It’s one of the most prestigious culinary accolades out there. The ‘One to Watch’, as identified by the 20-odd judging panels of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards – an annual list described as hugely inspirational by its proponents and humbug by its critics but which never fails to cause a stir (and a surge in bookings) when its top rankings are revealed, as they will be on October 5 in Antwerp.
In an early announcement, Ikoyi, in St James’, London, has been declared this year’s One to Watch, praised by the awards’ director of content William Drew as “one of the most exciting restaurants to have opened in recent years.” It is the very first place in Britain to receive the prize.
Since opening Ikoyi in 2017, co-owners Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale have become accustomed to acclaim, from glowing reviews in the national press to winning a Michelin star in their first year. Ikoyi has become “one of London’s most lauded” restaurants but also, as described by the food newsletter Vittles last year, one of the most “misunderstood”.
For this multi-continental mash-up (as the 50 Best Awards coins it) is hard to categorise. Ikoyi is named after a district in Lagos, Nigeria. Many of its ingredients are of West African origin, leading to its characterisation as a West African or West African-inspired restaurant. But, head chef Chan and managing director Hassan-Odukale argue, this pigeonholing overlooks much of what Ikoyi is about.
Chan, 34, who was born in the UK to Canadian and Chinese parents, and Nigerian-born Hassan-Odukale, 35, met at boarding school in Cheshire and grew up cooking and eating together. While both had stints in other industries (Chan spent two years in finance after studying at Princeton; Hassan-Odukale spent longer in insurance), they soon realised hospitality was “innate in our personalities,” says Chan.
Hassan-Odukale told Chan, who by then had started cheffing, that he wanted to open a Nigerian-focused restaurant. “I came on board,” Chan recalls, “and started looking at the ingredients, the cuisine. But I realised it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t familiar with Nigerian cuisine and it didn’t feel right to be cooking Nigerian food. We flipped it around and made it a much more subjective, personal project, where I would interpret produce and ingredients in a very personal way.”
This has led to creative dishes such as plantain with raspberry salt; smoked jollof rice and crab custard; and tuna belly with raw okra and red-pepper soup.
“I still see people on social media saying, ‘I had the most incredible African fusion meal’”, says Chan. “A lot of the dishes are inspired by meals I’ve had in Paris, or things I’ve eaten in Hong Kong [where Chan spent much of his childhood]. They’re not inspired by anything related to African cuisine, but we’re using those ingredients.”
While Hassan-Odukale says they’re not particularly bothered by how people describe them, Chan admits it can be problematic – and patronising. “People see French cuisine and European cuisine as the most elite. It’s almost as if they come [to Ikoyi] for the gimmicky experience but then the real cuisine is when they go to a top French restaurant. But actually the seriousness in the cooking is more extreme than what you’d get in a French restaurant. It’s a similar technique, but more artistic and abstract, and a way more complex use of spices and ingredients.” Indeed Chan claims one dish, of caramelised plantain with ginger and kelp, contains “maybe 100 ingredients”.
Though the pair are wary of politicising their restaurant, Hassan-Odukale admits Ikoyi has a role to play in changing conceptions of West African food in the UK. The past few years have seen several high-profile openings for a region that has often been marginalised, with Akoko in Fitzrovia, Chuku’s in Tottenham and Chishuru in Brixton. While reviews for all have been largely effusive, they are notable in their language, often describing Ikoyi and others as “peculiar” or “challenging” and even noting that people might balk at the price (£160 for the evening tasting menu with the likes of steamed yams with benne milk, uda and kaluga caviar). Many diners wouldn’t bat an eyelid at paying that for a French or Italian menu of similar standing.
So what, then, is Ikoyi? During our conversation Chan and Hassan-Odukale, both softly spoken but intensely intelligent, ascribe multiple identities, identifying it variously as a beef restaurant, seafood restaurant, scallop restaurant, and an “extreme British restaurant” – since most of the ingredients are hyper local, hyper seasonal, meticulously and obsessively sourced far beyond the lip service some restaurants play to those concerns. (Chan has even penned articles on his close relationship with farmers.)
At one point Chan describes a “psychotic obsession with quality” and constantly refers to refinement and improvement. It’s a restaurant, one senses, that isn’t sitting still. When that course of plantain with raspberry salt became too familiar, something of a signature dish, Chan decided to change it.
The restaurant, he argues, is far better now than when it received its Michelin star. “Maybe we won the star and felt praised, because we had good flavours and an imaginative concept, but as technicians and cooks, we weren’t quite there. If I look back, we didn’t know how to cook fish, meat, or how to source properly. I really learnt how to cook in the last year or two.” Unlike some celebrated chef-owners, Chan is still in the kitchen every day.
Even still, the One to Watch title “was not expected,” he admits. “We’ve been working insanely hard. To get the award is an amazing by-product of the extremely hard work we do, but it’s not something we aimed for.”
According to Hassan-Odukale, the news has been greeted with much bigger fanfare abroad than in the UK, where Michelin stars are still king (although some chefs admit that the World’s 50 Best has usurped the tyre manufacturer’s crown). Chefs, customers, friends and wellwishers have been in touch from the United States, Australia, Denmark, Italy and France. “If we were in New York, I reckon we’d be insanely busy,” says Chan. “Whereas here we’re busy but not fully booked all the time.”
Now, all eyes are on the World’s 50 Best announcement of restaurant rankings, which takes place on October 5 (entries 50-100 are declared on September 23). British recognition is rare. Only The Clove Club (27) and Lyle’s (33) made the top 50 in 2019, the last iteration, which was topped by Mirazur in France. In 2019, The Ledbury (now closed down), Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Core by Clare Smyth, Britain’s most recent new entry, made the top 100.
Are Chan and Hassan-Odukale pinning their hopes on a spot on the list (it is not guaranteed, despite the One to Watch accolade)? “It doesn’t really matter,” says Chan. “This award’s great. Just to be recognised is great.”
Whatever happens, one senses the pair won’t become complacent, and that a rise to the upper echelons of the World’s 50 Best is a safe bet.