Interview: Natasha Sideris
Natasha Sideris had sworn off going into the restaurant business. Watching her father, a prolific restaurateur, she had seen first-hand how all-consuming the industry was and decided that it wasn’t for her. While studying psychology at university in Johannesburg, Sideris asked her father if she could work for him to earn some extra cash. She recalls: “He said, ‘Be careful, because if you like it and you’re good at it, you’re going to get hooked’.” As it turned out, this paternal prophecy came true.
“I would go to lectures in the morning and go straight to the restaurant from university. I graduated in 1993 and I’ve been in the business ever since,” says Sideris.
Fast forward 24 years and, having opened 15 restaurants across South Africa, Sideris sits in the dining room of her fourth UAE restaurant. Known for her cafés, Flamingo Room by Tashas, which opens this month, is the restaurateur’s first refined dining concept in the Middle East. Sideris explains: “This restaurant is really the culmination of many, many years of hard work. It’s going to be my baby because it represents so many of the things that I really love, and we get to take the Tashas brand and just elevate it ever so slightly.”
Though the Dubai branch is the first standalone venue, Flamingo Room actually had a test-run in one of the Tashas outlets in Johannesburg: “I had always wanted to open a chic private-dining experience, and we did a small experiment in one of our larger stores in Sandton Square. It was a space within a space. I’m in love with Las Vegas glamour, and we created a space that was 60 seats, and it was very well received in South Africa.”
Sideris’ Dubai partner was also taken with the space, and the decision was made to open a licensed standalone restaurant in the emirate. This meant stepping away from the Tashas brand. Sideris says: “Our strategy in Dubai is to never serve alcohol. We have a large local following and our classic cafés are going to stay dry. So we came up with the idea of having concept stores.”
This strategy allowed the Tashas brand to remain unchanged while capitalising on its popularity to introduce existing customers to the new concept. “We have the ‘by Tashas’ because we want people to be able to trust the restaurant, and all the things that people love about Tashas, they’ll still be able to get in this space — personalised service, attention, care, all of those things. Our DNA will definitely come through.”
For Sideris, the idea is to develop the Tashas brand and bring her existing customers along for the ride: “Now we’re [encouraging our customers to] come to a place that’s slightly more glamourous. They can shop, have a drink, and there’s a DJ. It’s all going to come together nicely. And it’s a beautiful setting. What Jumeirah Group has done really well is to carve out this space that’s far away from the big, beachy stuff that’s happening. This is a magical place at sunset.”
It could be seen as a risky move to take a wholesome café brand with a loyal following and associate it with a new venue that will serve as a nightlife destination, but Sideris isn’t concerned. She sees the move as an opportunity to cast her net a bit wider: “I think we’re talking to a similar audience and, of course, a different audience. The fact that all the Tashas cafés are dry is not a limiting factor, but it doesn’t attract the people who want to have a drink in the afternoon and go and listen to some music, so I think we’re going to capture that audience. It gives us the opportunity to show that we don’t only do café-style food.”
Sideris clarifies that, in terms of menu, what Tashas does at its concept stores is “90% different and 10% the same”. The 10% that guests will recognise in terms of the outlet’s look and feel includes the stucco and the terrazzo flooring. Other than that, explains Sideris, “the language is completely different”.
“The homely service, the quality of the food, and the fact that all the food is made fresh to order, will stay the same, but the menu is quite different,” she says.
The culinary offering will pay homage the concept’s South African origins but by no means will it be an African-themed restaurant. Sideris says: “There will be a couple of dishes that will have South African flavours; it is not, however, typically African. There will be some South African influences — we’ve got ‘waterblommetjies’ (water lilies), rooibos crème brulée, and we’re doing a couple of things like that, but it’s not obviously African. It alludes to Africa, but a lot of the dishes are going to be retro, old-school classics. You’re going to be able to get an avo ritz, and a really good lobster pasta. We’ve got a section on the menu called seaside classics, and that’ll be your club sandwiches and mini burgers, because we want it to be relaxed.”
Indeed, there isn’t a white tablecloth in sight. Sideris describes the atmosphere she wants to create as “chic meets the beach”. “We are in a resort, so we don’t want people to have to be too [formal]. Imagine a lady coming off the beach in a kaftan and a guy wearing a linen shirt and a pair of shorts.”
As is the case with her existing restaurants, staffing had a big part to play in setting Flamingo Room’s tone. Sideris chose to hire the mostly South African team from her existing outlets. She explains: “South Africans are known for unbelievable hospitality. We also want to promote from within, so we we took our top players from the store in Abu Dhabi and the store in Jumeirah and brought them into this restaurant. A lot of them have worked with me for 12 years.”
Sideris is clear about where she wants to position Flamingo Room in the market: “I think in Dubai there are a lot of people competing in the same fine-dining market, and there are a few players who are doing it really well. We’re not here to compete with those guys; we’re here to compete within the casual-chic dining experience. It’s still affordable. You can come and get a cocktail at a decent price. It’s accessible. I want people to enjoy the space and the food.”
Being located in Jumeirah Al Naseem’s ‘dining hub’, Sideris is looking forward to experiencing the community feel of the location: “What I’m hoping is that these doors will open and the people from Il Borro spill out, and the people from Black Tap who are having a beer and a burger spill out, and all these restaurants start talking to each other.”
Drawing on her experience with her first UAE outlet in Dubai’s largely residential Jumeirah neighbourhood, Sideris is adamant that having successful restaurants as neighbours only adds value: “I can’t wait for the restaurant next door to us to open at the Jumeirah branch. There used to be a Lebanese restaurant, but that place has been closed for quite a while. Some people are scared of competition, but I think the more competition around you from people delivering a quality product, the better it is, because it becomes a place to talk about. This is becoming a foodie destination.”
The largest Tashas concept to date features interior architecture by globally renowned design firm, B&S Studio. Elegant swathes of peach and pink draw inspiration from the fauna and flora of Africa, which is coupled with a subtle 70s aesthetic. Describing the space, Sideris says: “We’re bringing a bit of African glamour to Dubai. I think Africa is [in vogue] at the moment, and it has been for a couple of years. High design coming out of Africa is being celebrated. The traditional view of Africa is drums and African masks and curios, but we have a very talented group of people in South Africa, and we have a rich culture with a lot of glamour.”
Sideris, who has a keen interest in interior design, continues: “I don’t know that Dubai has seen a restaurant like this. There are some beautiful restaurants in Dubai, but there’s also a lot of generic stuff. This is a piece of art. And there are pieces of art in the store — a bronze sculpture from Donald Greg, [and sculptures of] monkeys and meerkats. Wherever you look it’s like a fantasy land.”
Fantastic beasts abound outside the restaurant as well. The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) has been caring for injured and sick turtles for more than 10 years, and a specially designed turtle lagoon runs through Jumeirah Al Naseem’s dining hub. Sideris is quite taken with the reptiles: “I am in love with them; they remind me of my grandad. So I thought about how we could contribute to the lagoon. We're taking advantage of this beautiful location, so we’re going to choose three or four dishes from the menu and a certain percentage of the sales of those dishes will go to the DTRP, so that we can make a bit of a difference.”
With high rates of obesity and diabetes among Dubai’s young residents, helping to educate children about nutrition and healthy eating is also on the agenda: “We’re opening one more classic little café in the Al Jalila Cultural centre. [B&S Studio has] done a spectacular design, and it’s a very healthy menu. It’s a proper Tashas, with a focus on health and educating kids on how to eat better.”
Sideris’ tireless work ethic has made her successful, and her success has made it possible for her to give back. It’s something that she sees as her duty: “If you think about how many people restaurants serve, if you can make a small difference, then why not? We do it South Africa – we’ve got our own blend of coffee, and we built a school in Rwanda. If you can touch that many people – and you’ve got so many people coming in to a restaurant — you’ve got some responsibility to try and make a least a little bit of a difference. It can’t be all about serving food in a space and making money. There has to be something else. You have to leave a legacy.”
For most people, launching a restaurant of this size would be enough to keep their hands full. Not so for Sideris, who is simultaneously working on a new Dubai-based project: “We are taking over La Luz in DIFC for another concept store. It’s an unbelievable location and what we’re hoping to bring to DIFC is something a lot more casual. You’ll be able to come and have breakfast in DIFC, and you can have a lunch meeting with a really nice salad. It’s going to be a lot more Mediterranean in its influence. It’s really relaxed, and it’s licensed.”
If Flamingo Room is 90% different and 10% Tashas, the yet-to-be-named DIFC concept will be 60% different and 40% Tashas. And the concept will be headed by another Sideris sibling: “My brother, Savva Sideris, is going to handle the kitchen there, because that’s his forte. He’s an unbelievable cook. Again, it's a really simple menu, so proteins, beautiful salads, and stunning sides.”
Sideris doesn’t seem fazed by the fact that she’s opening in a space previously occupied by a restaurant that was well-received yet shuttered less than 18 months after it opened. According to the restaurateur, the key is not to try to beat successful restaurants at their game, but to offer something different instead: “I think La Petite Maison is one of the best restaurants in the world; we are not there to compete with them. We’re going to come and bring a little funkiness to DIFC.”