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At Identità Golose in Milan, Jeremy Chan of London restaurant Ikoyi took to the stage and surprised everyone, when he gave a cooking demonstration in Italian.
It turns out that the chef, the son of a Chinese lawyer and Canadian ballet dancer, speaks six languages. It would have been very easy for the chef to do as others were doing and deliver in English or one of his more fluent languages, but Chan relished the challenge of dusting down his rusty Italian. He seems very comfortable when out of his comfort zone.
The same could be said for his food. Chan, together with his partner, Nigerian Ire Hassan-Odukale, are trying to do something truly original at Ikoyi. While they use West African ingredients, it’s a starting point to create something new that draws on a wide and diverse range of influences. They were awarded a Michelin star last year, but the menu confounded categorisation. Much like the chef himself.
“As a kid, my parents always forced me to have an open mind and try new things, and I think I took it to extremes, so it penetrated my way of living, says Chan. “My dad always put a lot of pressure on me, I’m not complaining he was a great dad, but he instilled in me a sense that ‘you can always do better’. It sort of stuck with me. The only times I’ve ever really done anything incredible is when I’ve been under immense amounts of pressure and risk, amazing things have happened.
“I get very bored or uninspired when I’m not challenged by a difficult situation. I think risk is a big thing for me. It’s a strange combination of insane amounts of control and insane amounts of risk.
With that drive to try new things and put yourself under immense pressure, the success is great, but there must be a fair share of failures as well, not so, says Chan.
“I don’t consider myself as ever really succeeding, I never fail but I never really succeed to the level I want to. Because there are so many control mechanisms put in place, there’s some guarantee of success, but I’ve never really failed, especially in my cooking aspects, considering the big risks I’ve taken.
“For example, going to two Michelin star restaurants in Japan to do pop-up restaurants having no idea what I was going to cook and telling the chefs that I’d never cooked these dishes before and I’m about to cook for their regular guests. It freaked them out a little bit. But it blew them away.
“That’s part of the beauty of risk, you put yourself under more pressure, you challenge yourself, and then you care more. It’s not the type of risk where you say “ah, let’s just put this with that and see how it goes…” I’m talking about serious calculated risk, intuitive risk.
Octopus, Ndolé & Calçot - Copyright Sam Gillespie
This combination of extreme control and extreme risk is something that pushes Chan to excel. He concedes that cooking, at its heart is all about control. As the chef you are deciding what people will eat, you are taking ingredients and bending them to your will. Why is control so important for Chan?
“Because it creates consistency,” he says. “Anything that can be controlled in a kitchen you should try to control it in the best way you can. There are so many different elements and so many things that can go wrong, that you need to have systems in place. It’s the only way you can have a really beautiful experience, from my perspective. I’m sure there are other ways of creating beauty in restaurants with no control, a calculated no control, but in my kitchen, a lot relies on texture, finesse, elegance, simplicity and these are really small factors but they have to be right. Like the way we slice kohlrabi or cook our octopus really needs to be controlled to ensure that guests have the best possible experience with regards to that one ingredient.
Chan’s creations have a unique aesthetic. In a world of endless Instagram accounts of creative plating, these dishes have a strong artistic style. Does he consider what he does art?
“I guess so, but I would never call myself an artist, but if you think about it, eating at my restaurant is a really immersive artistic experience. Why is one of our dishes not beautiful like a sculpture, or poetic and complex? There are a lot of layers to what we do. The theatre of the dining experience, how I’ve calculated the lighting. It’s definitely theatre and theatre is considered art. Is it fine art or high art? Probably not but technically it’s art, not the kind that you would see in a museum but definitely as complex or a challenging as a painting. If not more difficult because you have to do it over and over again.
Monkfish, Banga & Citrus Asaro - Copyright Sam Gillespie
The dishes at Ikoyi certainly look like art, and Chan’s creative process is artistic. After applying his academic acumen to research, he spent hours and hours poring over books on African culture and African food; he then relied on his intuition to guide him in his creation.
“I dreamed the plantain,” he says. “You can’t be artistic if you limit yourself to the aesthetics of other chefs’ dishes. Why not look at a sci-fi movie like Bladerunner for the aesthetics of your restaurant or a Mark Rothko painting? I don’t want to sound pretentious, but things that are going to provide some kind of psychological stimulus for your guests that’s not necessarily food related. Without being molecular or denaturing the food. That’s why I talk about everything being organic. I do this with my knife, some salt and oil but I’ve made the kohlrabi look like a piece of marble or stone from outer space.”
So where did this new and original interpretation if African ingredients come from?
“I read this article called ‘Fractal Geometries in African Art’, and they have this really complex fractal artwork in early African cultures that modern computers find extremely difficult, using mathematical models to replicate. It’s fascinating that this a kind of innate, artistic, geometric algebra in early African cultures, which you see in Africa, in some of the landscape and urban cities and some of the sculpture. I found that super inspiring that kind of African cyborg vision and it’s something that sort of stuck with me. And I wanted it to be part of the experience without people knowing it.”
Plantain, Raspberry & Smoked Scotch Bonnet - Copyright - Clerkenwell Boy + Tigernut, Smoked Rapeseed & Caviar - Copyright Clerkenwell Boy
How does Chan’s multiculturalism and mixed race heritage influence what he does?
“I grew up with people of all cultures. I look at some of my English friends who never interacted with black people until they were 13 years old and that’s had a serious effect on them. They don’t have any black friends now or Chinese friends. They’re not as aware of the ‘otherness’.
“For me, going to school with people from all around the world and hanging out with them it precluded the possibility of me being a racist. For me racism comes from estrangement from other people because of your environment, and I’m just lucky that I was in a different position.
“It’s given me a real openness when it comes to my food, and that’s also what the restaurant is about. My partner is Nigerian, and the restaurant is meant to be for anyone and everyone.”
Chicken Oyster, Tamarind, Penja Pepper - Copyright PA Jorgensen + Wild Tiger Prawn, grits and Banga bisque - Copyright P.A Jorgensen
Does Chan feel like a Londoner?
“I do not consider myself a Londoner, and I don’t know who my tribe is, because I’m not fully Chinese, I’m not Canadian. I’m in London I don’t feel like a Londoner, I just live there, try to make my way there, because that’s where I ended up. I always feel like an outsider, unless I’m with other half-Asian kids, then I’m like ‘Hey brother / Sister”. There’s a weird familiarity among young half-Asian people, we kind of notice each other.”
Because Ikoyi has a strong West African influence, the restaurant has taken some flak from those who readily point the finger with accusations of cultural appropriation.
“It’s not illegal for me to cook with this ingredient. Unless you shoot me, I’m going to cook what I want with this ingredient. If I was telling the world that I was cooking Nigerian food I should expect to deal with the consequences, but because I’m trying to do my own thing I just don’t react to eat. I don’t listen to it. I just carry on with the responsibility to do something great for my guests, for my team and for my life. If someone wants to get into an argument about cultural appropriation then I’m not afraid of saying ‘so shoot me’, because I’m never going to stop doing it.
“We don’t get that much because our food is so not African looking. There are certain hidden symbols within the dishes that are African, but it’s really just our food.
“We tend to get really strong reactions, either total appreciation, passion, and people love it or you get the polar opposite, some terrible reactions, disgust and hatred. You tend to get that when you try and do something a little bit different. I think our restaurant won’t be appreciated or understood for a long, long time.
“It’s making unpretentious good food with new combinations of ingredients. It’s a London restaurant. It could maybe work in New York, but yeah, London is the place. It’s a very global city. It is difficult to make it work there, with overheads, it’s an expensive city, and we struggled to keep afloat. If it hadn’t have been for the Michelin star, we would be dead.”
What got Chan into cooking in the first place?
“I have a really messed up amount of energy to work and move, physical energy and so cooking was like an outlet for me. It’s an intellectual exercise, it’s a design exercise, it’s hyper-creative and you get to do what you want every single day. In a sense it’s egotistical, but the outcome is you make delicious food and you make people happy, so it’s not a negative egotism.
“There is something psychotic about the energy required, and the freaky dedication needed to run a kitchen but it’s benign. It’s positive. My goal is to make people as happy as possible. I just want them to be blown away.”