Ayo Adeyemi

Ayo Adeyemi

Ayo Adeyemi

Chef Ayo Adeyemi always dreamt of fusing the West African flavours of his childhood with the refinement of fine dining. At Fitzrovia’s Michelin-starred Akoko, he brings that vision to life, immersing diners in the depth and diversity of the cuisine.

The sharing of food is at the heart of many cultures, not least in West Africa, where meals unite not just families, but entire communities. ‘African culture is based on food and the hospitality aspect of it – if you have friends or family coming around, the first thing you do is offer them something to eat,’ chef Ayo Adeyemi smiles. ‘It’s not even an offer, really – it’s more a case of ‘you must eat’. You can’t go into the household without eating. I always loved food growing up and I was always curious watching my mum cook.’

Ayo was born in Scotland, but raised in Poole by Nigerian parents, and he grew up on the likes of steamed black-eyed bean cake moin moin, akara (a fried version), egusi stew and jollof rice. But with West African culture scant in Dorset, his family made monthly trips to London to refill the pantry, introducing a young Ayo to the styles of different Nigerian communities. ‘We only had a few family friends who were of African heritage nearby,’ Ayo says, ‘so whenever there’d be gatherings of the families, that was definitely when my mum would cook a larger spread of dishes. My mum’s jollof was renowned as being the best jollof out of all the families, and seeing the way she would prepare and cook everything was just amazing. She was an inspiration to me.’

By the time he was sixteen, Ayo was already set on becoming a chef and enrolled at University College of Birmingham to study culinary arts. His mind might have been made up, but it wasn’t an easy decision – having been keen for him to head into a more academic pursuit, his family took a bit more convincing. But Ayo’s resolve didn’t waver. ‘What opened my eyes at that age was seeing the likes of Gordon Ramsay cooking Michelin-level food, such a refined food style, modern British but with French influence,’ he says. ‘To do it in a wonderful restaurant environment and get three Michelin stars and then open multiple restaurants – I always had that vision of doing something like that with West African cuisine and taking it around the world.’

Through his studies he travelled, getting real-world experience in kitchens across America in particular. ‘I just wanted to travel and see the world and felt that you could really travel through food,’ he nods. ‘I felt that was really important, that it was a really good way to understand so many different cultures and different styles of food.’ After graduating, he returned to the US, joining the Michelin-starred Campton Place in San Francisco under head chef Srijith Gopinathan, who melded Indian and western flavours and first crystallised Ayo’s vision of doing the same. ‘He was the first real mentor for me,’ he says. ‘I was there as a chef de partie and I learned so much. The style of what he was doing was French fused with Indian, using Indian spices and flavours and American produce. That’s exactly what planted a seed for me. That’s what set me off on my journey.’

Two years later, Ayo came back to the UK to join Heston Blumenthal’s The Hind's Head in Bray for a deep dive into molecular gastronomy, before moving to Singapore and taking on stints at Esquina (then co-owned by Jason Atherton) and The Study. There, he met chef Ryan Clift, who recruited him for the award-winning Tippling Club. ‘That’s really where my career took off – he wasn’t even just a mentor, he’s like my brother,’ Ayo says. ‘I met him in Singapore and, again, his style of food was very similar to mine. I was really excited by modern gastronomy and using flavours and techniques but making it fun. I never really enjoyed sitting and eating at stiff fine dining restaurants.’ As head chef at Tippling Club – a regular feature on Asia and The World’s 50 Best Bars and Restaurants – Ayo says he developed the patience and empathy needed to helm his own kitchen.

That opportunity came in 2022, when Ayo was approached by Aji Akokomi, founder of Fitzrovia’s Akoko, a West African tasting menu restaurant which had previously been headed up by William Chilila and, later, Theo Clench. Ayo jumped at the chance. ‘I think it’s a bit of a rarity to see a black British, but Nigerian, chef doing this level of food,’ he says. ‘Throughout my whole career I’ve always been the minority in the kitchen, which is fine. But I knew this was a vision I’ve always wanted and was ready to embrace the challenge.’ As its executive chef, Ayo curates a journey through West African cooking, focusing primarily on the cuisines of Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Gambia. Its menu is underpinned by three elements – fire, spice and umami – and often relies on just a few ingredients in each dish. ‘It’s fun, tasty and educational, I think – it’s very approachable,’ Ayo explains. ‘Rather than giving you a dish how my mum would cook it, I’ve taken those elements apart and refined them.’

As West African food continues to find its footing in the UK, it feels like the opportune time for Ayo's cooking to make its mark. In 2024 Ayo was rewarded for his efforts with a Michelin star at Akoko.