FACT Chats: Matthijs Stinnissen, Head Chef at BOCA

The winner of ‘favourite European restaurant’ at the Fact Dining Awards Dubai 2020, has introduced a new menu based entirely upon locally sourced seasonal produce. 

The modern European restaurant situated in the heart of DIFC is influenced by Spanish cuisine and prides itself on a solid commitment to sustainability and local sourcing. As a homegrown concept under the  guidance of Head Chef Matthijs Stinnissen, BOCA has introduced its new ‘abundance in the desert’ menu to showcase the UAE as a country rich in produce. 

The seasonal food and beverage menu utilities the UAE’s diverse habitat, focusing on locally-sourced ingredients from the Hajar mountains to the organic and traditional farms of the region’s oases and seafood from the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Locally sourcing is of great importance to Chef Matthijs, who tells Fact, “I try to source local produce as much as possible, there are amazing prawns here, amazing clams and oysters from Dibba.”

For a restaurant that has been at the forefront of adopting a sustainable approach, diners at BOCA are appreciative of the culinary team’s efforts. “A lot of people admire the sustainable approach. If you look at social media, you will see that people are looking at what we are doing. I think for us, we are breaking this force. We already have the crowd.”

Judging by the exciting collection of new dishes that grace BOCA’s seasonal menu, we are inclined to agree. The new menu features a seafood ceviche made entirely from Gulf of Oman yellow-fin tuna, marinated local squid, torched tiger prawns, slow-cooked Indian Ocean octopus, and Arabian Gulf clams, and an Emirati Kingfish Crudo with local edible flowers and herbs from Mary Anne’s Farm on the Al Ain Road. The latter dish appears to have become somewhat of a standout with customers since the launch of the menu.

“Kingfish is overpopulated, there’s an abundance of that fish. It’s available all of the time and represents good value for money. I’ve made a Crudo with it, and I’ve heard guests suggesting we vacuum pack it and sell it. The response has been good!”

When it comes to the new menu, Chef Matthijs recommends the spring in the desert, a dish featuring four types of native desert plant. “The stuff that we buy now is very seasonal, and perhaps after two months, we may have to wait until the winter to present the menu again. I’m trying to get as many ingredients as possible that we can use to enhance the dishes. I’ve got one dish called ‘spring in the desert’, it’s a local beetroot that we’ve aged. We bake it, and after baking, we leave it in the fridge for seven days to begin the fermentation and ageing process, and that intensifies the flavours.”

Inspiration for such an ingredient-driven seasonal menu doesn’t come easy, and lots of research has gone into perfecting the dishes. “Inspiration comes from everywhere. I can be in bed at 3am and an idea will come to me. It could be a past experience, a memory, or ideas that I’ve worked on over time that I’ll suddenly put on the menu.” 

Aside from the execution of dishes, research and suppliers play a huge part in the process. “I’m always searching, especially on the internet. I also randomly came across this farm in Sharjah with a lot of tomatoes, herbs and mushrooms. When I checked, the quality was good, so I immediately started working with them.” 

Chef Matthijs agrees that there’s an unrivalled freshness from locally sourcing that imported goods can’t compete with. The time from picking, to transportation, to arrival in Dubai begins to compromise the product, whereas purchasing locally provides an incomparable farm to table experience. However, it all depends upon the ingredients themselves.

This season BOCA has also unveiled their own desert garden. The urban garden, which diners can peruse, features eight native desert plants sourced from multiple municipal nurseries across the UAE. “We also have our own garden here. Hopefully, it will last with the existing plants, and for next year we will again source by whatever means we can.”

In terms of signatures, chef Matthijs suggest certain highlights for those dining at BOCA. “The grilled octopus is a dish that we’ve worked on for so long. We’ve worked hard to make the texture so soft. Before, it was paired with mashed potato and truffle, which was a little heavy, so I modified the dish and added artichoke. Now, of my seafood dishes, it’s one of the best. Then there’s my twelve-hour braised lamb which has been on the menu since day one. I’ve only changed the garnish. Previously, it was served with tomato sauce and beans, and it was a nice dish. I then changed it for creamy polenta and a lot of rosemary to make the flavours very powerful, and its been my signature ever since.”

While many restaurants have struggled to pivot and remain relevant in light of the global pandemic, BOCA continues to push boundaries with guest chefs, bespoke dinners and menu innovation. Judging by the busy lunchtime in which we visit, people have embraced not only the new menu but also the ethos surrounding this homegrown brand. “People are appreciative of it. They understand what we are trying to do. I’m always checking what the guests are ordering. If I see guests ordering dishes from the new a la carte menu, I will go to the table and seek feedback.”

With an ‘ageing, curing, fermenting and preservation of time’ dinner scheduled for this week. It would appear there is no stopping the momentum and innovation that the BOCA team have to offer diners in Dubai.

To celebrate the launch of the new’ abundance in the desert menu’, BOCA is offering a tasting menu comprising of eight dishes recommended for sharing between two guests for AED 495 (food only) and AED 695, including a bottle of Prosecco Rose from ‘Sea Change’ an environmentally conscious grape that directly supports ocean conservation across the globe. 

GO: Email or call (0)4 323 1833 for reservations and more information.

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David Tapley - Editor-in-Chief
As editor-in-chief of the region’s most fiercely local lifestyle publication, David is a self-proclaimed hip-hop aficionado, championing all things food, travel, street art, and streetwear across the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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