“I don’t look at a plantain and wonder how a Nigerian chef would cook it. I have no desire to do that. I want to do my own interpretation. It’s not a disrespect to the original or traditional method, it’s just not what we’re here for. We’re here for learning. We’re also not here to elevate the cuisine. That’s a different thing.”
This was chef Jeremy Chan, co-owner of Ikoyi Restaurant in Central London. I’d joined him and his business partner Iré Hassan-Odukale for a three-way conversational ‘sit in’ to talk about the range of influences, ideas and emotions that have spawned the innovative Ikoyi venture.
Their restaurant’s uniquely designed dishes are created by Jeremy, whose layers of influence have come, not only from the 17-year friendship he shares with Iré, but from a hard-wired curiosity in the use of high-quality, organic ingredients, plus his own vivid imagination.
Ikoyi is only a Nigerian restaurant in as much as Iré’s birthplace is in Lagos. The choice of name for the restaurant essentially captures the abstract spirit of its founders, whose Nigerian and Chinese-Canadian backgrounds are almost incidental to the culinary experimentation that takes place inside the chef’s kitchen.
This is, after all, a location where plantain is paired with Scotch bonnet and raspberry, mushroom suya with malted barley, and Jerusalem artichoke with moin moin. Similarly, the bar menu features okra-infused martinis, Havana rum punch flavoured with Palm wine, tiger nuts and spices, Africa’s favourite Star lager and a new-flavoured twist on the ubiquitous Chapman cocktail. Coffee here, is sourced from Cameroon, while a selection of teas are straight out of Malawi.
Nana Ocran: What does the word 'Ikoyi' mean to you now or today?
Iré Hassan-Odukale: I think, now, the word doesn’t really have a specific meaning. To me, it simply represents the restaurant, which has become home.
Nana: So, it’s not loaded with a sense of your birth city?
Iré: Initially yes, but not anymore.
Jeremy Chan: For me, the word has no attachment to Nigeria, other than an abstract sound that I like. I drew a logo based on that. I think ‘Ikoyi’ yields to so many cultural interpretations. It sounded Japanese, but we’re not a fusion restaurant. We don’t think of Ikoyi as a place that fuses Japanese and Nigerian cultures at all. It’s not as simplistic as that. As an abstract sound and an arbitrary name for a restaurant we thought, let’s just go with that.
Nana: Does the Ikoyi typography reflect that speculative thinking?
Jeremy: The graphic design comes from an article I read about fractal geometry in early African art. How housing developments, braiding, face painting and all types of early cultural arts in Sub-Saharan West African cultures had very complex geometries that mimicked nature. I thought it was really incredible that there was this really innate mathematics in these cultures, and that really inspired me.
Nana: How did those thoughts affect your real-time experience of Nigeria?
Jeremy: When I went to Lagos, I had these fantasies about some kind of mechanical vision of West Africa. I looked at the city’s landscape and thought, is there some kind of cyborg connection here?
Nana: You’re laughing, but this is great…
Jeremy: It’s purely a poetic reaction to a mathematical article, but I wanted to put that kind of geometry and super abstract thinking into food. Does that make Ikoyi authentically African; because it’s inspired by this early culture?
Nana: Well, your menu and presentation do seem to reflect futuristic visual elements …
Jeremy: If you look at the design of our food it is hyper-futurist and we have thousands of iterations of these things. This would never be accepted as high art; it’s just a ‘gimmicky’ West African restaurant.
Nana: Were you looking for specific inspiration when you were in Nigeria?
Iré: Well, I wanted Jeremy to try all the different flavours that I was familiar with. When he cooked traditional things I thought, yes. It was good. When he cooks, Jeremy doesn’t fail.
Jeremy: I just made a massive list of everything that was edible from that region, so I could come up with an idea of what a menu could be, based on West Africa. I looked at rice and the huge puzzle of indigenous and non-indigenous ingredients. I thought, either you go down the route of trying to recreate what already exists in specific countries, or you look at everything with an open mind and say let’s make something new.
Nana: Could you describe one of your dishes – and the process behind it?
Jeremy: There’s a cucumber dish served with a relish of smoked strawberries and a sauce, which is smooth and served with grilled girolle mushrooms and homemade hazelnut butter. The sauce has an aerated velvety sheen. The idea behind this dish is to make cucumber the most meaty, crunchy, refreshing thing you’d ever eat. That’s the inspiration. How can you make it better than beef?
Nana: You had a particular spark in your eye while you were describing that. Is it one of your favourites?
Jeremy: No, my favourite is the raw beef seasoned with calf brains. We have a rib of organic beef, aged for 60 days, and we use if for the main course. It’s a dish in which you’ve got the flavour of roasted beef, raw beef, and the brain of the offspring of beef. It’s pretty insane.
Nana: Is there a specific West African ingredient that you feel has so much more for you to explore?
Jeremy: Peppercorns. We use chilli in every single dish, otherwise it doesn’t have our stamp on it.
Iré: It’s Caribbean chili, but it probably originated in West Africa.
Nana: I’m thinking about all your initial research again. Before you launched the restaurant, you spent time talking with a Boston professor about the history of grains and African cuisine, you worked with Japan’s Umami Information Centre, studied medical journals and analysed ingredients at the British Library. All of this makes me think of Ikoyi as a creative think tank for global, culinary ideas.
Jeremy: Yeah. I mean, neither of us wanted to put any labels on Ikoyi as a Nigerian, African or British restaurant because as soon as we label something, we’re limited to whatever attachments people have to that label and it kills the scope of our creativity.
Nana: That scope includes the design. You’ve mentioned artist Mark Rothko as having an inspiration on your presentation. In what way?
Jeremy: That’s just a microscopic example. I’d mentioned him because his paintings are monochromatic, using one or two colours. I thought there was something really incredible about how an artist could create so much emotion without having to use hundreds of intricate details. So, I thought the same thing about food. Everything at Ikoyi is made to look synthetic, but with organic materials. There’s an intention of, not playing God, but doing things like making mushrooms look more like mushrooms before they were cooked. That’s the goal. Making cucumbers look more perverse than they did before they were cooked. Or, making beef look slightly geometric.
Nana: Which other artists have motivated you?
Jeremy: Ridley Scott.
Nana: Because of his visual style?
Jeremy: Because of his whole idea of death and outer space. I watched a lot of alien movies when I was a kid. There was a lot of sensualisation of the aliens. This is totally absurd…
Nana: No, I love this. We’re back to what you previously said about imagined cyborgs in Lagos.
Jeremy: Well, if you’ve ever seen his film Alien, you know how terrifying the creatures are. They’re freakish, slimy and with fangs; but also, kind of beautiful. If you look at the illustrated version by H.R. Giger, it’s absolutely incredible. So, when people ask, “is this a traditional Nigerian dish?” I think, no – it’s inspired by the alien from Ridley Scott’s movie, and why can’t it be?
Nana: So, do your creations start with the textures, flavours, color or shape?
Jeremy: Well, now it’s becoming more about the product because we’re so focused on ingredients here. It’s a combination of texture, complexity, character, flavour… all of these things . The visual aspect is already pre-designed in my head. I’ll know exactly what it’s going to look like and what the texture is going to be. I know exactly how firm the sauce needs to be – and then I just write the recipe from there.
Nana: Obviously the ingredients are crucial. Can you talk about the farmers, fishermen and producers you work with?
Jeremy: We’re obsessed with England. I think it’s an incredible paradise for exotic produce. Being a chef in London I thought Spain, Italy and Japan would be the places that you’d import things. But, as soon as Brexit started, we were worried that we’d have to really change our game because the prices are going to go up. We started looking more at farmers in the UK and we found a few key individuals who are doing amazing things. For me they have some of the best produce I’ve had in my life. We serve this in our restaurant and it’s a privilege to do that. Most of the ingredients in the restaurant are from England. All the fish, the beef, the vegetables… so is this a Nigerian restaurant? It’s an English produce-focused restaurant using some West African ingredients.
Nana: You’re creating your own style of Ikoyi culture here…
Iré: Yes. We don’t use things just for the sake of tradition or follow the rules that other people may write. We create our own way of taking care of people. Also, being in Central London is something we’re very happy with. We didn’t want to be a local neighbourhood restaurant because then you become so attached to being cool in certain areas. People need to feel comfortable, and they need to come as they are. It’s about them, and not about the restaurant.
Nana: Final question; if you had to define the Ikoyi experience in three words, what would they be?
Iré: Unique. Warm. Mind-blowing.
Jeremy: Love. Passion. Integrity.
Explore more at Come Chop Bellefull: A Taste of Nigeria