Puzzling, infuriating and confusing are just three of the adjectives London’s restaurant critics used to describe Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale’s Ikoyi when it opened just off Regent Street in 2017. Delicious, brave, important, “culturally tricky” and “a win-win for London” are others. When Ikoyi won its first Michelin star in 2018 it was the first African restaurant in London to be so recognised. Not that chef-owner Chan’s father was impressed. “He asked, ‘Why only one Michelin star? Why not two?’” Chan remembers. “He’s not a scary person, but he made me quite driven.”
Chan – Canadian-Chinese – was destined to go into finance. “My father pushed me really hard. I had to meet a certain standard,” he says. After a degree from Princeton he spent two years in private equity. “Then I freaked out and said I’m never going to work in finance again.”
That epiphany happened when he was working in Madrid, and falling in love with Spanish food. He came back to London, read many books on cooking and fired off letters to chefs asking for a stage. Claude Bosi at Hibiscus responded and Chan started on the journey that took him from Hibiscus to Noma and to Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental, by Hyde Park. It wasn’t easy. Dinner was a “trauma”, he says. “It’s the best place to get training in precision cooking at high volume, but the hours are brutal.”
I’m a bit tired of opening and closing again
In 2016 he teamed up with long-time Nigerian friend Hassan-Odukale who was itching to get out of insurance to open a Nigerian restaurant. They decided to go in together and in 2017 opened Ikoyi, to the consternation and fascination of London’s restaurant cognoscenti.
2020, of course, has been a difficult year for Chan and Hassan-Odukale. “I’m anxious to go back – I’m a bit tired of opening and closing again,” Chan said as Club Oenologique caught up with him on the eve of opening after the second lockdown.
Ikoyi opens today, 3 December, for lunch and dinner; it will be open for lunch Thursday to Saturday, and dinner Monday to Saturday.
What was your childhood ambition?
To fulfil the expectations of my father, to get a good degree from a good university (in the end I went to Princeton). My dad was not a scary person but he made me quite driven. He very rarely said, “This is great” – he always asked, “What are you going to do next? What’s a better way doing this? Why only one Michelin star, why not two?” He was freaked out when I became a chef because he thought I was going to be a financier or a banker.
What do wish you’d known when you were 21?
How difficult parents can become when they get old.
What exercise do you do?
Calisthenics and running.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
To choose just one, I’m easily distracted and I can be bad at listening to other people and what they have to say.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
My bicycle, a super-light Leader, which I ride to work on it every day. I’m not a bike nut when it comes to brands; I like to have something long-lasting and solid, something to get around on. I had a long break from it as I rode it when I worked at Dinner by Heston and it was associated with the trauma of working there. It’s the best place to get training in precision cooking at high volume, but the hours are brutal. It’s in a huge hotel, so you’re wandering around this enormous space, walking and climbing stairs – the prep kitchen is in the basement so you had to carry your prep up three flights of stairs and go into service with 200 covers. It’s backbreaking work.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I’ve moved around so much, I don’t want to change my life for some kind of idealised vision. But if I had to move it would be Naples. It’s such a chaotic city, but it’s so incredibly beautiful, with those amazing sunsets over the Bay, and this ancient graffiti’d ramshackle architecture. It’s chaotic and disorganised, the opposite of London, and that’s why I’d like to move there, because I’d have to relinquish myself to total disorganisation. London is so regimented, its fast-paced, it’s expensive to run a business, you’re constantly dealing with contracts and agreements… Naples seems chilled-out in comparison.
If you could do any other job what would it be?
A surgeon or artist. My personality is about 70% artist and 30% logical, structural thinking. I am creative and inspired, but also very boring and meticulous and organised. I get very extreme at the organisation and planning stages of creativity.
What is your favourite restaurant – anywhere?
Silk Road, Camberwell. It’s the tastiest and most straightforward cooking in London; the homestyle cabbage and the lamb shish noodles are incredible.
What luxury item (except wine or whisky) would you take with you to a desert island?
My coffee grinder and beans from Fritz in Seoul. To make fresh coffee every day is the biggest luxury in life. The Fritz Coffee Company is in Seoul’s Mapo district, a café in a hanok (a traditional Korean house) where they source beans directly from producers and roast them in-house. You can order the beans online.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
Full share-holder return on investment.
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
I would open all borders to every single country and allow free travel to every country in the world.
Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
My grandparents who I never met, and their grandparents, and their parents.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Cycling home in the cold, late at night, and ordering pizza. It’s a simple pleasure. I usually get Domino’s – I like the fact that it’s synthetic, and mass-produced and consistent. I don’t want any artisanal olives or San Marzano tomatoes, I just want the sweet fake tomato sauce, and the fake peperoni, the basic fatty, salty, cheesy package that goes well with alcohol. It’s kind of rewarding, a disconnect from what I’ve been doing all day; I don’t want to come home and eat high-grade produce because I’ve been working with it all day. I normally eat very healthily – this is my end-of-the-week treat.
What’s your secret talent?
Impersonations. I’m very good at picking up odd quirks of family and friends, and I can do accents as well. To be a good mimic is a kind of animal ability – it’s why I speak so many languages [as well as English, Chan is fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Chinese]
When were you happiest?
With my family when I was younger and free of the adult responsibility of running my own business.
Whom do you most admire?
My Mother, she taught me to have good values and be respectful of other human beings.
What’s your greatest regret?
If a customer is unhappy I regret that.
What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?
I don’t watch any box sets or TV programmes, though I do like good films – during lockdown I watched one a day. I don’t listen to podcasts either, but I read a lot. I like modern American fiction and psychology; at the moment I’m reading The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand – one of my favourite books. When I first read it I had no idea of its ideological and political underpinnings, but then friends would look shocked and say, “But that’s Donald Trump’s favourite book”. I think you should read it and forget the political baggage that comes with it; an author should be able to express thoughts and creativity without being blamed for ideology. For me, it’s about expressing yourself, not letting society tell you it should be this or that style. This is how humans can create great things.
What’s your most treasured possession?
I’m not materialistic – I don’t really treasure possessions. I treasure values: my friends, family and health.
What time do you go to bed?
Between 2am – 3am, I get home from the restaurant at 12.30am, eat, relax and unwind before going to bed.