Taste of London does many things for London and of course, for food in the capital. I discovered two things here this year. One of the things is the wonderful Ikoyi and its introduction of West African fine dining to London. The restaurant was founded by childhood friends Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukal. Since their opening last year the dynamic duo have gained a loyal following of food connoisseurs. I was pleased to catch up with one half of Ikoyi’s innovative team, chef Jeremy Chan, at Taste of London. We talked about how Ikoyi conquered the final frontier:
GTW: What do you find most exciting about African ingredients and how do you use them in your dishes?
JC: I love West African ingredients for their pungency, umami, bold heat and intensity. We use hundreds of different ingredients from around the globe and not only from West Africa. I strip the ingredient of it context and culture then use it in its original setting. I look at it objectively. We think of this as an academic exercise. I’m always asking new questions about old ingredients. Something that’s not been done before. For instance, we use a fermented bush mango seed in a dessert; Ogbono. It’s traditionally eaten with a meat stew in Nigeria. At Ikoyi we use it to create a sour and salty caramel akin to a whey caramel. The results are a combination of the new and the familiar.
GTW: What unusual flavour pairings have you included in your menu and how do you go about sourcing ingredients you need?
JC: That has to be coffee and octopus. The sauce is bitter, sweet, smokey and pairs well with the tender but textured Octopus. With the sourcing side, firstly I read a lot on cooking, cuisine, medicine and history of West Africa. Then I make a list of products to test based on their chemical properties as well as flavour. I then look online and speak to any contact I have in the region to put me in touch with a supplier. Often I get bags of spices brought over in suitcases!
GTW: So, the focus is on bold heat and umami. What would you say are the best examples of this on your menu for those who might need a little help choosing a dish?
JC: All of our dishes are based on concentration of umami and not always in heat. This shines through mostly with the chicken oyster dish which is glazed with fermented locust bean and smoked eel jus.
GTW: Have you been surprised by the positive reaction to Ikoyi and to West African cuisine in general?
JC: There has been a surge in interest of African cuisine largely because sophisticated diners are always on the lookout for what is new. I think Africa has remained one of the last frontiers in food. However, it seems that the interest in African food comes with expectations and pre-judgments which makes it challenging for new expressions. Yes, of course there is interest but it seems ephemeral. In many cases it doesn’t scratch beneath the surface.
GTW: How do people who have never experienced West African food react to it?
JC: It depends on the guest. I think people who have a global mindset whose taste receptors have experience with a broad range of flavours will find our food delicious. People who have grown up in a singular culture less exposed to spice & intense umami may find our food overpowering.
GTW: What do those acquainted with West African cuisine make of it?
JC: For those acquainted with West African food, it depends if they come to the restaurant expecting West African food or not. Ultimately if you come to Ikoyi without an open mind you’re probably going to be disappointed. Our intention is to demonstrate our passion for cooking and making people feel good.
GTW: What are you most looking forward to showcasing at Taste of London and why was it important for you to be a part of it?
JC: We wanted to be a part of Taste of London to access a broader range of guests who may have heard of Ikoyi but have yet to walk through our doors. We also liked the idea of interacting with people and talking through our concept to convey the message of Ikoyi outside of the restaurant. We also thought it would be fun for our chefs to cook in a different setting.
Ikoyi is located at: 1 Saint James’s Market, SW1Y 4AH. For more information visit: www.ikoyilondon.com