellness centres and plant-based food are trendy. Gungor believes it’s no accident women are a driving force.
“Compassion, heart, sensitivity, love, feminine energy,” she lists off. “I think it takes time for men to have empathy, even with their wives and mothers, and we are expecting them to have empathy with cows and chickens. It might take a decade or two.”
Life is Nectar, Bodytree Studios, Abu Dhabi
Mira Naaman opened Nectar Juice Bar in Abu Dhabi’s Bodytree Studios in 2014 at the urging of the owner – and friend – Nadia Sehweil.
A pastry chef who trained in the US and worked in events in Abu Dhabi, she didn’t even know how to make fresh, healthy juice when Sehweil came calling. Nothing 10 books on juicing and a husband willing to play taste-tester couldn’t fix.
Now a mom of three children under five, she says that while the food she prepares for her customers is as clean as can be – including an insanely good, grain-free best-selling chocolate chip cookie – she’s more interested in pursuing a plant-based diet than vegan zealotry.
“It’s about eating healthy, and when you go plant-based you tend to be eating from the earth, which is what you basically want to be doing,” she says.
Naaman’s launched a range of tasty desserts – sweet potato brownies, raspberry crumble – as well as hand-massaged kale chips in a variety of flavors and a grain-free, activated nut-dense granola.
“Nobody in their right mind would ever sell you this much nut,” she jokes. “It’s not cost-efficient but we work on a small scale so I can have fun with it.”
One of her creations is a spicy cracker made with the vegetable pulp from Nectar’s juices.
Even with her busy brood, Naaman still manages to create, regularly delighting Bodytree’s clients who turn up for the centre’s wellness events by showing just what she could do with a full-fledged restaurant. As for why so many women are at the forefront of the local plant-based trend, she feels it might just be remnants of the whole ‘men need steak’ ethos.
“I feel like men tend to need protein more than women, on a physical level”, says Naaman. “But I know a lot of vegan athletes who are lean and ripped.”
Wheatfield’s Gourmet Grocer & Cafe, Abu Dhabi
Nicole Diaz actually wanted to be a makeup artist in Hollywood, but she got so tired while working long hours in the film industry, and so broke, that she packed it in. A robust 50-year-old woman got in touch – how, Diaz doesn’t know – and hired her to work the desk at her yoga studio.
One of the only perks was that she got to eat the uber-healthy raw food the woman prepared.
“Within two weeks of eating her food I had lost 12 pounds, my acne was breaking up and the energy I had! I hope everyone gets to experience energy like this once in their life,” says Diaz. “It’s almost like an energy source was locked away for a long time and all of a sudden it just opened up through kale.”
Diaz’s health soared and she learned as she went, honing her skills in the trendy cafes and markets of green juice obsessed Los Angeles. That’s where Diaz and her executive chef partner Hector Sanchez met the Emirati who invited them to Abu Dhabi to run the show at Wheatfield’s Gourmet Grocer & Cafe in Al Rayyana.
Diaz, who has healed from acne and cervical cancer, was still finding her way with food personally until this January, when she decided to go all-in with Anthony William’s Medical Medium book. Her love for fresh, whole, mostly raw fare, seen on her addictive daily Instagram stories @HolisticHustle, is infectious.
“There’s nothing working in your favour when it comes to healing,” she says. “So if people can just take the time to notice that and be gentle with themselves, still disciplined, know that if you want to heal, it will come to you. Do your research and trust yourself, that’s an important one, because everyone is telling everyone what they are supposed to do and no one is listening to themselves any more.”
Chef, and Asma Lootah, owner, at The Hundred Wellness Centre, Dubai
Something happens to Hayley Mac when she sees chia seeds for sale in a petrol station.
“I do smile, every single time, and think, ‘well done’,” she says.
It was back in 2005 that Mac started trying to convince the Dubai Health Authority that things like maca and cacao were legitimate – and much-needed – items of sale. In these food and health-obsessed times, it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t so long ago there wasn’t a superfood to be found in the emirate.
The vegan chef was a trailblazer in more ways than one, launching the all-raw Be Supernatural cafe at Galleries Lafayette (now Super Natural Kitchen) in 2011 and running it until 2015, as well as the cafe at Life’n One. In recent years she helped with the menu of Poke & Co, in Central Park Towers, and with some of the dishes at Bowlful in Jumeirah Lakes Towers.
Since last year she’s been immersed in creating a top-secret refined-sugar, dairy and gluten-free menu for The Hundred Wellness Centre, contracted by the owner Asma Lootah to conjure up some truly delicious, good-for-you drinks and and dishes that will be accessible to anyone. The drinks have already launched, with Lootah’s childhood favourite Falooda (a pink drink from India with plump basil seeds) and a signature Vegan Snickers Smoothie (above), made with cashew and almond milk and homemade salted caramel. The desserts – think banana splits (with vegan cultured frozen yoghurt) and Summer Berry Crumble (above) – are due this month.
After the summer, and a rehaul of the cafe space, it will be time to launch the main menu, which will feature a rotating mix of slow-cooked and raw food.
Lootah and Mac are definitely on the same wavelength when it comes to nourishment.
“It’s a collaboration of passion,” says Lootah. “It’s evolved now, the way I see it, to offer people food that anyone can eat or drink… still it’s healthy, it’s vegan, refined-sugar free. Why? Because this is the way I live, this is the way Hayley lives, this is the whole centre, our ethics and motives, to bring to people what we experienced in
There won’t be any calorie counts offered either. Mac says: “Every spoonful of food that goes into your mouth in this cafe, we want people to know we have made it as nutrient-dense and medicinal as we possibly can.”