DUBAI: South African-born Marc Coetzee is the executive chef at Riyadh’s Chi Spacca, which bills itself as “an upscale Italian steakhouse restaurant” with “a powerful sense of devoutness to meat.” That makes it the ideal place for Coetzee. “I grew up running around on a farm with no shoes,” he tells Arab News.
“My dad is a hunter — not a trophy hunter, an old hunter-gatherer type; he respects the animal, he processes it himself, and he uses every single part of it. When I was nine or 10, he bought a butchery, so I grew up in the meat industry. It’s what I love. I love the smell of meat. I love the taste of meat.
I like to work with meat.” Coetzee moved to Riyadh around 18 months ago, and has been surprised at how rapidly the Kingdom is progressing, both in terms of its culinary scene and in general. “It’s growing so fast, it’s difficult to keep up. Apart from our company — which has opened 20-something restaurants — you have constant openings and pre-openings of hotels and restaurants, not just in Riyadh, but all over,” he says.
“It’s the most exciting place to be in the world at the moment. “I’ve loved it,” he continues. “My wife and two daughters are here with me and it’s a great family environment. The local people are extremely warm. They don’t really make you feel like an expat. They make you feel at home.” Here, Coetzee discusses patience, simplicity, and the role of music in cooking, and provides a recipe for focaccia. What’s your top tip for amateur cooks? Learn how to season properly — how to make sure you put the right amount of salt and pepper in a dish, because it changes the dish completely.
If you don’t put enough seasoning, it comes out bland and flat. If you put too much, it’s salty and inedible. And the other thing is music. Music plays such an important role in making you relaxed and getting you in the mood to make a great dish. When you have that marriage of the really great fun of cooking and really great music, it’s amazing.
I love it. When you started out as a professional, what was your most common mistake? Probably not reading recipes properly. When you’re young, you think you know everything. And I was very impatient. So I wouldn’t take the time to read the recipe through, or to make sure the meat was seared properly and the vegetables were caramelized properly — all of that is crucial to the flavor of the dish.
So I think what I’ve learned over the years is: Take your time, be patient, and follow the recipe. What one ingredient can improve any dish? Lime or lemon. That acidity completely changes the flavor, the complexity and the depth of a dish. You don’t need a load of complex flavors: Our fish dish here at Chi Spacca, it comes in fresh, we whack it on the grill, put it on a plate, give you some lemon and that’s it.
It’s about simplicity — just getting some really good ingredients and not messing around with it too much. What’s your go-to dish when you need to make something quickly? My mom’s recipe for mac and cheese. It’s not traditional; it has bacon, tomato, onion, garlic, and you cook a stew, then layer the pasta on that, then the cheese, and then you bake it in the oven and it gets this really nice crispy cheese on the top.
So you have the smokiness of the bacon, the garlic stew, oh my gosh. That’s probably my number one. It works in winter, it works in summer, it’s freaking easy and everybody loves it. And what’s your favorite dish to make? Well, like I said, I love meat, so I do like to have a barbecue. Not just because of the meat, but it’s that culture of sitting around, having a great conversation, you know? The whole experience.
For me, that’s very close to home. And what’s the secret to a great barbecue? I think it’s the wood that you use. It gives a flavor to the meat. And it’s also about what meat you use and how you prepare it beforehand, you know? Leave it out of the fridge, let it get to room temperature so that you can cook it more easily.
But honestly, it doesn’t even matter. As long as you have friends and family around, any barbecue’s a great barbecue. RECIPE Chef Marc’s focaccia INGREDIENTS: 4 cups all-purpose flour; 2tsp coarse salt; 2¼tsp instant yeast; 2 cups warm tap water; 1tsp soft butter (for greasing pan); 4tbsp olive oil; Italian seasoning (or finely chopped fresh herbs); flaky sea salt INSTRUCTIONS: 1.
Combine the flour, coarse salt, and instant yeast in a mixer. Mix until flour is well incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave for between 1-2 hours. 2. Lightly oil an oven dish and line with parchment paper. Pour 1tbsp of olive oil into the center. Place the dough in the dish, turning it so it is coated in the oil.
Spread the dough evenly. 3. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 2 hours (it may take as long as 3 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen). The dough should cover most of the pan. 4. Preheat oven to 230c with a rack in the center. 5. Drizzle 1tbsp of olive oil over the dough.
With oiled fingers, using both hands, press straight down and create deep holes that go all the way through the dough. If necessary, gently stretch the dough as you do this to allow it to fill the pan. 6. Sprinkle the top with Italian seasoning and flaky sea salt. 7. Place dish in oven and immediately reduce temperature to 220c.
Bake for 22-28 minutes until the top is golden and the underside is crisp. Remove from oven and transfer to a cooling rack. 8. Serve warm.