This wasn’t the plan for Jeremy Chan. He wasn’t supposed to end up working inside a kitchen. When you study at Princeton University and land a plum job in private equity shortly after graduation, you’re supposed to follow a well-worn path in finance, eating at fine dining restaurants, rather than running one of them.
But plans are made to be scrunched up and tossed away, even if everyone around you thinks you’re losing your mind. Chan actually was losing his mind in the world of finance. He had returned from New Jersey and moved to Madrid for a job, but he was miserable.
Cooking started as an outlet, but quickly he was consuming one Spanish cookbook after another as it rapidly dawned on him that he didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk working for the man – he wanted to cook.
Born in Hong Kong to a Chinese father and a Canadian mother, Chan had been cooking at home since he was fifteen, but it was always an escape from study and work, never meant to be anything more. His father pushed him extremely hard and demanded nothing less than excellence in a profession far removed from pots and pans.
Chan departed the finance world in a cloud of smoke. He cringes now, upon reflection, but knows he might still be crunching numbers if he didn’t leave in the manner he did. It all went down when he penned an aggressive email to his managing director, ferociously explaining how much he hated what he was doing and was never coming back, before turning off his phone for three weeks. There is quitting, and then there is quitting Jeremy Chan style.
Now nearly a decade after he scorched his bridges in private equity, Chan is blazing a new path in the gastronomy world with his hit London restaurant Ikoyi. The softly spoken but fiercely determined chef was awarded his first Michelin Star in 2018 and along with childhood friend and business partner, Ire Hassan-Odukale, has just been revealed as the 2021 ‘One to Watch’ recipient ahead of next month’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in Antwerp, with Ikoyi landing on the list for the first time at No. 87.
With the coronavirus pandemic relinquishing its stranglehold on haute cuisine in recent months, Ikoyi has quickly regained momentum, led by the man who changed his plan and is now reaping the rewards but is in constant pursuit of perfection.
“I went to university and obviously had a very privileged opportunity to go to a great school. I worked very hard at university, but it is a strange period of your life because you don’t have any responsibility, yet you’re working hard towards achieving,” Chan begins as we sit down ahead of a midweek lunch service at Ikoyi earlier this month.
“After university, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life; I was very, very confused, but I followed the safe track within the world I was accustomed to. Finance is a great field, but it wasn’t for me. I struggled a lot with a sedentary lifestyle. I’m a very physical, active person and there was no physical, active job within the world I was studying and working in. Everyone was going off to be a lawyer or do a PHD or work in finance; it was a very ambitious world.
“I searched for more meaning and I found that cooking was something intellectually engaging and very creative and something that dug deep down into personal things and was quite artistic and very physical. It just sort of happened. I was researching a lot of job opportunities in Spain, reading lots of books, consuming a lot of knowledge and just realising that this was something that I can do.
“To break from a very safe and well-paid job out of university and the right track saw me leave quite dramatically. And I think it was good to leave dramatically because I don’t think it would happen anyway. Being quite an extreme person, I don’t think I could have quit my job and gone to cooking school for two years. I had to quit my job and start at the best level I could. I had to really put the pressure on myself.”
By running away from finance, Chan had no option but to launch himself into the culinary world at a breakneck pace. He didn’t want to toil away for years gradually climbing up the archaic hierarchy inside kitchens. It led him back to London and into the highly regarded kitchen of Hibiscus as a stage, which was once regarded as England’s finest restaurant before it closed after nearly two decades in 2016, as well as stints inside Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen and Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental by Hyde Park.
When Hassan-Odukale suggested the concept that would eventually become Ikyoi in 2017, the pair started popping up all over the capital, cooking in private homes and galleries, hosting events at Somerset House and Carousel. It all led to the space we are currently sitting in, tucked down a lane just around the corner from the chaotic Piccadilly Circus.
Despite the explosive manner in which he departed finance and the early accolades he has already received, Chan only recently realised he actually wanted to do what he is doing. At least for right now. Calculated and complex, he relishes an environment where what you did at university or what you did yesterday counts for zero today. No one in the kitchen cares where you went to school or what degree you have. They only care about how you perform this shift.
“I probably only realised I want to be a chef in like the last year or so. I don’t still know if this is what I want to do, but in the meantime, this keeps me occupied and it keeps my brain and my thoughts quelled,” he said in a manner that leaves more questions than answers, in a way that makes Chan so interesting.
“I think figuring out what you want to do in life is very, very challenging and happiness is very challenging. Cooking is so busy that you don’t have time to ponder what is the right thing to do. You’re so busy in the kitchen that it gives you meaning every day in a way that’s distracting.
“In the last year or so I’ve really become a chef. In the last three or four years, I haven’t really been a chef; I’ve been someone who is fairly smart who has come out with solution to running a restaurant who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. I think I’ve managed to make the restaurant successful because the concept is original and the ideas are original. But now I feel like a good chef, which is why I like it and why I’m happy with what I’m doing.
“The thing that excites me about cooking is no one else is going to do it for you; you have to cook it yourself; you can’t pull out your resume. It is part of my DNA – a great education – but with good cooking, can you peel onions? Can you prep fish? Can you run a team? There are real concrete definitions of work which I find very present and physical and actual. You can really see your work.”
Defining what Ikoyi actually does has been more difficult than Chan and Hassan-Odukale envisaged when they first opened five years ago. Those who dine thinking they are in for traditional Nigerian cuisine depart disappointed. Those who arrive with an open mind are pleasantly surprised by the unique flavours and dishes that land on the table. Ikoyi has struggled to define itself in a world that wants to put everything into a category. It’s not Nigerian or West African; it is inspired by that neck of the woods using British ingredients.
Chan wasn’t looking to head down this path until Hassan-Odukale planted the seed. He didn’t relate to Nigerian cuisine, but just like most things in his life, he knew if he applied himself, he would learn quickly and then add his own twist. And that’s what he has done at Ikoyi. Chan speaks six different languages fluently – French, Portuguese, Chinese, English, Italian and Spanish – and is currently writing his first book, which will cover his life up until this point and the lessons he has learned along the way to opening his first restaurant.
“Ere asked me to, I wasn’t looking to do it, he asked me if I wanted to help him look at this cuisine. I thought it was a really beautiful opportunity to learn from someone from a different culture and bridge together experiences and make them original,” he said.
“When I ate the food from his background I couldn’t relate to it because I’m not Nigerian and it’s not the food that I know. I didn’t want to try and cook west African food – it just wouldn’t be genuine. It would be like me going to Lithuania and trying to make Lithuanian food, it just wouldn’t be genuine. Maybe Lithuania has quite interesting produce and a rich food culture, so there are things you can learn from it.
“West African food is part of our DNA and inspiration and respect for the product, but it’s not a strict dogma that says we have to have some of everything to qualify. Right now, there isn’t anything even West African on the menu.”
Chan may be known externally for the work he does in the kitchen, but internally his fingerprints are everywhere, from managing and training the team to writing recipes and tastings with wine and food suppliers to managing the books – obviously – and deep cleaning the kitchen every day. There isn’t a part of the restaurant that he isn’t involved in, and he likes it that way, even if it means he is sacrificing a work-life balance right now.
If the recent recognition from 50 Best is a reminder he is on the right trajectory, then the reveal from the Michelin Guide a few years ago came at a time when the business need an injection of credibility to engage with London.
“I was actually pretty relieved because we were struggling quite badly at the time. It was good for us and gave us a kickstart. Now that I look back, I’m actually kind of surprised we got a Michelin Star when we did because I don’t think the food was particularly good back then. It pushed us to do more,” he conceded.
“I’m really grateful to be recognised but I think now is when we’re really coming into our own. It was cool for someone who had no experience in cooking and had just opened a restaurant a year ago and basically creatively problem solved a restaurant by using common sense and got a Michelin Star. It was kind of gratifying. It also shows cooking isn’t about how many years you spend in a restaurant it is about how you use your knowledge. You don’t have to work eight years in a restaurant to get one.”
Chan has been breaking the mould for years. He didn’t attend a culinary school. He didn’t serve a long apprenticeship. He didn’t choose to cook a more popular cuisine. He has done it his way, and he will continue to do it his way. He now has a carefully curated plan and it doesn’t involve private equity.