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29 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Sanjay Dwivedi

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sanjay dwivedi 2012 - Head_Chef_Sanjay_Dwivedi_creating_the_Coya_menu_2012.jpgSanjay Dwivedi, head chef at Peruvian restaurant Coya – the third of a wave of South American newcomers in London this year – is perhaps best known for his time as chef-patron at Kensington’s Indian stalwart Zaika. Dwivedi talks Square Meal through what diners can expect at Coya, recounts a disastrous evening with foie-gras parfait, and entertains with tales of his rock-and-roll past.

What was your experience of Peruvian food before you started preparing for Coya?

I had never cooked Peruvian food before, but I spent about three weeks cooking in restaurants in Peru and Madrid in preparation for this launch. I was fortunate enough to work at Astrid & Gastón, in Lima, for about two weeks. I’ve never worked with nicer people – everybody is Peruvian in there, from the waiter to the kitchen porter to the chef. The food really impressed me. I thought the restaurant scene might be really backwards in Peru, but it’s amazing.

For two weeks, all I wanted to do was to eat Peruvian food – to the point that we were having two lunches and two dinners and we got a bit sick of food. I must have had four litres of lime juice during the trip – I got a bit lime-juiced out.

Does it make you nervous cooking Peruvian food when you’re not Peruvian?

I’ll be very honest: yes. But for nine months I’ve been thinking, cooking, talking and reading about Peruvian food, so it’s brought me to a very different position from where I was before. Looking back, I think we’ve created something amazing.

With Coya, I’m not changing any of the basics I learned from the best restaurants in Lima and Madrid – I’m just adding a little of my own experience. Eventually, my influences will come through in the cooking, but initially you’ve got to give people what they know: classic ceviche, tiraditos, anticuchos – simple, traditional food. Once you win the confidence of people then you can try different things. For example, I’ve been experimenting with croquantes [tortilla crisps flavoured with Peruvian chilli aji amarillo] for the past four months. As we go along, I want to fill them with different things – perhaps wild mushrooms, or truffles.

What other dishes can we expect on the menu?

I’m doing this amazing pot rice – you fill the pot with rice cooked with dashi and lime juice. It’s a bit like a risotto, and it arrives with a piece of fish on the top and you mix it all up.

One of the classic Peruvian dishes is lomo saltado – stir-fried beef, onions and peppers with oyster sauce and soy sauce, served with fried egg and chips. I will use the best sirloin and will make the sauce in advance with some chicken jus to add more depth of flavour. Then I’ll pan-fry my beef and add the sauce. Instead of a fried egg I will do a slow-cooked egg and serve it with cassava chips instead of chips. It’s lomo saltado but made my way.

Most of your team is Peruvian or Spanish – do you feel awkward telling them how to cook Peruvian food?

Apart from me and Gareth my sous-chef, everyone is Spanish or Peruvian. But when you come from the outside, you do things that people who’ve been cooking Peruvian food for 40 years perhaps wouldn’t have thought of. The other day, I was making my version of a typical Peruvian sauce, and I asked the sous-chef to tell me what he thought of it. When he tasted it he said, ‘I’ve never tasted anything like this before’.

Lots of the chefs I’ve met are pleasantly surprised to see what I’m doing. When I left Madrid, the chefs – who were all Peruvian – got together for the final photo and everyone came up to me and thanked me for bringing their food to London. They were so proud, and thankful I’m taking the time to learn about their food, and taking an interest. I was really touched.

Have you been checking out the competition?

I’ve eaten at Ceviche seven times so far and Lima six times. Some of the reviews for them have been really special, which is great. I’m not over-confident, but 11 months is a long time to have been eating, breathing and sleeping Peruvian, so I think I’m ready.

Coya_2012_-_Chifa_Wontons_Wagyu_Beef_Wontons_Colour_Corrected.jpgWhat do you think will make Coya stand out?

First of all, the way it looks: it’s a celebration of the whole of Latin America – the music, the artwork, everything. And the pisco bar will have a choice of about 25 infusions of pisco, such as strawberry, apple and yucuma.

We’ve got an open kitchen with a robata grill and ceviche bar. I want it to be a casual place, like Zuma or the Arts Club.

You were head chef for the Rolling Stones’ ‘Bridges of Babylon’ tour – what was your most rock-and-roll moment?

Working as head chef for the Rolling Stones was amazing – hard work, but good fun. I was in charge of cooking for them and their entourage. My favourite was Keith; he was a real character. We travelled on a comfortable bus during the tour, but on the last day I missed my flight home so I flew with them on their private jet. It was a journey I didn’t want to end.

Which chefs do you admire?

I think Stephen Terry is probably one of the most underrated chefs in the country. I also respect Brian Turner – his was the first kitchen I worked in. When I was starting out, I had a book called Taste of Excellence: Recipes from the Best of British Chefs. I went through it one weekend and decided I wanted to work for Brian Turner, so I went up to his restaurant, which was Sud Ouest, and told him. He said, ‘OK, lad, come and see me next week’, and he gave me a job. I still keep in touch with him.

What are your golden rules?

I always say the same thing: you have to cook with your heart – don’t just cook for a pay cheque. When your mum cooked for you it was always the best thing ever, even if she couldn’t cook, because she always made it with love. And that’s what I say to my chefs – you have to have the passion. All the chefs in my team have the passion; you can see it.

What’s been your biggest kitchen disaster?

There have been so many of them. Once, I had made 20 foie-gras parfaits to serve to a group of diners. When I’d sent the first 10 out, the commis chef carrying the rest of the parfaits dropped the tray on the floor. I didn’t know what to do! It’s not something you can make then and there, and I didn’t have any replacements. So I had to go and tell the people what had happened. I offered to cook something different – I did a crab tart with rocket – and I offered them two bottles of Champagne on me and a few extra sides. It worked out OK. The chef was in tears afterwards – he didn’t get paid that day, but he kept his job.

This feature was published in November 2012.

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