Dubai-based founder of The Gbemi’s Kitchen, Gbemi Giwa, wants her new Nigerian restaurant to feel a bit like home.
“It’s more than food,” says the Nigerian native. “It’s the vibes, the expression and a lifelong dream.”
She has succeeded. The Gbemi’s Kitchen does feel like home. The Cluster R restaurant is small, with a handful of tables lined by pillows and vividly patterned Nigerian pop-art wallpaper. When we visit, there’s one waitress and a few Deliveroo drivers toward the front. A group of friends sit behind us. The place is nearly full.
“Dubai is a melting pot and the mix here is crazy, but I felt that a little bit of home which was mine was still missing, so I decided to bring it,” says Giwa.
Healthy Nigerian food uses a variety of colors and flavors, leafy greens, farm fresh meats and herbs and spices.
“Growing up, this was simply how we ate,” says Giwa. “We rarely had processed food. I’ve lived in Dubai for 10 years and I’ve been exposed to many ways of eating, but I still find myself coming back to the basics.”
On the menu there’s everything from the chicken-and-veg Gringho’s Bowl to a plantain avocado salad, with ginger shots and minted lemonade for drinks. When we order, a mix of dishes isn’t available and it takes us a few tries to get everything sorted, but the inconvenience is small. If anything, it makes it feel more like a house — tiny kitchen, limited ingredients, everything super fresh.
“My mother taught us to cook,” recalls Giwa. “She would always cook for my dad, and he’d often refuse to eat other food. My earliest memories of food are all African: perfect Sunday jolly rice every weekend, or cheeky stealing a piece of meat from my mum’s stew.”
Giwa was an athlete at school and university, then a distance runner, then a CrossFit fanatic. But in the process of launching two restaurants – first Catfish, a delivery kitchen, and now The Gbemi’s Kitchen in JLT – fitness has sometimes taken a back seat.
“People assume that as a personality in the health industry, you work out all the time, but that’s not the case,” she says. “Fitness is a journey and there are ups and downs.”
After founding Catfish, getting fit was the last thing on her mind.
“It was pretty hectic in my personal life,” says Giwa, who also hosts a dance class with DanceBodyDxb. “But I’m finding routine in life as an entrepreneur and I’m back to my grind and feeling as good as ever.”
Like the meals she prepares, fitness is a bit about getting back to the basics, she says.
“I feel as humans, we are made to move and that can come in any form. The goal is to express yourself and have tons of fun.”
When the food comes, it’s simple, hearty and wonderful. The curried hummus is drizzled with jollof sauce, the beef suya appetizer with plenty of spice. I opt for a mixed bowl of plantains, massaged kale and falafel, with a hefty side of sweet potato fries. The restaurant is out of plantain bread. This proves to be a blessing in the end: the food here is affordable (most mains are around Dhs40), but the portions are large. I eat everything. The flavors are rich and the side of spicy sauce so delicious I ask the waitress if they sell it in jars to take home (they don’t).
As we leave, another group arrives. They say hello, like old friends. We have never met them before but it feels natural – just like the home Giwa set out to create.
After all, she says: “Food will always mean love to me.”
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist. In addition to working as editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East, Danae has written for The Sunday Times, CNN Travel, Dubai Tourism, The Guardian, Afar, Bloomberg and many more. She's based in Dubai and is a trainer at Crank. instagram.com/danaemercer