Jeremy Chan, son of the world

Born in Hong Kong, a graduate in philosophy with strong African influences. Meet the chef from Ikoyi, soon to participate at Identità

by Luciana Squadrilli
Jeremy Chan, chef at Ikoyi in London, one Michel

Jeremy Chan, chef at Ikoyi in London, one Michelin star. He’ll be one of the speakers of the "Contaminazioni" session, on Saturday 23rd March 2019 at Identità Golose

Jeremy Chan, born in 1987, speaks almost perfect Italian – did he learn it in some Italian kitchen? Not at all, he watched films and read Pirandello and Dante’s Inferno – and he’s not afraid to repeat again and again the words and concepts he believes are essential so that people understand the essence of his cuisine – one of the most frequent being deliciousness.

He’s doesn’t like being misunderstood, perhaps because he believes the West African label that was hastily given to his cuisine doesn’t fit him. The misunderstanding lies in the fact that in his restaurant opened in London in 2017 between Piccadilly and Trafalgar with his business partner and childhood friend Iré Hassan-Odukale – born in Lagos, Nigeria, in the elegant neighbourhood of Ikoyi after which the restaurant is named -  Jeremy decided to focus his culinary experiments on ingredients from that part of the world. They are not common for our palates so they are stimulating for a chef with the soul of a researcher (someone closer to Isaac Newtonthan Indiana Jones) like himself. Plus, generally speaking, he’s not fond of categorizations and strict definitions.

For instance, he was invited to speak at the congress as part of the new Contaminazioni session – scheduled on Saturday 23rd, in Sala Blu – and he accepted but he’s also keen to point out: “I don’t believe my cuisine is about contamination. To me this term has a negative meaning which refers to pollution, to destroying something. I understand the idea of a global gastronomic contamination on which the format is based; but what we do at Ikoyi is more about personal creativity, it’s my interpretation of colours, flavours, textures, which I want to convey in the most immediate possible way”.

The restaurant in London (photo Ratensperger)

The restaurant in London (photo Ratensperger)

So as we talk with this chef with the face of a child and the deep thoughts of an old wise man – who graduated with honours in Literature and Philosophy from Princeton and worked as a financial analyst before deciding to dedicate his whole life to cuisine, acquiring experience with people like Rene RedzepiClaude Bosi and Ashley Palmer Watts where he was a silent and diligent apprentice – we cross out many of the most commonly used words in contemporary gastronomic reporting.

For instance, memory. “Memory is important, but it’s also personal; I have a large archive of flavours and textures in my mind, I’m rather obsessive when learning and remembering and thanks to this I can create recipes and pairings of ingredients that work without the need to test them. But it’s not necessary for this to show through, the result is what matters, the deep flavours of a dish that is perceived by the client, pleasing him. My goal is to create a dish that is an experience, but not in a pretentious way, stressing the deliciousness of the products I use without necessarily adding complexity”. Remarkable, in a world where most chefs aspire to the role of gastronomic guru. “I don’t consider chefs as gods of flavours. To me food must be accessible, straightforward; this is the cultural goal of food”.

Though present, it’s hard to point out the different influences of the food he has eaten and loved throughout his life – including plenty of Italian cuisine – just like it’s hard to spot the different mix of genes in the features of this young man from the North West of England. So don’t expect stories about his grandmother’s cuisine, compelling anecdotes from his multicultural childhood or enlightening Nigerian culinary epiphanies.

Plantain, raspberry and smoked Scotch Bonnet (photo Clerkenwell Boy)

Plantain, raspberry and smoked Scotch Bonnet (photo Clerkenwell Boy)

“I’m not particularly fond of African cuisine” he confesses without embarrassment, and he didn’t feel the need to dive into the local traditions and customs or to learn the secrets from the housewives of Lagos. Of course he visited the country with Irè and tasted dishes and products, but their study was mostly focused on the books from the British Library, on the academic research of professor James McCann from Boston University – an expert in the history of cereals and African cuisine–, on the collaboration with the Umami Information Centre, an online platform founded in Japan, on the study of a medical publication called African Ethnobotany in the Americas.

And Chan also takes the license of including in the menu traditional recipes without worrying too much about their philological coherence; as in the case of maafe, a popular recipe across Central and West Africa which includes a stew or a sauce of peanuts: he interpreted it as a thick and velvety sauce of red carrots from Normandy, enriched with collagen of cow foot soup, which, together with another sauce of carrots with a silky and light texture and a slightly sour flavour given by the Chardonnay vinegar and the dehydrated fruit of the baobab, is served with a fillet of beef that is only seared.

“It’s not a maafe, but I liked the idea of maafe”, he explains. “I’m interested in the products, not the context. I don’t start from a predefined idea, but I look for my personal take to give life to tangibly good flavours; I want every dish to offer an experience to those who eat it, but not in a pretentious way. My recipes are born from my dreams, and from a sort of “fetishism” for ingredients, but my interpretation must please the guest above all. So for me plantain is just an ingredient, not an African ingredient”.

Plantain is in fact the product that opens and ends the nice tasting menu currently offered at Ikoyi (but it changes often, and the initial dish is the only constant since the opening), a sequence of seeming simple dishes yet capable of playing on various degrees of perception, mixing textures, acidity, notes of umami and “burnt” tones while the spiciness, adjusted each time, remains the fil rouge. We start with fried plantain covered with powdered dehydrated raspberries, paired with a powerful sauce with Scotch Bonnet which is like a real awakening for the palate and draws the attention of the guest to the dish (and, with delicate sadism, Chan adds: “I enjoy when my guests suffer a little, life is a mix of pain and pleasure”).

With his business partner Iré Hassan-Odukale (photo

With his business partner Iré Hassan-Odukale (photo

At the end, there’s a soft and refreshing ice cream of overripe plantain with marinated rhubarb and malt custard. In between, among other dishes, there’s a fabulous cabbage first steamed to its heart, reaching an almost creamy texture, then caramelised in a very hot pan with butter and turmeric. This results in a contrast between the melted heart and the exterior, which is crispy and bitter, and slightly sour – the crust created by the butter reminds the chef of the classic toasted cheese sandwich – and sweet too, while sapidity and umami are enhanced by the sauce of mushrooms and peanuts and by adding a few pieces of kumquat confit.

“I love cabbage and this dish for me is the best way to cook it, enhancing its natural flavour and the primary, complex yet direct flavour of the sauce, creating a perfect experience for the plate. It’s like a summary of what I want to do: no bullshit, but with taste”.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

1 St James's Market
St. James's, London
United Kingdom
Tasting menu: 60 GBP
Closed on Sunday