Ikoyi: West African cuisine via outer space

by Pete Dreyer19 October 2017
Ikoyi’s West African-inspired cuisine has been causing a major stir in London recently. Pete Dreyer caught up with founders Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale to talk about Nigerian food, fractal geometry, and the trials and tribulations of TripAdvisor.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Do you remember where you were on 30 October 2014, when Jamie Oliver published his jollof rice recipe? I don’t, personally, but it caused rather a stir amongst West Africans, who were universally shocked and dismayed at Jamie Oliver’s misappropriation of their national dish. Jamie’s recipe included vine-ripened tomatoes, coriander, parsley and lemon – none of which are associated with authentic jollof – and though he tried to style it out as a ‘twist on jollof rice’, the guardians of the one true jollof were not amused, and ripped the counterfeit dish to shreds via Twitter. They called it #jollofgate.

Britain does have a history of this sort of cultural misappropriation – chicken vindaloo, anyone? – but the outcry against non-conformist jollof seems particularly fervent, as Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale have found out since opening West African-inspired restaurant Ikoyi, just a short walk from Piccadilly Circus in London.

‘We’ve had people refuse to eat our jollof rice because they think it’s so off the mark,’ says Jeremy, Ikoyi’s head chef. ‘Sometimes they even come over and tell me how to make it! There's no authority on jollof rice, so no matter how aggressive people get, there's no bible to turn to. There's no superstar chef of Nigeria that has the original recipe.’

Yes, Ikoyi takes inspiration from West Africa – the name itself comes from the neighbourhood of Lagos, Nigeria, where co-founder Iré Hassan-Odukale grew up – but this is far from traditional West African food. Jollof rice emerges from the kitchen billowing with smoked bone marrow and miso, deep-fried plantain is crimson with raspberry salt, and suya – a traditional West African barbecue dish – comes marinated in roasted kombu paste. As a result, when diners walk through the door expecting typical Nigerian home cooking, they’re not always happy with what they get.

‘We’ve had reviews like, ‘this food is an embarrassment to my culture’ or ‘as soon as I smelled the food I felt sick,’ says Jeremy. ‘One person even said, ‘the owners need to get rid of this Chinese chef and get a real African cook in the kitchen’. It’s pretty intense!’

Jeremy (left) and Iré (right) have been friends since they were teenagers, and have always been obsessed with food and restaurants
Buttermilk plantain with smoked Scotch bonnet

Before joining Iré to set up Ikoyi, Jeremy worked in some very serious kitchens, alongside the likes of Claude Bosi at Hibiscus, Ashley Palmer-Watts at Dinner by Heston and Rene Redzepi at Noma. The roasted kombu paste that he uses to marinate the suya actually comes from his time in the test kitchens at Noma. ‘It blew my mind,’ he says. ‘I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the world, and they’ve never put it on their menu, so… here it is!’ Perhaps the fear from some corners is that Jeremy and Iré are simply throwing kombu paste at the wall to see if it sticks, but everything on the menu at Ikoyi has purpose. ‘Everything should have a reason,’ says Jeremy when I ask him to sum up his cooking style. ‘Don’t put something there because it fills up space. Everything is there to create a strong memory.

‘The seaweed, for example, is amazing,’ he continues. ‘It tenderises meat, provides salinity and has this incredibly complex, umami flavour. As humans we’re naturally drawn to umami flavours because they trigger mouthwatering reactions, so there’s a logic behind building layers of umami in dishes – it makes food moreish.’ Nigerian peppercorns too, aside from having strong medicinal properties, are another umami cornerstone of Ikoyi’s menu. ‘If you were a herdsman thousands of years ago in the desert, you could eat your food with Nigerian peppercorns and they would help you digest it by making your mouth water.’

The echoes of Jeremy’s culinary career are evident in the food at Ikoyi, but the pair take inspiration from far, wide and long ago to create their dishes. ‘There are these mathematical fractals in traditional African art,’ says Jeremy. ‘They’re so complex that computer scientists today can’t explain how they existed thousands of years ago, it’s fascinating. Something about that led us to this fascination with cyborgs, outer space and Africa – I’m not sure how but it makes sense to us! That has filtered through into the presentation of the dishes.’ The plantain fritters are a perfect example of this – instead of golden, crisp and heaped in a bowl, two crimson fritters emerge from the kitchen like small alien artifacts. ‘We wanted them to look extra-terrestrial,’ explains Jeremy. ‘We started off with just dried chillies, but that was too strong. so we found our way to raspberry salt, which is tart. That provides the balance in the dish – sour, salty, spice from the barbecued chilli emulsion on the side, and sweetness from the plantain. It keeps your palate interested.’

Meanwhile, the burnished copper and terracotta decor is plush and comfortable, and typically lounge-ish at first, but a closer look reveals an intergalactic streak too. The tables and chairs are sleek and angular, and the cutlery looks like something Rick Deckard might have used in Blade Runner, if he swapped his bottle of Johnnie Walker for an actual meal.

Ikoyi has collaborated with ceramicists Jess Joslin and Owen Wall, who have also made ceramics for the likes of Veneta, The Fat Duck and The Ledbury
Jeremy is fascinated by food as the basis for memory. 'Meals I've had and who I was with are some of my strongest memories,' he says

‘We’re always talking about geometry in the kitchen,’ says Jeremy. ‘There’s this idea of unfamiliarity and geometry that we’re trying to subtly incorporate into the dishes. We have to be really strict in the kitchen about how we plate – if there are only three elements to the dish, you can’t just plonk them on. It would taste the same, but it wouldn’t be the same experience.’ It marries back to Jeremy’s philosophy that everything on the plate should have a reason. Each plate is simple to the point of being almost purposely provocative – a collection of items that work in harmony. The beauty is in the juxtaposition of the simplicity on the plate, and the complexity of each individual element.

If you had fallen foul of a few bad reviews and TripAdvisor write-ups, you could easily be fooled into thinking that Ikoyi was brash and nonchalant, offering up careless copies of West African dishes. Ikoyi isn’t a West African restaurant at all, but an expression of Jeremy and Iré as human beings – a Chinese-Canadian and a Nigerian, inspired by the food, art and culture of West Africa, by cyborgs and outer space, by Scandinavia and the Far East, and plenty more besides. ‘No-one has a single source of inspiration in their life,’ says Iré. ‘This is an international city – we all have different backgrounds, and different things that inspire us. To think that food in a restaurant has to come from one place, or one country, is ignoring the reality of people.’

Rather than being battered into submission by the minority who take offence to them, the pair are pressing forward with new vigour, determined to express themselves. ‘We’re serving beef tartare to an African audience,’ laughs Iré, ‘which is mental because our beef already comes back to the kitchen to be cooked well done. Now we’re serving it raw!’

During the course of my lunch, I strike up a conversation with a couple of Nigerian men at the table next to me. When Jeremy walks over with a bowl of jollof rice for them, they’re effusive in their praise. ‘I don’t know where you get your seasoning from,’ says one, ‘or your herbs, but you’ve really brought back all the flavours from my childhood.’ I ask Jeremy later about the encounter, and he smiles. ‘You can trigger a memory that is authentic without trying to cook authentic food,’ he says. Perhaps the key is just having an open mind.

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