Coya's executive chef, Sanjay Dwivedi, can talk endlessly about three topics: food, family, and Formula 1. "The three F's are the most important things," he says. Food-wise, however, his credentials include London's the Ivy, Le Caprice, and the Greenhouse, as well as a stint cooking for the Rolling Stones during one of their world tours. What's more, the Delhi-born chef's London restaurant, Zaika, went on to become the first Indian eatery to earn a Michelin star.
But in 2011, Dwivedi and his partner at Zaika had fallen out, and he was looking to make a change. That's when Arjun Waney, the millionaire investor behind the Japanese restaurant Zuma, came calling. Despite the acclaimed toque's lack of experience in a South American kitchen and his limited knowledge of Peru, Waney wanted him to helm the kitchen at Coya, a modern Peruvian concept the businessman was developing.
Dwivedi accepted, and Coya officially launched in London by the end of 2012. Three months into the restaurant's opening, Zagat had already named it the world's hottest restaurant. Next came a Dubai outpost, and earlier this year, Brickell Avenue in Miami was ready for business. New Times caught up with the busy chef to learn more about making the switch to Peruvian cuisine, his plans for Coya, and the challenges of opening in the Magic City.
New Times: What made you decide to accept Mr. Waney's offer to run a Peruvian kitchen (Coya) when your Indian restaurant Zaika was such a success?
Sanjay Dwivedi: Very simple: I fell out with my partner at Zaika, and I was in the process of opening my own restaurant when I got a phone call from Mr. Waney. He’s very well known in the industry, so I said there’s no harm in talking to the man. He asked me a few questions, and in the process of 45 minutes, it was decided I would be the chef at Coya, and I never knew how much my life was going to change.
But my decision to work with Mr. Waney was 100 percent cemented when I went to Peru in 2012. But before that, I came to Miami and I ate at some Peruvian restaurants and ceviche places, and I wasn’t impressed. Then I went to Peru — I was like a kid in a sweet shop I was so impressed. They have so many different items, fruits, veggies, and ceviches. I was hooked, and I knew this is what I want to do.
While exploring Peru, you spent the day cooking with Gastón Acurio. What’s the most important thing you learned about Peruvian cuisine from the famous chef?
I was with Gastón at his restaurant in Madrid as well; he’s a great ambassador for Peruvian cuisine. A lot of chefs, when we go to restaurants, we don’t learn anything; we just see what people are doing and we adapt it to our personal taste. A chef needs to have their own identity and then move from there. With Gastón, I could see what Peruvian food is and how it's done at different establishments. The answer is it's more about learning the culture of the people, and then you can move on.
What happened once you returned to London?
For 11 months, I had my own kitchen where I started developing the menu for Coya. It's probably one of the nicest kitchens I've ever designed. I am the restaurant. The journey we took was amazing; I changed the menu 25 times. I wanted to do something different, not for the sake of being different, but in order to cater to the local markets. For example, the food at Coya in Miami and the food at Coya in London are very similar, but there are a few changes. In Miami, I have maki rolls, but I don’t do them in London because everybody has maki rolls in London. The beauty is people know what refined taste is. When I do my ceviches, I'm trying to improve every time. Have you seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi? The 90-year-old man still says I haven’t made the best sushi, and he gets three Michelin stars. I have three copies of the film, and I pass them on to all of my chefs for them to have a look.
Why do you think Peruvian food has become so popular in the past couple of years?
I think people's habits are changing. People want different things. Japanese food is the number one food in America, and I think there’s enough Japanese now, and Peruvians have a way to move forward. The beauty of Peruvian food and why it’s popular is because it has the influence of the Japanese, the Chinese, the Spanish, and the Africans. Ceviche is the new sushi. Sushi, you normally have it with soy sauce and wasabi, and ceviche, you have it with lime and chilies. Ceviche is another way to have fish in a very healthy way and in a different kind of way. I mean, who would’ve thought that three restaurants from Peru would be amongst the 50 best in the world?
How would you describe your cuisine at Coya?
My food is bold. It’s not for the faint-hearted. People have been asking me forever how I describe my food, and it’s very hard to explain. It’s like you have to experience it to understand it. I can give you a few words –- it’s modern, it’s light, we use the best products available. At Coya, I serve ceviche with truffles, which is one of the best-selling ceviches we have, but that’s a good way of describing my food — you will never get ceviche with truffles in Peru. Truffles don’t grow there, yet at the same time it’s very Peruvian but it’s not Peruvian. It’s difficult sometimes.
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There's also no gluten on the menu except for in the desserts. I’m very much driven by eliminating dairy and gluten. There’s a small amount of goat cheese with the beet salad appetizer, and that’s it. I’m married to a French woman, and I love French food; you start your meal with bread, and you finish your meal with bread. I love it, but there's no bread at Coya.
How are things going at the Miami Coya?
At the moment, I’m training the chef de cuisine. Miami is a very tough town when it comes to finding good talent. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but it’s hard coming from London to find a chef in America. That’s why I spend a lot of time in Miami.
Any future plans for Coya in Miami?
My aim now is to create the best brunch in Miami. Brunches are big in America, and this one is going to be different from the one in London. You have to accept the local culture, and Americans love brunches and buffets, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I don’t want to reveal a lot, but I'm very excited about it.