Having both entered the world of hospitality rather unexpectedly, Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale have, nonetheless, created something that is born of pure passion and raw talent. Restaurant Ikoyi in the heart of London’s St James’s offers a gastronomic experience that reflects the ever-evolving journey of the lives of its co-creators.
“We are a restaurant with an identity, and we want to put our print on things so that they are unique to us and tell our story,” explains Jeremy. “Ikoyi offers a combination of extremely technical, precise cooking and rustic deliciousness.
“The food we have is really beautiful, simple and really well cooked. All of the dishes have rustic flavour; they aren’t like esoteric, strange [plates of ] food. It’s an interesting combination between cerebral food that is also hearty, tasty and familiar.”
Taking its namesake from the affluent neighbourhood in Lagos where Iré grew up, the restaurant’s concept initially paid homage to the rich food culture of Western Nigeria. However, what began with the bold flavours and spices of West Africa has since matured into a kitchen driven by a slightly more objective, creative reaction to seasonal and, often, overlooked ingredients in terms of context and culture.
According to Jeremy, “It’s West African in that it’s Iré’s restaurant. That was the catalyst behind the restaurant and it’s a nod to his heritage, but the food is a reflection of where we are now in the world, who we are, and what produce we have around us to inspire the menu.
“At the beginning, the original dishes weren’t entirely West African either, but they were perhaps a little bit more inspired by tastes and flavours from the region. I think starting out, we had it more in our head that it would be West African because we felt we had to define ourselves in some way.”
“I think we felt we had to claim it was West African in order to fill a gap in the market in London, and ultimately because my heritage is West African, but we are so much more than that. We have also evolved so much over the last four years that it just wouldn’t be entirely true to who we are if we just stuck to one region of food,” adds Iré.
Working directly with farmers, fishermen and producers, the food remains focused on quality of product, and the spices have been meticulously sourced over the past few years to create a flavour archive (Iré even having personally packed peppercorns in his suitcase to ensure safe passage back to the UK). The kitchen aims to serve this produce in its optimal state, harnessing both the flavour and true nature of the ingredients. As such, the menu frequently changes according to the season and produce availability.
“When we reopened in May, the menu was very meat and shellfish heavy, and now we have gradually moved to more fish and vegetables. We also have daily dish changes based on produce, but the overall menu changes dramatically every few weeks or so. We have roughly 14-15 servings on the menu, which is printed at the end for guests, but there is no fixed menu,” explains Jeremy.
“Even though people might be intimidated by coming to a restaurant with no fixed menu and, therefore, no idea what they are going to be eating, we do guarantee that each dish has big flavour and is tasty and comforting,” Iré comments.
“Yeah, those things are really important to us. We don’t want to serve a dish that is so abstract that people can’t relate to it. It’s interesting because cooking for me is taking an abstract idea and turning it into something as tasty as junk food,” says Jeremy.
As a result of the care and skill that go into respecting both the product and display of each dish, the food at Ikoyi is exceptional in its visual impact. Having been compared to the artwork of Mark Rothko, Jeremy’s inspired dishes playfully give power to the colour, form and unexpected combinations of the carefully considered ingredients he uses.
“Inspiration for our dishes can come from what’s in season or just a sensation or current feeling I have,” Jeremy explains. “Right now, for example, my thinking is very French. I am really inspired by some of the great meals I have had in Paris, and I love the atmosphere of some of the great restaurants in Paris. I love the Parisian confidence, and how much generosity there is in terms of food, so I think that is a real big influence on the current menu.
“Our personal interests and direction definitely guide the style and focus of the menu, and this tells a very personal tale. Where we are in the year, what’s currently happening, whatever guides our mood will guide the menu – you know, it could be a really hot summer, cold or produce could be scarce. All these factors affect our menu choices.”
With this more instinctive and emotional approach to cooking, chef Chan can really explore and experiment with flavour and presentation, which has ultimately become the new defining factor of the unique dishes at Ikoyi.
Speaking about the latest offerings on the menu, Jeremy excitedly describes how the kitchen team are enjoying cooking with the season’s fresh fish and vegetables. He says, “One that I really like the most is an aged turbot dish with vanilla, cockles, white Penja peppercorn and turnip sauce. It’s a really white dish in colour, with a clean, pure aesthetic and beautiful produce with unusual flavour combinations.
“Another dish I really like is a raw beef serving with an emulsion of clam, caviar and some grilled onions. It’s like a tartare of beef bound together with a clam emulsion, almost like an aioli, but that tastes of sweet clams. On top, we put some really beautiful grilled warm onions, which will offset the cold fat in the beef. This will be served with some caviar and steamed brioche, which has then been roasted with honey butter. It’s all really extreme and indulgent, but at the same time as being fun.”
It’s no wonder with mouthwatering delights such as these that Ikoyi was awarded a Michelin Star in 2019 and labelled as one of the most “innovative and original restaurants to have opened in the capital in recent times” by the infamous guide. Furthermore, as of September 2021, Ikoyi was announced as the winner of this year’s American Express One To Watch Award. Not only does this award give huge recognition to the restaurant’s gastronomic excellence and innovative offerings, but it is also the first London restaurant to gain this coveted title. Previous winners include global gastronomic leaders such as Lido 84, SingleThread, Disfrutar and Den, placing Ikoyi in good standing amongst its impressive contemporaries. Ikoyi has also since been awarded with 2 Michelin stars as of the 2022 Michelin Guide.
Jeremy and Iré manage to bring new life to classic ingredients in seamless style and with stellar service to boot. What’s more, is that their dedication and perseverance to making their brainchild a success has meant that no part of the restaurant’s concept has been left to chance, including the details of the chic yet understated design aesthetic.
“We both creatively directed the interiors of the restaurant with the help of Studio Ashby. We were involved at every step and with every decision. We didn’t want to just take a blueprint of an African-inspired restaurant and use that; we wanted to direct everything from the soap holders to the lamps. The result is that the concept is quite general but comfortable and aesthetically pleasing.”
“In some restaurants, you have owners/chefs who aren’t as present in the restaurant, and this massively slows down decision making, but with us, we are very present and working on the restaurant daily, it’s easier for us to change things quickly and directly,” remarks Iré.
“Yeah, exactly,” Jeremy adds. “We’re not too proud or egotistical. When mistakes happen, we try and learn from them, we don’t ignore them. We know that we will never be perfect, so we need to stay on top of things. I think by not being complacent, we have created such a solid foundation. I think caring a lot about the restaurant and not just thinking it can run itself has also helped us continue. We work really hard to make sure the team takes up the spirit of this work ethic; following up on things quickly, paying attention to details, communicating and remedying issues quickly etc., and I think this is what has propelled the restaurant.”
It could be said that Ikoyi has been a lesson in patience and trust for the pair since it opened in 2017 because it certainly has been on a journey. Having had a complicated start due to being labelled a West African restaurant, it then shot to fame a year later after redefining what truly matters in a restaurant setting. Riding high on this wave of success, the restaurant garnered its first Michelin star and became highly prized on the gastronomic circuit before everything was abruptly halted due to the pandemic.
“I think our success has been based on the fact we only have one restaurant. During the pandemic, we were able to stay open because we didn’t have to deal with a sink of unemployment, furlough, a huge team, multiple marketing strategies, online business strategies, takeaways or deliveries. You know, we didn’t have to deal with that because we only have the one restaurant, and that means we can really do it well and not be spread too thinly,” says Jeremy.
“We reopened in May and have been doing well, but we are sort of starting from zero in terms of getting back into the swing of things. Our goal moving forward post-pandemic is just to get back on track, keep paying staff and ensure the customers are happy, all while making the business profitable,” adds Iré.
As a surviving restaurant of the last couple of years, it really pays testament to the pair’s work ethic and focus to have come out the other side with renewed enthusiasm for the future and showing no signs of stopping.
“My personal view is to do your absolute best in every aspect,” states Jeremy. “Give the best quality, offer the best service, add your own original stance and stick to that, refine it and be consistent. If you try and anticipate big cultural changes, then you become a bit all over the place and don’t gain customer loyalty or consistency.
“We’re four years in now, and we have guests that have been coming since the beginning, and those customers have seen how hard we have worked. They really understand what we have achieved and how we have evolved and are coming back to be blown away by what we’ve done.
“Having a loyal client base is what really matters, and if you continue to build those kinds of relationships, then you will really be understood for your integrity and honest hospitality rather than trying to stay in the marketing ratrace, which, in my opinion, doesn’t have much longevity to it.
“I think what Ikoyi really stands for is all about being the tortoise and not the hare.” Refreshingly uncompromising, relaxed and innovative, Ikoyi is a vision into the future of fine dining that we can all look forward to.
This editorial first appeared in FOUR’s 05.21 edition
Images © Maureen Evans