Ikoyi Chef Jeremy Chan Is Deconstructing Restaurant Myths

"I really don't like tasting menus or long fine dining experiences where you’ve submitted to the narrative of the restaurant," Jeremy Chan tells Observer. "The goal is to make an amazing hospitality experience that isn’t too overwrought.” 

Chef Jeremy Chan. Maureen M. Evans

Since Ikoyi opened in 2017, the West African-inspired restaurant has become a force to be reckoned with in London’s culinary scene. Founded by Iré Hassan-Odukale and chef Jeremy Chan, Ikoyi earned its first Michelin star in 2018 and its second in 2022. It has been so successful that in 2022, the restaurant relocated from St. James to a larger space at 180 Strand. Ikoyi welcomes guests into the sleek, contemporary space for refined tasting menus served for both lunch and dinner on certain weekdays. It’s notably not open on the weekends, an intentional choice made to ensure the staff can have a proper work-life balance. The restaurant is also surprisingly less formal than many of its contemporaries. 

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“The ethos in the restaurant is caring about the guests a lot and caring about all of the details in the experience,” Chan tells Observer. “I see a guest coming to eat here as almost like a ritual. They’ve chosen to come here, so we try to make it as smooth and as easy as possible, without pontificating about who we are. I want it to be relaxed, comfortable and delicious. I really don’t like tasting menus or long fine dining experiences where you’ve submitted to the narrative of the restaurant. The goal is to make an amazing hospitality experience that isn’t too overwrought.” 

Ikoyi co-founders Iré Hassan-Odukale and Jeremy Chan. Cristiana Ferrauti

Ikoyi, which remains a coveted reservation for both locals and visitors to London, isn’t too stuck in its ways. Chan and his chefs are constantly developing the menu, and recently partnered with Uber Eats on a coursed menu that could be delivered at home. He’s also preparing to take Ikoyi on the road to California in July 2024. Observer recently spoke with Chan on how he defines Ikoyi’s success, what fine dining means to him and what guests can expect from the pop-up in July. 

Observer: Ikoyi was named one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants—again—this year. What was your reaction to that?

Jeremy Chan: Mixed feelings. On one hand, the idea of being recognized as one of the best restaurants in the world is really amazing, but it’s not something I planned for and it’s not something I think about in my daily life. So it’s pretty cool. And being there at the event [in Las Vegas] and being around these chefs from around the world is really special. On the other hand, I feel like the restaurant is constantly getting better and more interesting and more unique, and it’s doing so under the radar. Who is evaluating us? Why are we 42nd in the world? Has everyone been in and tried it? And has everyone been to all the restaurants? I wonder, sometimes, what it means. And the rate at which we’re changing and how much work we put into our guests every day—that’s something that’s very different to the noise around the restaurant and outside the restaurant. So I have mixed feelings about it, but ultimately, very positive and very grateful. 

Inside the dining room at Ikoyi. Irina Boersma

When you reflect on Ikoyi’s success, what is the thing you are most proud of?

Having uncompromising integrity when it comes to my creativity, and giving guests something really unique. Sometimes we do extraordinary things, but we don’t post about it, and we don’t do a lot of PR on the innovation side of the restaurant. Because we’re spending quite a lot of time doing it, I just don’t have time to talk about it. We change the menu a lot. Very special things happen, and what I’m most happy about is the joy and the passion that has brought to my team and myself. It has been very rewarding. 

It’s like how people say, “when a tree falls in the forest, but if no one is there, does anyone hear it?” I feel like that happens every day. We make things and we do things and we see things here that aren’t translatable to media. They’re real life experiences. Sometimes I feel much of that only gets seen in the restaurant. It’s a challenging thing to have a restaurant and to speak about it and share it. The only way to really share it is for people to come and try. That’s been the most special thing—all those moments of trees falling and being the only audience to it. 

How quickly do you put something new on the menu after you develop it? 

Immediately, because it’s a life’s work. I have a core team, and my head chef and my sous chef and I have dedicated our lives to this, so it’s always in process and there’s always something ready to go on the menu. There really isn’t a [research and development] period. We’re so busy all the time, so we just make things. But the calculation and the thought behind each recipe has so much passion that it can’t not be good. It can’t not go on the menu. 

We make very careful decisions in how we make a new sauce. Rarely will we make something where we’re like, “Oh, we need to redo this completely.” We might adjust it. We might make it smoother or lighter. But ultimately, we’ve found a way to articulate flavors and sauces and techniques that happen organically. They happen and they crystalize, and then they go on the menu. 

Trial and error is using and wasting a lot of products, and we don’t really like to do that. If we get an amazing ingredient in, we’ll just use it. We’ll make it and it will work because we don’t believe in testing and testing and testing, and wasting product. We like to get the ingredients and put them on the menu. That’s part of being a chef—taking a risk with ingredients and having a responsibility to represent them well and making them delicious. Doing tests means throwing things away and making loads of the same thing, which seems wasteful and unnecessarily time consuming. It takes the fun out of it, as well. 

Hibiscus fermented Scotch Bonnet. Irina Boersma

Would you describe your experience as a chef as fun? 

We have a very quiet kitchen. No one is talking. Head down. Very zen. So fun as a way to describe feeling enlightenment and connection, yes. But fun as banter and laughs, no. 

Since opening Ikoyi, have you noticed a shift in people’s expectations around fine dining?

I don’t even think of it as a fine dining restaurant. I mean, it is. It’s refined, but we’re not trying to be pretentious. We’re not trying to create this myth of elevated, snobbish feelings of refinement. At Ikoyi, obviously refinement is still there, because you have to spend a lot of money to come and eat there, but the refinement goes into slicing things and preparing things. The service is intended to be very warm, friendly and natural. A lot of it is based on people and character. It’s not something you can imitate. That’s where fine dining catches me out. You can have this great service, but the person who is delivering it is a hospitality professional, and they’ve learned their lines and it’s very impressive. But what’s driving them? The connection or the execution or the high? Or is it actually natural and in their bones? That’s where you have brilliant hospitality; when it’s in someone’s nature. That’s not something you can train. 

And that’s not a criticism of that other side, because that is an art in itself. I’m not saying that’s worse or better than what we do. It’s just a different thing. But here, that’s not what you get. Here, you’re going to get natural, humble people who really understand our culture, the menu, the products, the techniques and the ideas, and what we’re trying to do. 

Plantain spiced efo with roasted peanut. Irina Boersma

There’s been a lot of conversation around the cost of high-end restaurants. Do you ever feel you need to justify the menu price at Ikoyi? (The classic tasting menu is £350, or just under $445, per person.)

Only if people ask. If they’re asking me to justify the price, I can go into great detail about what it takes to do what we do. But that kills the joy out of it, as well. There are so many costs, but it’s a form of expression, and requires the price point at which they’re doing it. People are working and dedicating their lives to it. You can decide if you want to go there or not, and if you don’t want to go there, there’s no need to criticize the place for charging what they need to charge to survive. Just don’t go there. 

The expectation that with restaurants, everything needs to be accessible all the time or everywhere—that’s not true. People sometimes have places they save up for, or it’s a special occasion. And if you didn’t have those special places, then what are they [there] for? Then we’re all just going to eat and strive for the norm always, and never have something extraordinary. That’s not to say the norm can’t be amazing, but the spectrum is important for offering everyone a bit of everything. 

Can you think of the last extraordinary dining experience you had?

No. I’m spending my life deconstructing the myth of restaurants and what they represent, and understanding that at their core is serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to people and being nice. I don’t get carried away with restaurants anymore. I don’t get stuck into the story of them. For a long time, I haven’t gone out to eat with that emotional openness of being swept away by the experience. 

Do you remember a pivotal dining moment that encouraged you to get into cooking?

I went to the French Laundry in my late teens. That was before I really knew I was going to be a chef, and I think that felt really genuine. It was an amazing experience, and I was really impressed with the whole team, the whole operation. Everyone was striving for the same thing. In terms of the food, I remember it well. But I don’t think it impacted me so much with the food as it did the overall connectedness of the whole experience. That was the main influence. But I haven’t had that recently. I’ve just been so busy with Ikoyi, and every time we have some time off, I don’t have the energy to eat out and be happy and relaxed. I usually just want to cook at home.

What can you tease about Ikoyi’s upcoming pop-up at Ritual at Manresa, which is running July 5 to 21?

It’s in Los Gatos, California, so the U.S. audience will be able to come and visit us there and have a taste of Ikoyi in California in the summer. It’s going to be great. It’s a skeleton team. I’ll be there. My head chef will be here in London, and I’ll be there for two and a half weeks.

I urge U.S. guests to come visit. The Ikoyi menu lens [will be] applied to California ingredients. We haven’t just brought our signature dishes with us—we’re making new dishes there. We’re developing a whole new menu. We get excited by the thrill of making something new, and making something bold and putting up new dishes on the other side of the planet. 

We haven’t reached the state of jaded yet where we just box it up, send it to California and open the boxes. We still have joy in this. That’s why guests should come, because they’re going to get raw passion, risk and proper cooking. It’s going to be me on the stoves with a couple of other guys, cooking real food. It’s going to be like what Ikoyi was when it [first] opened. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ikoyi Chef Jeremy Chan Is Deconstructing Restaurant Myths