An Interview with Jeremy Chan, Chef/Co-Owner, Ikoyi

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Today’s chefs tend to wear more hats than just the figurative toque, and Ikoyi’s Jeremy Chan is no exception. To converse with him is to watch a polymath slalom between creativity and practicality, philosophy and finance, dreams and reality. And with our inHouse London official launch just days away, we felt it was the perfect opportunity to sit down with one of the more dynamic figures on the city’s dining scene right now.

Jeremy, thank you for taking the time to chat today. This is a question I hate to ask, as I’m sure you get it all the time, so let’s just tackle it straight away… With your restaurant and your cuisine defying neat categorization, how do you tend to talk about what you’re doing here?

To be honest with you, I struggle with having to package the restaurant in various ways to entice different types of people to come here. It can be both hilarious and depressing, demoralizing and challenging. It’s annoying when it’s lazily called “ethnic.” And I think there are certain underlying prejudices and stereotypes that surround what we do.

Lazy indeed. I know I’m talking to a former literature student here, but word choice matters! Especially in the media. And as we saw in a recent LA Times article, something as subtle as italicizing non-English terms can have an alienating effect. Various reviews of Ikoyi have called your food exotic, peculiar, challenging, and unique. To me, it’s just — you know — delicious.

The crazy thing is, some early reviews — while very positive — were basically a rewording of our press release, plus some trite commentary on the dishes. My business partner is from Lagos. Does that make our food specifically Nigerian or generally West African? We are using British produce. Does that make us a modern British restaurant? I’m obsessed over seasonality, obsessed over quality. Philosophically, you could almost say we’re a Japanese restaurant. It makes for quite the identity crisis.

So what is this restaurant to you?

Ikoyi is 100% my subconscious. I believe that in order to really express yourself, you have to block out the audience. So I don’t try to cook for anyone in particular. The result is that you’re eating complete subjectivity here.

And have you found that London is receptive to that sort of individuality in cooking?

Yes and no. I think that London is great for the launching of new concepts. But I also feel like in New York you can be a bit more personal, more expressive. Look at a place like Atoboy, for instance. There’s authorship there; there’s personality. I could also see Los Angeles being very open to what we do.

But at the same time, Ikoyi is the farms that we work with here. It’s the incredibly healthy soil in the UK. It’s the organic produce and meat that we’re able to get our hands on. It’s British fish, from the ocean to our restaurant, same-day, every single day. I pretty much have gold in my kitchen.

Not to mention a star on your wall, and deservedly so. Michelin came knocking with it just a year after you opened. Eater has called Ikoyi “Central London’s Most Captivating Restaurant.” And I know you cooked with Christopher Kostow at Meadowood in California for his annual Twelve Days dinners this year. So with praise coming from both the press and your peers, what does success look like to you right now?

First and foremost is shareholder satisfaction, to make our operation profitable and do their investment justice. So lean sourcing and zero waste are always top of mind for us. Otherwise this is just an expensive hobby.

Secondly, success means cultivating a respectful work environment. Our chefs work 3.5 days a week. We’re an extremely diverse kitchen, a respectful one, and a purely meritocratic one. I also try to lead by example, as a chef-owner in the kitchen all the time, doing all the ordering, and so on.

Some of it is also about creative fulfillment, about trying to engineer dreams out of my subconscious. But at the end of the day, we are an extremely creative restaurant that is still conscious of its reason for existence. Where personal and financial sustainability intersect: that’s where we want to be.