Chi Spacca's Nancy Silverton on steak, supermarkets and Saudi Arabia 

Chi Spacca's Nancy Silverton on steak, supermarkets and Saudi Arabia 



We meet the winner of the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef Award as she opens her first restaurant in the Kingdom.

Nancy Silverton is a culinary powerhouse. The American author, chef and restaurateur is on the cusp of a burgeoning restaurant empire that includes three restaurants in Los Angeles, one in London and one in Singapore. FACT sat down Nancy on the eve of her first opening in the Kingdom, the Tuscan steakhouse Chi Spacca.

Sat inside the private dining room of Chi Spacca in Via Riyadh, the chef and restaurateur is poised and alert. Her floral garments provide a colourful reflection of the seasonal produce around which her new Riyadh restaurant revolves. "It's interesting for me to open a restaurant here. This is my fourth out-of-the-country restaurant in the last two years," she beams. 

The original Chi Spacca can be found on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles where it fast gained a reputation for combining urban rustic Californian charm with the flavours of Tuscany. She replies candidly when asked why she brought the concept to Saudi Arabia. "To be quite honest, in every expansion that I've done (and will do), people have come to us. We were approached by the CoolInc team. They had eaten at the Los Angeles restaurant and loved it. So, it was not us actively looking. We were asked, and we were ready to make that leap."

Chi Spacca

As an outsider looking in, the upmarket Via Riyadh is a marvel. A collection of high-end retail and celebrity chef-fronted concepts, the majority of which have been enticed to the Kingdom from Los Angeles, London, New York and Paris and, interestingly, don't exist elsewhere in the Middle East. 

Anchored around a rustic dining room featuring an open kitchen, ornate wooden panelling, timber ceilings and elaborate brickwork, Chi Spacca brings a touch of Tuscany to Via Riyadh. With such a concept and expansion, does this mean compromising on ingredients? Nancy explains: "The concept is 100 per cent market-driven. We need to pick those fresh ingredients that we know are available all year round and we can be confident with. So here I'm finding eggplant, fennel, onions, and peppers. Most of the menu is what you'd get in Los Angeles."

When quizzed on whether any adaptations have been made for the Saudi market, Nancy clarified: "I'm not trying to do a fusion. We use coriander, cumin and Persian dry lime, but this steakhouse is rooted in Italian flavours. Our Focaccia Di Recco comes from a tiny town in Italy. It's not a yeasted focaccia. It's more of a stretched strudel filled with a very particular cheese called stracchino which we get from a local importer. We're using Italian flour, salted capers, and anchovies from Spain. I'm getting everything that I need. There's also a lovely Saturday Farmer's Market, where I bought some wonderful peppers and garlic."

Chi Spacca

Based on our sneak peek, things have been executed faultlessly, from the quaint terrace garden to the ceramic plates hand-painted with animal caricatures. Despite the firm focus on her restaurant, it hasn't stopped Nancy from checking out the competition. "I've been to a few great places. We went to LPM Restaurant and Café, and I've also been to their London branch. It's so popular. It's simple and it's fresh. They do a great job. I've also visited Il Barreto in the financial district. It's a beautiful place."

Yet it's not just the fine dining that has captured Nancy's attention in Saudi. It appears as though she may have a newfound affinity for supermarkets. "But let's talk supermarkets", she laughs, "Tell me, do they actually rotate what's on the top shelves? I've never seen anything like it! The olive bar and all the fresh foods. That juxtaposition between the peanut butter and the jelly, to the olives and the cheese, and then the spices and the legumes." 

Touching on retail and the Saudi palate for all things sweet, we ask if Nancy's ice cream brand –  the aptly named Nancy's Fancy – could debut in the capital. "I'm wondering what would that involve. Maybe we could sell it. I think you could. I would love to. I'm an inquirer."

Chi Spacca

With Saudi expansion on the horizon, Nancy is open about the potential for her other concepts to set up shop in the Kingdom. "I would love to because all three of our restaurants are very different. But you know, again, I have to be asked," she chuckles. 

Nancy remains humble and undeterred throughout our chat despite distractions that include the approval of plate designs and a sudden loss of gas in the kitchen the day before opening. Yet Nancy remains upbeat. 

Her career has seen an award from the James Beard Foundation, yet she regards the simple things as her biggest success. "I'm so proud of the team we've built, their dedication and my relationship with them. I mean, we have a team that we've been able to foster, which is just really special. I think that's what you need in this industry. That would be my personal achievement."

Riyadh isn't the only place on the horizon. She has a restaurant opening at the Four Seasons on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, in addition to a worldwide whirlwind culinary tour. "I go to Italy every summer for seven weeks. So I'll be there and cook with Dominique Crenn at the Monteverdi Hotel in Tuscany. Then I'm off to Milan to judge the San Pellegrino young chef award, followed by a pop-up in Denver and a panel in Aspen. I'm going to Santa Barbara for dinner with Daniel Boulud and another dinner with Julia Childs. That's off the top of my head."

Despite the busy schedule, diners in Riyadh can expect to see Nancy at Chi Spacca throughout the year. So we'd suggest you pop-in to enjoy the funky West Coast vibe and the celebrated meat-centric menu.

We'll see you there.

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