When they say experience counts for everything then they might well be talking about Sanjay Dwivedi, the incredible chef behind the equally incredible restaurant COYA. Born in London and raised in Delhi, India he’s now king of Peruvian cuisine via stints working in Italian, French and Indian restaurants around the capital.
Do you live to absorb new techniques, Sanjay?
We as chefs are always on the lookout for achieving the best results. This can be through using a seasonal product, local farmers bringing in their products, or speaking with our suppliers. We want to be able to offer the best to our clients. Cooking techniques have evolved hugely since I started cooking. The use of water baths, sous vide, foam guns and caviars of varying flavours has always kept me interested and, at times, I have used these techniques in cooking. However, in my opinion nothing beats the good old fashion method of using – best seasonal ingredients, cooked in an oven, or straight on fire. Moreover, nothing beats charcoal as a fuel.
When using these simple techniques, it is all about the produce. I have a few pieces of advice that I always tell my chefs no matter what technique they choose to use if you don’t follow these three simple steps, the finished product will never be its best:
- Buy the best and ensure it is in season
- Cook with your heart not with your head
- Be respectful to each ingredient – where it came from and how many have made an effort before it comes to the kitchen.
How did working at COYA stretch you as a chef?
First and foremost, I have been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to travel the world through my work having set up COYA in five locations. One particular country that had an impact on me was being able to visit Peru. The people are incredibly humble and the food and culture is mesmerising. I started experimenting with what would be the unique cuisine of COYA on my own in 2012. I had a small kitchen and experimented for 11 months before finally finding the right balance between cooking styles. The team is now much larger and made up of a group of very talented chefs, which has helped to evolve our menus at COYA even further. It is an incredibly rewarding feeling to see your culinary visions being realised. I started with the dream while I was working in that small kitchen in 2012, that I would have the best Peruvian Restaurant in London. Now, six years later, we are in a position to strive for the best in the world, where it is just not the food, it is a lifestyle. COYA is about the drinks, music, art work and the positive energy we put into everything we do. Working at COYA allowed me to develop my understanding of spices and herbs at a much more advanced level. The Peruvian cuisine uses spices to create a dimension to dishes that can sometimes be lost in other cuisines. I learnt to use spices as a catalyst to bring out flavours while also allowing them to speak for themselves as a prominent ingredient. In Peruvian cuisine, the spice is given the spotlight almost to the same extent as the fresh produce. I believe working at COYA taught me that it about creating food that your client wants and appreciates. As a young chef it can be easy to get caught up in your ego and desire for success. But as you grow within the culinary industry, you realise that success comes from creating what appeals to the client.
You started in the industry as a dishwasher and commis chef – is it important to learn the ropes at the most junior level?
To be the best at what you do you need to learn all aspects of the trade, irrespective of the industry that you are in. Not only did I wash up dishes, but I also worked in the reception and as a waiter. My first job as a commis chef was to clean six boxes of globe artichokes, and, having never touched an artichoke before, it seemed like a lot of repetitive and menial work. However, it is these tasks that make you a stronger person and, in turn, a better chef.
You were chef on a Rolling Stones tour. What sort of food do Mick, Keith et al like before a big show?
The Rolling Stones certainly live up to their reputation. They are such a nice group of guys and very down to earth. They were always polite and respectful, especially Charlie. Ronnie would ask for Shepherd’s Pie with raw onions and the rest were never fussy. I suppose they were in their zone before a performance, so food was the last thing in their mind. After the concert, they would be relaxing with friends over drinks and having a bite to eat. If anyone was picky, it was the entourage, but the lads were all very cool. I remember one show at Wembley; we had Nobu come over to cook for them. Mark Edwards, the executive chef, was making the miso black cod and I was gobsmacked as I had never tasted anything like it before.
Interview: Josh Jones