Meet Coya's Exec Chef Sanjay Dwivedi & Head Chef Benjamin Wan
If you’ve ventured to the Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, then you’ve likely faced the incredibly difficult decision of where to eat. With five dining options within the resort itself, and another five in Restaurant Village just opposite the resort’s main entrance, you might seriously consider playing eeny-meeny-miny-moe.
But, if you’re looking for an experience, then pop over to Restaurant Village and grab a table at the lively Peruvian-inspired Coya where you can get a taste of the work of Exec Chef Sanjay Dwivedi & Head Chef Benjamin Wan.
Coya Dubai opened in December of 2014, in between the successful launch of the London branch in January 2012 and the opening of the Miami branch in 2015. Serving up Peruvian cuisine with a modern twist, Coya ripples with South American spirit in an interior full of vibrant Incan colours. “Salubrious” and “eclectic” are the two words that first came to Pra’s mind after seeing both the London and Dubai branches of Coya.
(By the way, during my most recent visit to Coya London, I had the opportunity to see Keba performing live in-house and I was blown away by her. This stunning musician has such a fabulous voice and her style of music brought back memories of The Brand New Heavies. What a discovery! There will definitely be an upcoming interview with her on The Caviar Spoon.)
This is not one of those crisp, clean fine dining establishments. At Coya, the gorgeously deep and moody interior will wrap around you and transport you far away from the humdrum of Dubai. Rich colours of peacock, chartreuse, purple, and red, antique Incan gilding, dark wood, and mud botija-lined walls are all juxtaposed upon each other to create a swirling, sexy vibe that embodies the Latin American lifestyle.
But despite the lush and lively vibe, it’s far from pretentious. In fact, it’s that certain je ne sai quois that will grant you access into the exclusive Members Club, not the depth of your wallet, and that alone is a breath of fresh air here in the city where money talks. The “it” crowd here is all about sophistication, class, and a tiny bit of mystery.
Overseeing the kitchen operations of all three restaurants is Executive Chef Sanjay Dwivedi, who’s been with the Coya family from the beginning. And by that, I mean he’s been on board since London when Coya was but a vision in the mind of successful restaurateur Arjun Waney (who is also behind the likes of Zuma and La Petite Maison). Taking charge of the Dubai kitchen is Head Chef Benjamin Wan, who put in some extensive training at Coya London before making the move to the UAE.
Exec Chef Sanjay’s culinary love affair began with French cuisine more than twenty years ago, a time when there were very few South Asian chefs who had found success in the competitive French culinary world. It was a challenge, but Dwivedi believes that training in French cuisine – with its grueling hours and incredibly high standards – is vital for any aspiring chef in order to build a solid foundation. French cuisine remains at his core and to this day, he still refers to Escoffier’s book for inspiration, as well as Albert and Michel Roux.
With 3 different teams in 3 different countries to oversee, it would be easy for Dwivedi to simply go around shouting orders to keep things cohesive and running, but it’s quite the opposite. A self-described encouraging leader, he says that constant communication is key and he keeps the team motivated by offering empathy and advice whenever they need it. He is also quick with praise, saying he has “a team of extraordinary, empowered individuals” who have “contagious energy”. This comes as no surprise since some of the core qualities Chef Sanjay looks for in his staff are passion, creativity, and attitude.
Head Chef Ben says that with a team of 38 chefs in the kitchen, it’s important for him to respect their different personalities and how they respond. By looking at the whole team as individuals, he is able to extract the absolute best out of them. He also emphasizes that attitude and respect are the most important qualities that he looks for in his team members. As long as these exist, the needed skills can always be taught.
Like Dwivedi, Wan’s culinary background is also rooted in French cuisine. He recalls the long hours and intensity of his training but is grateful for the tough journey that pushed him to achieve more than he thought possible. He finds inspiration for the Coya menu by eating out as often as possible; sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or with his team where they bounce ideas off each other.
When asked about which food trends they can’t stand, both chefs are very diplomatic. Saying that every chef has their own way of expressing themselves, both Dwivedi and Wan are open to trying new things when dining out. In his own kitchen, Chef Sanjay abides by the simple idea that “good food will always taste good”, no matter what culinary method was used to get there, and he expects the same when he eats out. Chef Ben is a bit more forthcoming and admits that he thinks foam is one of the unnecessary trends. For him, the only time it is acceptable is in a dessert and when it’s from an espuma gun.
As in any great kitchen, the visual presentation is just as important as taste at Coya. Wan aims for dishes with bold complementary colours and contrasting textures that vary from crisp to soft, crunchy to chewy. Signature dishes include ceviches and the Sea Bass Cazulela which has a risotto-esque Spanish rice base, topped with grilled bass marinated with tamarind and aji amarillo. Another key dish is the Solomillo de Res, composed of spicy beef fillet with crispy shallots, aji rocoto, and star anise.
The entire Coya team makes an effort to create a brand that attracts the right audience for this modern Peruvian restaurant that celebrates Latin American culture. First and foremost, says Dwivedi, is ensuring that the brand’s core DNA and messaging are clear across all of their properties worldwide. From brand ambassadors to on-point PR and marketing, everything is kept streamlined and consistent. Wan mentions that it is also the staff who really communicate the brand, engrained in them from extensive training and day-to-day operations. (I can attest to the fact that the staff are amazing and give full golden stars to Nikolas Pazvadis, who heads up guest relations in Dubai. He’s an absolute legend when it comes to hospitality and service!)
I asked each chef to describe Coya in one word and was told that it was “extraordinary” (Chef Sanjay) and “unique” (Chef Ben) – and I couldn’t agree more! The plates are on the smaller side, making them easy to share, and coupled with drinks, you’ll easily find yourself spending the entire evening at Coya. Another plus is the music: the DJ keeps the well-curated playlist at that perfect volume where you can actually converse without shouting.
Between the fabulously lush decor (hot tip: the terrace is to die for, with its foliage-covered walls that give the indoor-outdoor vibe) and the divine food, Pra now has what can only be called a love affair with Coya. It’s positively addictive and despite me being a tough cookie to crack – I’m hooked!
Located within Restaurant Village at the Four Seasons Resort
Jumeirah Beach Road, Jumeirah 2, PO Box 71384
Tel:+971 (0) 4 316 9600