Robb Reader: Iré Hassan-Odukale And Jeremy Chan

The duo behind Ikoyi on bringing West African ingredients to central London.

Jeremy – what led to you feeling compelled to make a career change from private equity to becoming a chef?
I felt very restricted, physically and mentally. Perhaps I was quite young and had too much energy but I felt very trapped having to sit at a desk for long periods of a time staring at excel spreadsheets and emails all day. The work was intellectually challenging, but I had the constant desire to move around, make things and explore my creative side. It all ended one day when I just had to leave and pursue this deep urge to cook. It was a challenge to leave behind a good salary and a stable life for the unknown. But with cooking you can move up quite quickly, whereas in finance there are quite often a few hierarchies to get through.

Ire – what are your recollections of food when growing up in Lagos?
A lot more spice and heat.  Dishes were more colourful, rice, plantain, chips, burgers, chicken, a good mix of western and local food.

Was it a shock, coming to a Britain then almost devoid of it?
Yes, because I went straight to boarding school and it became a lot of potatoes, less spice and cold lunches in the summer took some getting used to.

Jeremy – are great chefs born, made or both?
It’s a combination of hard work, discipline and creative vision. It also depends on the individual. Some people require a chef mentor, but I think the most important thing is to have some kind of a role model in life to help set in the ideas of respect and discipline. Without these values, and purely with talent, it’s hard to do something great and with longevity. It takes a lot of reading, eating out, figuring out what deliciousness means and whether you can relate this to a broad audience. It’s about appreciating natural beauty, having an extreme eye for detail and above all being organised. For me the greatest chef has his or her own very personal take on ingredients and their style/flavour profile is able to inspire many people. 

Ire – how would you describe your working relationship with Jeremy?
We’ve definitely found our balance over time and are at a place where the relationship is pretty easy – we’re quite different so that helps. We don’t argue. Obviously when making decisions we may have different opinions, which is a good thing I think, but we’re both open minded and reasonable and there are no egos. If one idea is better, we go with it or find a middle ground quite easily.

 

Jeremy – how would you describe the finer nuances of West African ingredients to a layman?
There are so many visceral flavours coming out of this region and its ingredients, and this is what caught my attention. The chillies, peppercorns, sweet and bitter fruits and vegetables make for a very varied and potent pantry base for a chef. I love the acidity of the agbalumo fruits when in season, or the ripe caramelisation of plantains. My favourite flavours would be from the peppercorns, which are so complex and varied – some are like resin, others like spiced, aromatic berries.

Ire – do you find Londoners open to trying types of flavours and cuisines they haven’t before?
There are many different types of Londoners. There is this idea that all Londoners are open to new flavours and cuisines, but I beg to differ. I think a few Londoners take the lead on this whilst the majority actually tend to be pretty safe with their choices – they may venture out once in a while but they will always go back to the safe choices, like burgers, pizza, European staples.

What are your thoughts Jeremy?
As Iré said, it depends on the Londoner. We have the whole spectrum of guests dining at Ikoyi from open minded, globally aware diners to those who come into the restaurant immediately thinking they know everything about Nigerian food because they went there on a business trip 20 years ago. Some Londoners readily embrace our creative approach to hospitality, others can’t seem to dislodge this idea of Ikoyi as an authentic African restaurant from their senses.

Is there anything in particular you’d put Ikoyi’s success down to – Ire?
Passion, hard work, integrity.

Jeremy?
The combination of hard work, being humble and being creative but also down-to-earth with people.

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