Check out our expert interview with chef Jeremy Chan of West African restaurant Ikoyi in St James’s, London. Interview conducted by Hilary Armstrong.
You’re an ambitious young chef. You’ve got a central London restaurant that’s quietly scooping up award after award, rave after rave. The restaurant’s packed. So what do you do? You ditch all your regulars’ favourites and start the menu from scratch. Er, really?
Yes really, according to Jeremy Chan, the 31-year-old chef of Ikoyi in St James’s (read our restaurant review here), who started off 2018 doing just that. After only six months of trading, the contemporary West African restaurant changed tack. “We’re not just aiming to cook good food,” he asserts. “We’re aiming to cook the best food in the world.
“It’s quite a challenge to strip away a whole menu and come up with a completely new one but if we don’t do that we’re going to be doing the same hits over and over. People will like them but we won’t be here in the long run. We want people to come back and be blown away because they had a completely different experience.”
So out went Ikoyi’s early hits, with the exception of buttermilk plantain and smoked scotch bonnet, a turbo-powered explosion of flavour. “I can’t find a better way to serve plantain,” says Jeremy.
Seafood is now front and centre. For example, smoked crab jollof rice; octopus, ndolé (spinach and watercress in a nut broth) and calçot; and, a favourite of Jeremy’s, stone bass with a red pepper sauce. Here, the peppers’ juices are fried, strained, then blended with a dash of burnt kelp paste for deeply savoury notes of maple and coffee.
Another dish is dambu nama and whipped bone marrow tart, which showcases Ikoyi’s take on north Nigerian dried, spiced beef. “I think the idea of dambu nama may have come from China, I’m not sure how or why, but I know the Chinese have been making dried, cured, pulverised beef for a long, long time and there’s quite a high presence of Chinese in Africa. I grew up eating Chinese beef floss as a kid, which is really similar. I thought it was cool that these two parts of the world have the same snack.”
Such global threads are intriguing but they don’t tell us how on Earth a Hong Kong-born, Chinese-Canadian chef, schooled at Wellington College and Princeton, came to run a West African restaurant in London named after a posh bit of Lagos.
This goes back to a serendipitous meeting at a party with Nigerian-Sierra Leonean Iré Hassan-Odukale, his partner in Ikoyi, when the pair were teenagers. The two friends, later flatmates, worked in finance before Jeremy quit to pursue cooking, first at Hibiscus, then Noma, later Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. But while he loved the rigour of the kitchen, he wasn’t happy. In fact, he felt “desperate”.
“I’d left Dinner and didn’t have any desire to go back into a kitchen. Ever. If you’re working for someone else in a kitchen you have to be like an automaton. I thought I’m just not cut out for it.”
Iré came to the rescue, roping Jeremy into consulting on an idea for a fast-casual Nigerian restaurant that never actually came to fruition. “We realised we wanted to open a restaurant together but this one wasn’t going to be it. We wanted to go all out.”
Jeremy headed to the British Library where he dug deep into West African cuisine and its colonial and trading history. “We found it really romantic, the idea of West African food being a kind of global cuisine that doesn’t really have an origin.”
Jollof rice, he explains, is etymologically Senegalese, but every country in the region claims it for its own. “That just made us realise we can do whatever we want. What’s stopping us doing our own rice dish, our own take on this whole cuisine? We’re just trying to understand and celebrate these incredible ingredients.”
Jeremy hit the scientific textbooks and became intrigued by the possibility of exploiting the properties of different regional ingredients: “I realised that many West African ingredients have high umami-inducing effects – so basically they cause you to salivate. If you use products with x amount of glutamate, you’re going to get y as a response in the mouth of the diner. It’s cooking with logic. We think about how much a dish is going to make the diner salivate. How much is it going to make them want more?”
What Jeremy’s not tied up in knots about is authenticity. His focus is ingredients and their interpretation; that these chime as much with hip young diners of West African origin as they do with the St James’s hedgies and global foodies who’ve all fallen for tiny Ikoyi’s radiant charm is all to the good.
“My dream at the moment is that we’re always full, that people are coming and opening their minds to new ingredients. That will just spur us on even more.”