The Complicated Freedom Of Culinary Expression
The chef of London’s Ikoyi on making a statement in an era driven by hyper-definition.
April 5, 2018
By Cassandra Landry | Original photographs by Pa Jorgensen for Fool magazine; photo illustration by ChefsFeed
Before Jeremy Chan, the chef of Ikoyi, will say what he thinks of London, he issues a warning.
“You’ve asked a very cynical person,” he says, blowing out a breath.
“There are very few restaurants that I truly like to go to anymore, because they’re so formulaic. The whole idea of ‘alternative’ and ‘creative’ has become an aesthetic commodity in itself,” he says. “London is very concept-based right now, so there isn't really this nature of undiscoverable, niche cuisine that I think it used to have.”
It’s a familiar thread. In most major cities, ballooning rents have led to a chronic sameness of audience, which leads to homogenization of taste. While much digital blood has been spilled about the quality of that taste, about what passes for fashionable, about all the sleek Instagram-able carapaces disguising mediocrity within; for Chan, the problem has to do with our collective ability to think critically, and to discern unique expression.
“Our food, for example, is an interpretation of West African ingredients. So in a city set on concepts, everyone assumes we are a Nigerian restaurant or a West African restaurant, which we aren’t: we're just a London restaurant,” he says. “What I'm trying to do is show great respect to ingredients that have never been used outside of their context.”
Ikoyi is located on a narrow side street in the West End, bookended by Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square and surrounded by brick walls and close concrete buildings with featureless windows. At night, the crush of pedestrians disappears from the sidewalks and the warm light spilling from Ikoyi’s glass front morphs into a beacon for those who seek it.
Tucked into those anonymous skyscrapers and dormant downtown buildings, Chan and his team serve caviar and cow’s feet and silky, startling fish—driven by, but not limited to, ingredients sourced from the West African canon. There’s Nigerian spot prawns, scotch bonnets, locust beans. Mbongo and jollof rice and egusi. It’s a thrilling composition to find on a modern menu, and it only highlights how rarely it’s been explored.
In a larger sense, Ikoyi serves as an optimistic proof for the blurred cultural lines of our culinary future.
Chan’s counterpart in the front of the house is his lifelong friend, Iré Hassan-Odukale, and the name of their joint concept comes from him; Ikoyi is known as the most affluent neighborhood of his native Lagos. Much of the coverage surrounding their venture has leaned heavily on the West African storyline, painting the restaurant as somehow a sleek new lens on an entire region of infinitely nuanced countries. The expectations are thus, immense, especially for the local African population, eager to see their staples reflected in their chosen city.
“Some come in and say, 'this is amazing what you're doing with our culture and our food. We love it.' And I am so grateful to have that support. And then, others think we're a Nigerian restaurant and are incredibly upset,” Chan says. “When we first opened, we got hacked to pieces. People would say things like, ‘They should fire the horrible Chinese chef in the kitchen and get a proper African chef...’ all the beef was cooked perfectly at 52 degrees, and it was all coming back.”
As difficult as that early period was, Chan operates on the idea that it’s possible—necessary, even—to include the deep implications of a flavor, or a dish, without needing to present a carbon copy of what it’s always been.
“There's no way I can create an ‘authentic’ Nigerian experience. That is so deeply personal. So I taste from a purely objective standpoint,” he explains. “It’s about understanding the history and nature of an ingredient, where it comes from, and bringing it into the future. Africa has a whole universe of ingredients that chefs haven't explored—why? Ignorance? Racism? A combination of both?
“I think the future of culture should be an open mind, treating every ingredient with the same level of respect,” he continues. “I don't think people should limit themselves: just because a vegetable is cooked a certain way in Ghana, doesn’t mean it should only ever be cooked that way.”
Of course, the struggle for creative expression in our industry rarely occurs in a vacuum. And it shouldn’t: inspiration requires the chaos of life and observation and experimentation, but in a restaurant setting, it is also beset by landlords. And “messaging.” And interviews, and explaining yourself to a public that wants something different than what you have, that wants to be educated, or comforted, or vindicated.
The eye of that particular hurricane is the furious peace of Chan’s own mind. He’s more likely to be bewitched by something like minestra nera— a variety of broccoli with curled, frilly leaves and succulent stalks—and how it might transform with a few brushes of smoked butter over a grill, its electric green giving way to crisped edges.
“I like to think really deeply and insularly about an aesthetic,” he says. “It’s an obsession. I mean, it’s definitely alienated me from people. But when you live in London and everyone's face is gray and miserable, and everyone's unhappy, why wouldn't you be more in love with a piece of broccoli than human beings?”
He lets that hang in the air for a second before chuckling a little. It’s an exaggeration, but it’s also partly true. The irony is that his love affair with ingredients and the infinite worlds within them gives him a unique ability to evoke the same awe in his guests. Creativity is the only space where everyone else’s rules don’t apply; as a former analyst at an investment firm, he describes the freedom from those constraints as relentless abstract thought, fueled by the possibility of making beautiful, perfect things.
“I didn't always cook. I have done a load of things in my life, but I think cooking—the idea of creating a family environment, where people have to sit down and eat and talk with each other—is the one thing that has meaning to me,” he says. “Creating that over and over and over again gives me purpose. So I’m working on making every single person’s experience the best it can possibly be.”
And new to the industry or not, Chan is under no illusions: he knows Ikoyi is not going to make loads of money. But he’s also not willing to open say, five streamlined Ikoyis to get there—wherever ‘there’ is, it wouldn’t be gratifying. The entire point is to make something singular.
“The desire to be successful is not just about money or creating good food—it's about being noticeable,” he explains. “Either I flounder in mediocrity, or I absolutely smash it and be one of the best restaurants in the country. It's really hard to be noticeable in London, and greatness is the only thing that's going to stand out. A good menu isn't good enough anymore.”
He adds, “I feel like I'm on a train and I'm driving it pretty hard so that we can stay top of mind for the major food writers and bloggers. But they come in once and then they're like, okay I've been there, what’s next? You have to really work it to get on lists created by random people, and the work doesn't entail creating something beautiful and delicious—it entails some false narrative or some offer that you have.”
And once you have that attention, the implications of what it reveals can be complicated.
“We had an incredible review in The Times from a major critic in the UK. Immediately after, we had many, many guests come into the restaurant—all holding that review in their hand. And they ordered exactly what he ordered in the review,” Chan says. “I'm really grateful for the business, but it also terrified me. People can be so blinkered by what the newspapers say that they can't think for themselves.”
But even after all that: it continues to be worth it. After fighting tooth and nail to win their space on a quiet side street, every service proves that an untested idea by an unknown, passionate team can and does work. Ikoyi could only exist in a city like London, he says, and that too is part of the game. The good with the bad. The love with the hate. The realization that the hurdles are always the same, and the solutions are too.
“The refreshing thing that I’ve realized is that basically anyone can do anything in this world if they put their mind to it,” he says. “The best cook in my kitchen has no experience, but she was a good hockey player in the past. She's got a really resilient, stoic attitude and she just faultlessly puts the same thing on the plate, every single time.”
“That's inspiring to me. That's been the best thing about it— discovering that human nature has so much raw ability. It just needs to be harnessed and focused in a certain way.”
Barring that, there’s always outrageously beautiful broccoli.
Chan is one of more than 80 global chefs, journalists, food experts, trend spotters, and industry leaders presenting at The Culinary Institute of America’s 20th Anniversary Worlds of Flavor International Conference and Festival, April 18-20, 2018. At this year’s conference, “Legends of Flavor,” we will look back over the past 20 years and help predict what we’ll be craving 1, 5, 10, and 20 years from now. For more information or to register, visit www.worldsofflavor.com.