Dara Dining’s Sara Aqel on Cooking From the Heart, Heading Up a Female-Led Restaurant in the Middle East, and Sharing a Love For Food and Feeding
Aqel brings a hearty dose of girl power to the tables of MGM x RR1HK Culinary Masters Macau 2024 as the youngest chef in the mix.
BY Robb Report Hong Kong  |  June 7, 2024
5 Minute Read

This story is part of a series of features covering MGM x RR1HK Culinary Masters Macau 2024, hosted at MGM COTAI in Macau on 28–30 June 2024.

As the global executive chef of the women-led Fi’lia in Dubai—the hint is in the name; fi’lia means “daughter” in Italian—Sara Aqel found fame early. While a nearly all-female kitchen may have garnered her and Fi’lia lots of press early on, what sustained the great coverage was the gorgeous food that emerged from the ever-busy kitchens. (Aqel was also in charge of the menus for Miami, the Bahamas, and Paris.) Within its first year alone, she topped the holy grail of dining industry’s high watermarks— Fi’lia made the kindest cut of the ever-prestigious Michelin Guide and was recognised with a Bib Gourmand, won “Best New Restaurant” in the Middle East from La Liste, and earned her a coveted position among French culinary guide Gault & Millau.

With hard-earned diplomas from the famed Les Roches in Switzerland and degrees in Culinary Arts and Hotel Management from the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts in Jordan, there are several honed arrows in her quiver, and Aqel is set on creating the perfect meal season after season from years of experience. Although she has never been to Macau before, Aqel has oscillated nearby—her resplendent career kicked off in style with an internship in the kitchens of the famed Hong Kong Jockey Club restaurants, which led to Four Seasons in Amman, and then a move to Dubai. Global experience meant fresh approaches to ingredients from the world over as she brings an international perspective to an indigenous table.

Now, as the executive chef of Dara Dining in Amman, Aqel forges ahead to lead modern gastronomy in the Middle East, blending Mediterranean cuisine with Italian influences and local ingredients and paving the way for female chefs across the region. As she brings her unique history, skills, and grace to the grand tables of MGM x RR1HK Culinary Masters Macau 2024, held at MGM COTAI on 28 to 30 June 2024, she will be the youngest chef in the mix, adding to the threads that make up the intricate Silk Road. With unexpected elements, and novel turns and twists, she’s got several surprises up her sleeve, some of which she reveals today in an exclusive chat with Robb Report Hong Kong. 

You have a link to one of our Culinary Masters—Massimo Bottura. What was it like working under his wing and with his team of chefs? 

Massimo is a chef who created his own path by doing things others wouldn’t dare to do, not being worried about breaking the rules, or recreating them respectfully. My biggest takeaway is that when you stop thinking of how everything should be done, or how everyone has been doing something, and no one tells you what are the rules, you start creating freely and without any boundaries.

Where did this love for cooking come from?

My family house! With five sisters and my parents, that’s a full table, and God knows it is difficult to make seven people happy with the same meal, but my mum’s food always brought us together, always gave us something in common, always made the day better. 

What inspired you to assemble an almost all-female team to run your restaurant? 

Because why not! For ages, we’ve seen kitchens that are run by men only, and that’s different to kitchens and restaurants run by women, but just not exclusively women only, because a sustainable future is about equal opportunities, and equal evaluation and income for equal talents regardless of the gender or age.

What advice would you give to students who aspire to enter the culinary industry? 

It has to come from a very deep spot in your heart and soul; you have to understand the sacrifices and not underestimate them, neither your talent, nor the people around you. The worst thing is trying to become the next anyone; you waste time trying to be someone else. Be the first you!

What is your signature dish and is there any story behind it? 

Gnocchi e caviar. Simple flavours, hearty textures, and warmth, and if you have the talent to make gnocchi, why just eat a baked potato with caviar?

Culinary Masters at MGM COTAI.

Culinary Masters brings different chefs from all over the world together in one place for an extraordinary gastronomic exchange. What are you most excited about? 

The exchange of passion, culture, and knowledge, and the common love for food—and feeding!

Mediterranean cuisines are often celebrated for their emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients. What local or regional produce are you most excited to highlight in your dishes for the Culinary Masters? 

It must remain a surprise, but I can share that it will have herbs and spices from the region I grew up in, like cinnamon, cardamom, and sumac, but also shared ingredients from the Silk Road, like soy sauce, Aleppo pepper, and duck.

When curating a menu for Culinary Masters, what key factors do you consider? How do you balance seasonal dishes, audience preferences, and coordination with the other chefs’ offerings?

We need to think of the meal as if we were eating it, not only making it, and make sure we don’t become repetitive or boring or heavy.

Will this be your first time in Macau? What are you looking forward to? 

It is my first time, and I am really excited to share some stories and flavours and culture with the other chefs and students.

What do you hope diners will take away with them after they experience the Culinary Master? 

That we have a lot more in common than what we don’t have, and that our food in common can be the beginning or starting point to a more peaceful world.

If you could travel back in time, which Silk Road destination would you most want to cook in? 


Favorite Mediterranean ingredient to work with? 

Olive oil.

Most memorable Mediterranean meal that continues to influence your cooking today? 

Pasta a la vongole.

Three words to describe your Silk Road-inspired menu? 

Simple, sustainable, and memorable.

What was the most surprising Silk Road ingredient you discovered during your menu development? 

Mallow [flowers].

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Images courtesy of Sara Aqel and Robb Report Hong Kong.