21grams Founder Stasha Toncev Celebrates The Beauty Of Balkan Cuisine At Her Dubai-Based Bistro
"I really believed Balkan cuisine and hospitality had so much potential- it just needed a little bit of magic to turn into a Cinderella-like story. And now, even though I say it myself, I think we've done a fantastic job."
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When Stasha Toncev opened 21grams as an "urban Balkan bistro" in Dubai in 2018, she remembers the restaurant -which had just 25 chairs at the time- being a complete newbie to the UAE's F&B scene, and, at the same time, being something of a mystery to the population at large. "At that time, people were asking us, 'What is a Balkan?'" Toncev recalls, laughing. "For many people, it could have been anything- a fruit or a vegetable, rather than a region in Europe. Talk about underrepresented cuisine! It honestly felt like we were more likely to fail than to succeed."
But nevertheless, she persisted- as someone who had started cooking and entertaining ever since she was a child, Toncev believed in the potential of 21grams becoming a place where she could celebrate the cuisine she has grown up with, while also welcoming those in her current surroundings to partake in it and enjoy it too. "I was annoyed that no one knew about Balkan cuisine," she says. "And I was not able to bring the beauty of our cuisine to people just through explaining it or showing pictures. That's when I saw my niche, the opportunity to add value– to my culture, and to Dubai's dining scene."
Toncev may have been a first-time restaurateur when she launched 21grams- but she certainly knew her way around dining and hospitality. Not only was she known for the soulful dinner parties she hosted at her home, Toncev also had a wealth of experience working in high-end restaurants and hotels in the UAE- and she put it all to good use when she opened up 21grams. The restaurant's name is a reference to the purported weight of the soul, which ties into its soulful menu; there's an additional connection to Toncev's origins in that the longitude of the Serbian capital of Belgrade is 21°.
As for the food served at the establishment, Toncev's eyes light up when she talks about any of it, regardless of whether it's 21grams' signature burek, or its sumptuous sarma- and it's safe to say that her customers have bought into her enthusiasm as well. Today, 21grams is regarded as a place that needs to be on the radar of every foodie in the UAE, with it not only being a permanent fixture on must-visit-restaurants-in- Dubai lists, but also racking up industry accolades like the Best European Restaurant title at the 2022 Time Out Dubai Restaurant Awards. "I really wanted to do things differently, to create an exceptional dining experience that also gave that feeling that it was all about family and values, about sharing rather than just serving food," Toncev says. "I really believed Balkan cuisine and hospitality had so much potential- it just needed a little bit of magic to turn into a Cinderella-like story. And now, even though I say it myself, I think we've done a fantastic job."
EUREKA! Stasha Toncev on how to make an idea a great one
NEVER TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER "When people say hmm, maybe, or no to your idea/dream, work harder, embrace your hardships, and never give up on things and people that are close to your heart."
THE FUTURE BELONGS TO THOSE WHO CAN CONNECT WITH THEIR COMMUNITIES "Always look for ways to resonate and connect with the people who are important to you."
PLAY THE LONG GAME "Remember that quality lasts, passion persists, and authenticity is king."
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