Spice addiction, ‘hot-raw’ fish and American cheese: Ikoyi chef Jeremy Chan shares his food passions

Jeremy Chan - 16/06/2023

London restaurant Ikoyi has blown away the gastronomic world in recent years with its unusual and highly spice-driven cuisine. In four exclusive extracts from his new book, Ikoyi: A Journey Through Bold Heat with Recipes, chef-owner Jeremy Chan describes his personal origins and motivation, and provides insights into his distinctive sourcing and cooking techniques

“My mother is Canadian and my father is Chinese. For the first eight years of my life, we lived in Hong Kong, where I went to a local international primary school with kids from all over the world. This time in Hong Kong was definitely a fundamental period in my life in terms of building memories: the towering skyscrapers, the neon lights and the pungent smells emanating from the crowded markets all remained entrenched in my mind.

The Chinese have a very strong food culture that I feel privileged to be connected to in such a profound way. Every Sunday, we would gather with family and friends and feast on dim sum; noodles, drunken shrimp, jellyfish and chicken feet are only a handful of the delicacies that I soon became deeply obsessed with. In Chinese culture, food dominates conversation and the daily routine, and the cuisine is much more complex than in many Western cultures. The number of dishes at the lunch table can be vast, as can the spectrum of taste and textures found in the dishes themselves. My father was always quite strict with us in terms of eating; he insisted that we try everything. I was slightly scared of his penetrating stare, but I look back now and am grateful that I was pushed to keep an open mind.

We moved to the northwest of the UK, near Manchester, when I was eight years old. Later, I spent my high-school days in Winchester. Since my parents are from two very different places, I was lucky enough to experience both of their worlds. I spent most summers in Canada with my mother’s family, enjoying their relaxed maritime way of life in New Brunswick on the east coast. Where the Chinese experience had expanded my horizon of flavour, Canadian cuisine brought me back down to earth. I found Chinese food mentally stimulating, but there was something grounding about hot dogs with relish and tuna melts made by my aunt using store-bought American cheese and soft white bread. In the end, both food cultures have had an equally important part to play in my formation as a chef.”
Ikoyi's food is designed to challenge perceptions through an exploration of the complexities of spice

Bold heat

“I always wanted to stay true to our love of spice, since it was part of both my own DNA and Iré’s [Ikoyi co-founder Iré Hassan-Odukale]. If you grow up eating intensely spiced cuisine, your palate adjusts to this heightened, sometimes pain-inducing flavour. A love of spice and a way of life accustomed to eating it is sort of like being addicted to the strongest drugs – once you’ve had the good stuff, everything else seems weak. The menu at Ikoyi is a journey in bold heat, taking you through many levels of complexity and layering of spice through infusion, aromas and emulsions. I wanted to create a menu with relentless flavour that would always leave the guests’ mouths tingling, whether through the zing of a white peppercorn or the candied tobacco resin of smoked chillies.

Bold heat also entailed a sense of defiance… Early tasters of our dishes tried to convince me to tone things down, fearing that the heat would put off the local British audience. There is something inherently risky in serving heavily spiced cuisine in a restaurant with a tasting menu. I wanted to disrupt this context and instil a stronger sense of my personality into the dining experience. Open-mindedness to other cultures and cuisines means perceiving their ingredients for what they are. If the Scotch bonnet is ferociously spicy, why should we shield this part of its nature? As the world imposed preconceptions on to Ikoyi, I wanted to make sure we retained our own identity.”
The meat used in Ikoyi's dishes is carefully selected for flavours that are unique at their point of origin

The terroir of meat

“The meat servings at Ikoyi are an expression of terroir, much like the distinct aromas and flavour profiles in great wine, which are shaped by numerous environmental factors. While our main focus is beef from Cornwall and Devon, we also work with aged mutton, game and rare-breed pork. As with our vegetable farmers, we let our beef farmers select the meat that will be aged for the restaurant. The result is beef that is as seasonal and varied as our bounty of greens…

Our cattle and sheep graze rotationally on pasture grass, moorland areas and between coppiced forestry. Every time I taste meat from one of the many native breeds we serve, I’m surprised by its distinct textural and aromatic characteristics, which vary depending on the time of year. Beef killed towards the end of summer finishes on richer grass, and so the meat is sweeter with a greater covering of fat, while winter beef tends to be slightly leaner.”
Gently cooking fish allows each piece to reach the perfect 'hot-raw' state

Precision seafood cooking

“One of the reasons I’ve wanted to remain in Great Britain as a chef is the incredible seafood that surrounds the island. We are in a very lucky position to be able to communicate directly with fishermen and boats, accessing fish caught on the line in the early hours of the morning with it arriving at Ikoyi some hours later. What excites me about fish is its purity and energy. When hyper-fresh, there is nearly no taste. The fish almost acts as a vehicle for other flavours, while its texture – which can be melting, dense or bouncy – heightens mouthfeel…

When cooking fish, our job is to make the produce shine, and so there are very few movements involved once we have broken the fish down into fillets. Our preferred methods of cooking uses gentle heat – poaching, confiting and baking – followed by a few kisses of flame. Cooking fish beautifully is best achieved by careful observation, watching the colour transform to a fragile pearlescence and noticing the flesh expand in reaction to heat. I like to think of the perfect level of fish ‘doneness’ as hot-raw: the delicate moment when fish boasts the sheen of bursting juices while having the consistency of flaky tenderness.”

Extracted from Ikoyi: A Journey Through Bold Heat with Recipes by Jeremy Chan, published by Phaidon, £44.95 (Phaidon.com)

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