The Second Act of Afifa Nayeb

By Mai Pham | Will Blunt


Mai Pham
Will Blunt
Tandoori Fish Curry: Sea Bass, Green Peas, Lemongrass Leek Purée, Dill
Tandoori Fish Curry: Sea Bass, Green Peas, Lemongrass Leek Purée, Dill

After 20 years working in real estate and retail, Afifa Nayeb told her daughter, Sabrina, that she was going to enroll in Le Cordon Bleu. When Sabrina asked why, Afifa frankly told her that it had always been her dream. One degree in French culinary arts, and three fast casual concepts later, Afifa opened Âme, an upscale French-Indian restaurant in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas. Food and Travel Writer Mai Pham chats with Afifa about changing careers, collaborating with her daughter, and pursuing dreams to their fullest extent. 

You are Afghan, but your new restaurant is French-Indian. Can you give us a little bit of background on how you came to be where you are today? 

In 1985, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, our family immigrated to India. I fell in love with Indian food and Indian culture during our time there. In 1987, we were able to move to Dallas. Of course I went to school, and then after, I started my career at the Nayeb Group [my family business]. My background was real estate and retail for 20 years. We were an investment company. I was a single mom. I raised my daughter all by myself. When she went to college, I pursued my dream, and went to culinary school at the age of 40. 

Âme is your newest restaurant, but you have several others, correct? 
Yes. In 2015, I opened my first restaurant, Laili. Every year, technically, since 2015, I’ve been opening a different concept. After Laili, I opened 8 Cloves and it really took off well. Everyone loved my food, a marriage of Afghan and Indian food. From there, I opened Juice Babe, a juice bar, with my daughter, Sabrina. So that went really well, and we were working on the second Juicebabe. Then this opportunity came, which was a good location, so I said, “Okay, this is a good time to launch my fine-dining concept.” I signed the lease last year, and Sabrina helped me a lot with this project—she did all the design and decor and construction and the branding. She contributed a lot in this business with me, so I focused a lot on the kitchen menu, and here I am. And thankfully we are packed all week long, reservation only.

How challenging was it switch careers at age 40? 
Actually, I was looking forward to that day. Because I’m a planner. I always plan the next five years ahead of time. For me, when my daughter was a freshman in high school, I was counting the days. “When she goes to college, I’m going to culinary school,” I told myself. And as far as shifting gears, I was always comfortable with culinary. Cooking has been my passion all my life. With being an immigrant from a family of six, each one of us had to grab a department and contribute. At age 12, I would go in the kitchen and make a meal for them. And that’s where I found my comfort, my creative side. So It wasn’t a chore, it was a joy. With all of that, it was an easy transition.

When you told your family that you wanted to pursue this path, did you have any push back?
I wouldn’t say push back. For them, it was, “You worked so hard, you should enjoy your life from now on.” That was the only push back [I received] from them, because the restaurant industry takes all your life away. 

I work seven days a week, I don’t even know how many hours I work anymore. And I wanted my restaurant to be a true chef-driven restaurant. So with that, they know my personality. For them, it was the worry that, “You are going to lose your life.” On the other hand, I said, “This is not about money. This is my dream. This is something I was looking forward to. My daughter is grown up, so now I have to pursue my dream.” 

‘Cause I always say to women —I have participated in a lot of this, and I believe in all women empowerment. Don’t ever end up in a rocking chair by a window, and say, “I wish I could have done it, I wish…” Always go do it. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t like it, you can always stop.

Let’s talk about Âme . It’s interesting that you’re doing French-Indian as opposed to French-Afghan. Can you speak to that? 
I had to do Indian. I had a little training with 8 Cloves and I brought Afghan twists to that. This had to be a fresh new concept. That’s why I did a marriage of French and Indian. Also, the spices, curries, and sauces of Indian food and the French mother sauces go very well together.

Âme is located in a prime location. Did you go after it, or did they come to you? 
Bishop Arts District is a very iconic, historic destination square. It is a top location with an L-shaped corner. The previous owner, Hattie’s, had been there for two decades. There were 11 applicants for this location. Somehow, they trusted my concept after a food tasting. It was during Covid—I had to invite them to my residence, let them see the business plan and concept. I guess one thing that topped the other applicants was that I told them, “This will not be a neighborhood restaurant. This will not be your typical steak or burger or taco place. It’s going to be a chef-driven French-Indian place, and it’s going to be a destination restaurant.” And that’s what it’s become. We track our customers, and many drive 30 to 40 miles for a seat at our table.

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