Chef to Watch: Theo Clench, executive chef, Akoko

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Chef to Watch: Theo Clench, executive chef, Akoko, Fitzrovia, London

Had you come across Theo Clench two years ago, you may have found it hard to imagine him as the executive chef of Fitzrovia's fine-dining West African restaurant, Akoko.

But Theo is a man who embraces a challenge. When, as a teenager, he told his mother that he wanted to become a chef, she told him: "You haven't got the drive, the passion or the committment. Pick something else."

"So I went, 'alright mum, watch this,'" he laughed. 

After training at Brighton's Ginger Man Group gastropubs, he moved to London to work in the capital's finest Modern British haunts: first at Michelin-starred Trinity then at BonhamsClove Club, and Portland, where was the head chef for two years.

It's very rare that you meet people who want to achieve the same thing as you'

But, when the UK's first lockdown lifted in 2020, Theo wanted to challenge himself creatively, and sought a new opportunity. That is when he met Aji Akokomi, founder of Akoko.

"It's very rare that you meet people who want to achieve the same thing as you," he said, but with Aji, he felt like he had found his match. "He wants to make West African food accessible, and he wants Akoko to be a destination restaurant. He wants it to be hugely successful, he wants worldwide recognition." 

Akoko is part of a growing number of West African fine-dining restaurants taking the capital by storm, from the traditional Chishuru to Talking Drum, and the decidedly more experimental Ikoyi, which was recently awarded a second Michelin star. Theo believes it is a cuisine whose heyday is overdue.

"You've had Nordic, you've had Japanese, now it's West African food coming through. People don't realise how big the region is and all of the different countries and cultures are undiscovered."

'If you have a palate and you can balance flavours, it doesn't matter where they come from'

He's right, of course. West African cuisine technically cuts across a region comprising almost twenty countries, so there's still a lot for him to learn, from the multitude of spices, beans and pulses, to the many techniques spanning centuries of culture. "But it's worth it," he said.

Perhaps thankfully for him, the food at Akoko is not quite your traditional fare. What is on offer here is an experience of the region's flavours with a fine dining twist: modern takes on traditional dishes using mostly British, sometimes French ingredients.

What Theo really brings to the table - on top of his technical skills and experience of running restaurants - is his address book full of great suppliers accrued over the years.

"Produce is my passion," he said. "Every chef says that they use the best, but how true that is most of the time, I'm not so sure."

"I'll get the best that I can, whether it comes from France, England. If it's better, then I'll get it."

The eight course, £110 tasting menu revolves around three pillars of fire, fermentation and spice, featuring dishes like Nigerian street food favourite, Suya, here made with the Lake District's finest barbecued hogget belly with spicy peanut powder; slow-cooked pigeon from Brittany with Maafe sauce, based on the Malian ground nut stew, served with cacao and pigeon jus.

Most items are fire-grilled on the Konro (including dessert), and paired with a selection of natural wines.

Theo's take on jollof rice is inspired by the many versions originating in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon, The Gambia and Senegal, but isn't meant to replicate any.

As he sees it, "cooking is cooking. If you have a palate and you can balance flavours, it doesn't matter where they come from."

Keep watching

Currently open for five dinners and one lunch a week, the restaurant will gradually introduce more services once the West End is once again awash with office-workers. 

Like Aji, the chef has plans to take Akoko to great heights, but for now, "if we're full of happy customers, that's all I can ask for."

As he defied his mum, finding the drive, the passion and the committment to become a chef in the first place, Theo is determined to make his mark on the UK's culinary stage. 

And if precedent is anything to go by, you, like his mum, should consider taking him seriously.

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 4th March 2022

Chef to Watch: Theo Clench, executive chef, Akoko