It’s rare that you meet visionary chefs as humble as Izu Ani. Jade George, Academy Chair for The World's 50 Best Restaurants in the Middle East, caught up with him on his return from Ethopia, where he discovered some of the best quality sesame seeds in the world. He plans to import them back for his new gourmet shawarma venture, S’wich.
If you ask any fine dining aficionado in Dubai, they will recognise Izu Ani as the former chef of La Petite Maison, a recurrent occupant of The World's 50 Best Restaurants' 51-100 list and No. 81 in 2014. Although he is reluctant to be introduced as such, chef Ani tries to take his diverse food culture anywhere he goes, be it at La Serre – a French restaurant in Dubai where he’s executive chef – or at a franchise concept like S’wich.
Chef Ani was born in Nigeria and moved to England, where he became a national at the age of 16 and ended up living there for 22 years. At just 19, he was chef-de-partie at The Square in London and worked there for many years.
S'wich brings the gourmet to the world of street food
"I joined just when they had earned two Michelin stars and the hype around it was amazing,” he recounts. “I impressed the owner so much that he asked me to stay and offered to make me sous-chef, which was absurd to me at 19. He taught me everything from being in the kitchen to being a person.”
Chef Ani had other plans, however, and in 1997 he set off for France. At the time French food was the base of the Nouvelle Cuisine and he wanted to go and see it first hand.
“I had to go and understand it; I didn’t just want to be an outsider looking in," he says. "I always believe that when you understand what you do, you own it; it’s yours. When you’re on the outskirts, you’ll always be a visitor.”
Portobello mushroom shawarma, marinated in tomato sauce and onion confit
Chef Ani first moved to Marckolsheim near Strasbourg before exploring the south of France. He learnt the language and worked at some of the best restaurants, including the L'Auberge de l'ill, the second oldest three-Michelin star restaurant in the world. He was also sent for an exchange residency in the kitchen of the majestic Paul Bocuse.
The chef met his wife in France and ended up buying a house near St Tropez. Five years into his French journey, he felt another itch to learn a new language – both literally and in the kitchen.
His love for travel and the rise of Spanish cooking led him to Spain, where he apprenticed for nine months at Arzak and at Akelarre in San Sebastian.
Fresh whole-wheat saj bread baked in the restaurant throughout the day
“Spain is where I really learnt what to do and what not to do," he says. "I learnt to recognise hype and to step out of it – to know not to leave the basics out of real cooking. You can’t leave the romance out and go to the act. Because then the enjoyment is gone.”
Working at Arzak highlighted this for Ani. “I learnt so much working there. These guys knew how to keep their tradition whilst pushing the boundaries in an organic way. Giving people tasty real food is what it’s all about, and this is what’s great about being involved in S’wich. No matter what the structure is, the idea is to give out real and tasty food.”
Ani uses the exact same approach at S’wich, where he’s elevated the shawarma to a truly gourmet affair, be it in the meats he uses, the depth of the dressings he has created or the breads freshly baked every day. He believes it’s all about the ethos you create in a restaurant and it all starts with understanding the culture you’re dealing with.
The interior of S'wich's Dubai Marina location
“I had to discover the whole tradition behind shawarma. I ate shawarma for my pleasure before anything.”
And if anyone is a chameleon in the world of food, it’s him. His thirst for understanding and ability to delve into a culture and blending his own into it is undeniable; and his research kitchen is living proof of that.
“I’m impressed with great research. Arzak taught me to present only the best 10% of the great things you develop and to leave the remaining 90% out. That’s what makes Arzak what it is today and it’s part of what I aim to achieve in my kitchens. No one’s doing that here. It’s important to research every inch of a product before putting it out there.”
At the research kitchen in Dubai, he plans to invite people to watch his team as they work, learn more than just the basics and have access to his personal library of culinary publications.
“When you’ve had the opportunity to learn something, it is your time to give it to someone else. That’s the advantage of doing this is Dubai, because it’s still growing and I can be part of building that growth.”
Images: Dory Younes