Iré Hassan-Odukale and Jeremy Chan are an unlikely pair seeking to take Nigerian and West African food to gastronomical levels to attract international patrons and a new followership of African cuisine.
Ikoyi has been in the works ever since Chan, 30, and Hassan-Odukale, 31, first met at a mutual friend’s birthday party when they were 15 in Chiswick.
“They say you should never work with your friends,” says Hassan-Odukale. “If we were more similar, it probably wouldn’t work but where one ends the other one picks up.”
The two were flatmates for two years, and share a mutual passion for food. “We were so obsessed with food that we used to save up for tasting menus at The Ledbury by not eating for four days,” says Hassan-Odukale. “But we’ll eat anything that’s edible. Our meetings are often over a breakfast in McDonald’s.”.
Their work is a composite of the food Hassan-Odukale grew up on in Ikoyi, a wealthy borough in Lagos, Nigeria, transformed into fine cuisine. Chan, the chef, has worked with Heston Blumenthal at Dinner, Noma and Claude Bosi at Hibiscus, and is keen to stress that it’s their own translation of West African cuisine.
Many Nigerians will be forgiven for being nervous around the new contemporary twist that the guys intend to put on traditional African food in order to make it more appealing to international palate. Who can forget the woeful take on Jollof Rice by chef jamie Oliver. But it would seem that the guys have made a real go of it and the restaurant has been buzzing for four months now.
The project represents a crossroads for both of them.
‘West African food is woven into London’s fabric but no one’s used it in a gastronomic context before’
“West African food is woven into London’s fabric, with plantain, peppercorns, spices, fermented chillis, beans, yams and raw produce readily available from any grocery store or food market in Peckham or Dalston,” he says. “But no one’s really used it in a gastronomic context. There’s this whole world of possibility for creativity with West African produce, and we’ve only scratched surface of what think can achieve with this project.”
The menu features ingredients unfamiliar to many Londoners (but they won’t be for long). Selim, for example, is a peppercorn used in traditional Nigerian broth which smells like smoked wood and eucalyptus and has a gingery taste. Chan is introducing it to London in the form of a sweet cookie. For mains, rare-breed lamb ribs use cuts from a four-horned Manx Loaghtan, served with a relish of fermented chillis, burnt onions, sweet and sour condiments; while cocktails include a plantain-based Old Fashioned served in a ceramic cup, and a Guinness cocktail — the stout is a hugely popular drink across Africa — with cacao nib- infused rum.
“It’s like you’re going to your gran’s house for dinner,” says Hassan-Odukale, who looks after front-of-house. “She’s made sure everyone’s taken care of, everyone’s had an amazing meal, and everyone leaves smiling, with that warm fuzzy feeling — sorry for sounding cheesy — but full and taken care of.”
Ikoyi is just beginning. They’re working on a cookbook and have concocted “hundreds of dishes that aren’t on the menu”. “Lots are wintery so we have to wait to serve them. We must be the only people looking forward to winter in London.”
“We want there to be an element of mystery,” adds Hassan-Odukale. “We don’t want you to go on Instagram and feel like you’ve been to the restaurant.”
The most important ingredient, after all, is making everyone feel at home. “We had such different backgrounds, we’re not trying to target one type of person.”
The West African restaurant, which opened in July 2017, is the last jigsaw piece in the £450 million St James’s Market development on Regent Street