On The Menu at Ikoyi with Jeremy Chan

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th September 2019

In 2018, when Ikoyi teetered on the edge of closure, chef patron Jeremy Chan knew he had to do something radical. 

If he was going to go down, he wanted it to be in a blaze of glory. He stopped doing a la carte and introduced a tasting menu - which, as he saw it, meant he could give customers the best possible food. The bold move paid off: last year, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star, bringing it back, in the chef's words, "from the brink of death." 

Jeremy doesn't want his food to be be pigeon-holed, he wants it to be pioneering; he refutes any pre-conceived ideas of what Ikoyi should be.

We spoke to him about his use of ingredients, his approach to menu design and why he never tastes his finished dishes. 

How did you get to this point, using the ingredients you do? Is it anything to do with your partner Iré Hassan-Odukale?

He was just a catalyst to focus the lens on one part of the globe [...]  but I'm as obsessed with England as I am with Japan or West Africa.

England is like an exotic paradise for me. [...] There's so many great farms in the UK and so much flavour that comes out of the soil here. 

Ikoyi   Jeremy Chan %2B Iré Hassan Odukale   copyright John Carey

Chef Jeremy Chan and 

Ikoyi managing director and co-founder,

Iré Hassan Odukale

You're very focused on seasonal produce, right? 

We call it micro-seasonality. When something's in season for one week, like seabuck thornberries which are growing on the bush - we only put them on the menu for one week. [...] We let what the fisherman have dictate what we put on the menu.

We don't have a menu so one table might get hake, one table might get John Dory, one table might get the last piece of John Dory and three pieces of pollock, they don't have a choice. I think that optimises the quality of each individual experience of the fish that they're eating. 

Although no-one knows what's coming, you must know what you want to put on. How important is the order of the menu? 

Extremely important. We have a pre-aligned structure. We have a seven-serving menu - two snacks, a fish course, a vegetable course, a meat course, a rice course and a dessert. It's a very complete meal based on the structure of a meal that I'd like to eat[...].

Then we have a nine-serving menu which allows people to try a couple more things which are really in season and really special. [...] We do a lunch menu for £35 which is for anyone that straight up doesn't want to spend that much money and wants to get a taste for what we do.

We do another menu which is like when people just want to really try everything. That menu is up to us - it could be twelve, fifteen servings. 

It's really designed to give the guest the best of what we have. 

Talk us through three ingredients that you're cooking with now - why you're using them and what dishes they're part of. 

We're using some aged hake - that's been aged for two weeks like meat. 

Why did you want to start ageing? 

To see whether it was worth the trouble and whether it actually improves anything to do with fish - just to understand; does it actually improve flavour and texture. I'd say the flavour is sort of the same but a little bit creamier in texture. It's not the same as meat where - animal meat really benefits from long ageing, it really denatures it, it really breaks it down and really brings out flavour. 

With fish, there's something - that phrase, fresh fish is there for a reason and I don't think it should be aged. It's just cool and 'cheffy' to do it but I'm not going to do it anymore because I love the vibrancy of fresh fish flesh that's still bouncy from the ocean. 

Name another ingredient that's on the menu today 

Badger Flame beets - beetroots that have been developed by a scientist - Erwin Goldman, at the University of Wisconsin - who grew these beetroots to remove geosmin which is a microbe that gives the earthy, irony taste to beetroots. 

Imagine eating beetroots that don't taste of earth, they just taste of winegums. 

On the Menu at Ikoyi with Jeremy Chan

What dish are they a part of? 

We make a mousse - so we steam them and then we blend them with peppercorn-infused milk and some dried potatoes and then we serve them with candied beetroot and caviar, some smoked oil and seabuck thornberries. 

Third ingredient that we're using - nasu eggplant - it's really good. 

It's a Japanese variety - we confit them in beef fat, we peel them and we slow-cook them  then we make a glaze which has fermented bee larvae - producing profound meaty tastes.

We made a miso with an African variety of pea - the field pea - so it's a field pea miso blended with bee larvae garam, malted barley honey and African palm wine. It tastes like Nasu Dengaku - it's a very sweet, sugary, umame, salty eggplant. 

Do you have a favourite ingredient that is West African that you think UK chefs should use more of?

There are so many ingredients. Plantains. Scotch bonnet chillies, the peppercorns. They should definitely look at the spice cabinet of a West African kitchen. There's so much flavour, there's so much heat, there's so much personality, there's so much umami and there's so much character to these ingredients.

Talk us through different cooking and plating techniques that that that say a lot about you.

I do a lot of coldbrew dashis, rather than making stocks by boiling and simmering things for ages, I actually do cold infusions of seaweed and dried mushrooms and vegetables - like teas - overnight. 

I do a lot of vegetable and plant-based sauces that go with meat.

We'll use something that has a seed or nut-based [...]. So you're getting depth and meaty flavours but they're not coming from the meat. 

The meat is the meat and the sauce is something to enhance it, to complement it. 

All these different flavours and techniques that you're playing with and having fun with - there must've been some dishes you've thought were terrible.

Not once in two years.

I never trial any dish [...]. It takes the love out of cooking, which is risky and bold and I don't want to waste products trying to convince myself that something is delicious. 

So you would never sit and eat your own dish? 

Never. It would be like canabilising my own child. 

Why not? 

Just in case I'm so disgusted with it that I quit my job and never cook again. 

For me it's like sitting in the theatre and watching yourself suck really badly. [...] I've got such an obsessed eye that I will always find mistakes in things, so I guess I just keep a distance. 

What comes first, the recipe or how you want it to look on the plate?

Everything is formed exactly how I want it in my brain. And I know exactly what it's going to taste like, I know exactly what I want it to be like. There's no question. It's not like I'm striving towards something, it's like, it's there. It's done, it's completely done. The visual, the intensity of it, the depth of flavour - everything is there. 

Monkfish%2C Banga & Citrus Asaro   Copyright Sam Gillespie low res
Monkfish, Banga & Citrus Asaro - Copyright Sam Gillespie

 

Of all of the different flavours and ingredients that you've worked with over the years, what's the biggest lesson you've learnt in terms of creating a dish or in terms of flavour combinations? 

The biggest thing I've learnt and fallen in love with most is using fruits in savoury dishes. I use fruits and vegetables interchangeably. We're serving smoked strawberry relish with cucumber - I think that's really awesome, to think about meatiness coming from fruits. 

One of the things I've learnt is when you blend seeds or nuts at a very high speed for an extended period of time you can really transform the texture of a sauce. [...] There's something about the protein in the fat and the nuts that really emulsifies over extremely long periods of time. We do a lot of that. We go through a lot of blenders. 

Where do you want to be in the next five years? 

I'd like to hone the product. I'd like to know that we've reached the absolute highest point in this country for the produce that we can get access to.

I'd like to get more local British people to come to the restaurant and for them to understand what we do in a bit more depth because we don't really get that kind of audience. [...]

I think the food culture in the UK is very much geared towards simple things. There's definitely this aggrandisement of the simplicity of food in the country like - simple British produce done well, which is great, but no-one actually seems to challenge that further or seek much further. 

Octopus%2C Ndolé & Calçot   Copyright Sam Gillespie low res
Octopus, Ndolé & Calçot - Copyright Sam Gillespie

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th September 2019

On The Menu at Ikoyi with Jeremy Chan