Las Vegas native Jen Sahi – a.k.a. @dxbfooddiaries – knows a thing or two about food! Not only did she grow up eating chicken feet, jellyfish, and black preserved eggs, but she also set up a food club in college. Today, she showcases local kitchen heroes in Dubai, racking up nearly 20,000 followers in the process. Here, she tells The Gaggler what her family (really) thinks of her being an influencer, why supporting local restaurants is so important, and which hidden gems are downright rave-worthy.
How did you get into the foodie social media world?
I come from a huge foodie family – everyone loves to eat, they have huge appetites, and they’re all good cooks. Growing up in an Asian household, I grew up eating all sorts of weird and wonderful things that most Americans would never dream of touching, like chicken feet, jellyfish, black preserved eggs.
Food has always been a big part of my life and influenced many of my big decisions, including where to travel and go to university. In fact, my alma mater has been ranked the best college food in the entire United States. I spent my free time baking when I was in high school and even secured funding to start up a food club in college.
The original social media foodie in my family is my Uncle Keh, who’s been posting food photos on Facebook before it ever became popular. I used to think it was naff until six years ago, when I started posting my own photos about food. I realised that he had the right idea all along!
What deems a restaurant “worthy of being featured”?
I’m a marketer by profession and love a high-quality product with a solid story behind it. I tend to feature the kind of places that appeal to me, places where I would happily spend money. These tend to be fine casual or fine dining venues, independent homegrown concepts, or celebrity chef restaurants.
I’m also a big fan of anything with an unusual flavour combination (honey butter chips, anyone?), a good gimmick (rainbow grilled cheese), or anything different and new – the potato-and-egg breakfast naan at LDC Kitchen is definitely worth a try. And if there’s a good story behind it, even better!
What caused you to focus on homegrown brands in the UAE?
I have a digital marketing agency and was working with quite a few small businesses that seriously felt the pain during lockdown last year. One of them posted that quote about buying from a small business because an actual person does a happy dance and it really resonated with me. Coronavirus hit everyone hard, but it’s the independent businesses and homegrown brands that were struggling the most.
I therefore made a point during lockdown to support as many of them as I could by purchasing food from them (directly, not via an aggregator) and posting about them through my networks. I was literally ordering out seven days a week for eight whole weeks until my husband reined me in.
Since then, it’s really stuck with me. I still try to support independent restaurants, local concepts, and budding foodpreneurs as much as I can. It’s a really special feeling to share in the passion and enthusiasm of the chef, owner, or founder of a homegrown business.
What are some of your go-to homegrown restaurants?
The list is too long! Clearly, I love eating out and I love supporting some of the friends I’ve made along the way.
- Reif Othman I love all of his restaurants – this man is brilliant, dedicated, and such an inspiration.
- Boca I’m a big fan of Boca and head chef Matthijs Stinnissen, their collaborations, and how they constantly champion sustainability.
- Trèsind Studio and Trèsind are two of my favourites – executive chef Himanshu Saini is extremely creative, they’re constantly evolving their menus, and the cocktails are excellent.
- The Lighthouse I’m addicted to the Greek salad and cortado at d3 and Mall of the Emirates, and there’s two new outlets on the way.
- Depachika Food Hall at Nakheel Mall is one of my favourite places as it’s such a unique space full of well-curated food – plus, I can’t resist the chicken souvlaki wrap at Kilikio by Mythos.
- Slab I really rate Omar Rodrigues of Slab, now at Mercato Mall – he has excellent taste and I’m always impressed (the preserved lemon burrata and broccoli quinoa salad are superb).
- 21 Grams I love 21 Grams and Stasha – the owner has such great energy, the space is so peaceful, and the food is always excellent, but I don’t visit as much as I should!
What do your friends and family think of your life as a food influencer?
They think it’s an easy life, but they don’t realise that a lot of time goes into creating content, so it’s basically like having a second (unpaid) full-time job!
What brought you to Dubai?
In 2007, I was headhunted from London for a marketing job in Dubai and came here, only to find that I loved it because the lifestyle was similar to Las Vegas, where I grew up – but better! I left a few years later only, to return in 2012 and have been here ever since.
Can you list a few must-visit hidden gems or homegrown restaurants that you can’t stop raving about?
- Orfali Bros – I have a lot of respect for Fatafeat chef Mohammed Orfali and really love his new restaurant, Orfali Bros, at Wasl 51. It’s an intimate dining experience with Mohammed in charge of the kitchen, while his brothers Omar and Wassim are in charge of the pastries.
- Kinoya – this is the much-awaited restaurant from A Story of Food, an izakaya-style Japanese restaurant – book a seat at the ramen counter and watch Neha do what she does best.
- Fulvio’s at Time Out Market, the hottest foodie destination at the moment and requires multiple visits to do it justice. Every outlet is worth a visit, but I honestly can’t visit Time Out Market without ordering the pumpkin ravioli at Fulvio’s by the talented chef behind Il Borro and Alici.
- Terra – this neighborhood restaurant is tucked away in the Waitrose shopping center in Al Thanya, has a lovely garden terrace, and serves an amazing short rib tagliatelle.
- Dough by 1762 – the new pizza pop-up at 1762 Stripped in JLT only recently launched, serving up pizza after 5pm and firmly on my list to try this week.
- Dishtrict – this is a unique concept by the team behind Moshi that brought us Chips Oman maki – it has a big menu of fun fusion dishes, but the must-order is the Thai arancini.
Follow Jen for major dining inspiration and don’t forget to support local – it makes them do a happy dance every time you order!