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London, despite its reputation as a global city, is still conservative in its eating habits. Sure, you can eat almost any cuisine you fancy in the UK capital, from Thai to Turkish, modern British to Mongolian, and the city is full of world-class chefs. It also has 71 Michelin-starred restaurants now, which would’ve been inconceivable some 20 years ago at the tail end of the British culinary nightmare. But this is a nation built on comfort food, on repetition, and in a city of sky-high business rents and homogenized high streets, chefs can tend to play to the crowd. Name me, if you can, a real innovator on British shores, since Heston Blumenthal?
One chef who’s definitely not playing it safe is Jeremy Chan. Chan has beguiled the critics at Ikoyi, the restaurant he opened in 2017 with best friend and business partner Iré Hassan-Odukale, just off Haymarket in the heart of London’s West End, with his use of imported West African spices and ferments to add zip and heat to classic British ingredients – not least the Michelin Guide, which recently awarded it its first star. He shops local, largely, but his head is somewhere amongst the sights and smells of Lagos. The inspiration, he says, can come from anywhere, as well as the Nigerian heritage of his best mate: “Distant memories of food, visceral art, abstract colors, primal emotions, death, [and] sensuality,” amongst them.
“I knew exactly the food I wanted to cook, the challenge was finding a context and space to do so,” says Chan, who trained in the kitchens of Hibiscus and Dinner by Heston in London, and at Noma. “Luckily space is central which fits with our aim to be accessible to as broad an audience as possible. If we were West or East, we would be catering to very specific audiences and our clients wouldn’t be as diverse as we have today.”
There’s a pleasing heat running through dishes such as a punchy plantain with raspberry and smoked scotch bonnet that will satisfy spice-obsessed Londoners, but Ikoyi is not a West African restaurant, nor is it a modern British restaurant. It’s Chan and Hassan-Odukale’s vision of what a restaurant can be: borderless. But it’s a challenge to sell that.
“I feel like London, though a global city, is actually regressing in terms of gastronomy,” says Chan. “Mass culture dominates, and I feel like the main causes of this problem are journalism, social media and the excessive costs of running a business. These constraints make it very difficult to do things with integrity.”
Journalists though have largely been on Chan’s side since Ikoyi opened, with one prominent critic describing his lunch there as being “one of the most interesting, super delicious and original” of his year. So perhaps Ikoyi is a case of building it and they will come, which is no doubt how headstrong Chan envisioned it during the four and a half years he spent learning his craft in some of the world’s best kitchens (prior to that he worked in renewables).
“I asked a lot of questions and evaluated the processes and systems of other restaurants while forming my own ideas,” he says of that time. “I always had a strong will to create, so working for other people is a challenge for me.”
Rob Roy Cameron
Having worked for many years under the Adriàs, first at elBulli and then as head chef at both 41 Degrees and Hoja Santa in Barcelona, winning the latter a Michelin star, South African chef Rob Roy Cameron is ripe to bring a new experimentalism to London.
Indeed, you can sense the Adrià influence in the small, clean and inventive dishes at Gazelle, his new restaurant in Mayfair, a mere 10 minute stroll from Ikoyi: squid noodles (that’s noodles made from squid) with guanciale and girolles, a quite outstanding beef with juniper and salted plum, which arrives as a deep purple block of powder-dusted meat with no fan fair, but floods the mouth with its juices, and little cucumber balls topped with caviar sitting on a bed of semi-frozen coconut (everywhere at the moment seemingly). London, he believes, is just about ready for it, and the trick, he says, is to present familiar ingredients, but in new ways.
“I feel as though the majority of the London public has always been open to trying something a bit different. They travel regularly so they are used to trying new things,” he says. “That said, people are still conservative in their ways; maybe not with tastes, but with what the food looks like. Some guests will refuse to eat black food… I don’t feel as though, at the moment, I can put sea urchin or rabbit brain on the menu, but hopefully, as time goes by, the public will be more trusting of these ingredients.”
The dishes are accompanied by drinks from cocktail whizz Tony Conigliaro, of Soho’s Bar Termini: signature small, powerful and exquisite things, including a rhubarb negroni that is perhaps the best version of the drink I’ve had anywhere. But small they are and as with the food, which is excellent, but won’t leave you clutching your stomach joking about how you are going to have to be "rolled" out of the restaurant, there have been murmurs of discontent from one or two critics about whether the overall experience offers value for money.
If the city is to become more innovative when it comes to eating dinner, then Londoners may have to decide whether their desire to try something new supersedes the sedated delight of a food coma.
Over at Rigo in Fulham, to the Southwest, chef Gonzalo Luzarraga is, like Cameron, optimistic about London’s openness. Born in Chile to Italian and Spanish parents he has worked in France, Hong Kong, the Maldives, Russia, Singapore, and Vienna and describes his cuisine as “modern Italian,” but “without borders": an Italian-French base, with Asian, Spanish, Nordic and South American influences.
“London’s a dynamic city that is open to innovation. It’s where so many new ideas begin,” says Luzarraga of his new home. “Some people still have conservative tastes and tend to stick to the flavors they know, but you’ll find that anywhere in the world. I think this has started to change in the last few years and people are becoming a little more adventurous. London is beginning to see a change with the emergence of less traditional restaurants and more innovative menus.”
And, if London is to be considered one of the best eating cities in the world, then it needs restaurants like Rigo. The menu is an exhilarating round the world trip with an Italian guide, taking in Northern Europe, Japan, Luzarraga’s beloved Piedmont, Italy, and even his family’s Valencian olives and is overall, the most delicious, interesting and challenging meal I’ve had in London this year. And yes, there are dishes that are extremely challenging: beef tendons with fresh peas, mussels, and lashings of Ethiopian pepper is a fiery talking point, a dish that will stimulate the imagination of some, and horrify others. Also, sea urchin here served with Bagna Cauda, a type of hot dip from Piedmont, similar to a fondue, quail egg and fermented milk – sea urchin being an ingredient that is still uncommon on London menus and will be approached tentatively by some.
But Luzarraga, Chan, and Cameron are part of a movement of chefs who, inspired by their work and travels around the globe, believe that the future of gastronomy is borderless and that this can transcend food in an increasingly divided world. Time will tell whether London is ready for it, but in the global city, food like this makes perfect sense.