They say that you shouldn't work with your friends. But when I decided to open Ikoyi, a West African restaurant in Central London, with my friend Jeremy [Chan]—with him cooking and me doing front-of-house—I didn't know what working with him was like. I didn't know this side of Jeremy, did I? We've found our balance now, but there were clashes initially.
Jeremy and I used to live together and we'd always talked about opening a restaurant sometime, we just didn't know when. Jeremy had just quit his job in finance and started cooking. I used to work in the City but had started a Masters, so had some time to reflect on what I wanted to do. I've always been attracted to hospitality and ended up not finishing the Masters or going back to the City. I started working at a restaurant to get some experience of being on the floor.
When Jeremy and I started living together, I stopped cooking as he'd go to work, cook for 12 or 18 hours, but still want to cook when he got home. So, when I first embarked on opening the restaurant, I asked Jeremy to draft a menu. At the time, he was working at Dinner [Heston Blumenthal's restaurant] and thinking of leaving so he said, "Why don't we do this together?"
Initially I had no reservations about it. But we have different ways of working and dealing with things. I discovered early on that Jeremy works like a machine. He has the ability to get things done, ignoring everything else. We started to clash because I work a bit differently. If you haven't responded to Jeremy's email in a day, then he's going nuts. I was taken aback by his approach but when I understood him, and that he was trying to get us to where we needed to be, I began to appreciate our differences.
As soon as we realised that we complemented each other and that we're not the same—then it worked.
We got the site of our restaurant in February and the deadline for us to be open was the end of August. We didn't know if we were going to make it but actually we opened two months before that. We were emailing people hundreds of times and ringing them a hundred times. We only got there by constantly chasing and keeping on top of people, which is mostly down to Jeremy.
I'm the person who has to manage the artist, which is Jeremy, and manage him so that he doesn't piss anyone else off. As soon as we realised that we complemented each other and that we're not the same—then it worked. I think if we were the same, it wouldn't work at all. We'd just drive each other crazy. It helps that we both have an open-minded approach. If we disagree about something to something, it's not because one of us is being difficult, there's usually a reason behind it. And once the other person sees the reasoning, it's fine.
When we were developing dishes in my flat, it also helped that we came at the food from different perspectives. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria but Jeremy isn't from West Africa so he can look at the food and flavours as an outsider, and see how to best optimise this dish. I recognise those flavours and dishes as things I liked and enjoyed while I was growing up but he can take an ingredient and do something completely different with it. He doesn't have that perception of what something should be.
People don't see West African dishes as flavours or food that can be explored at the level that we're doing it, at such a gastronomical level. We get a lot of West Africans coming in and sometimes they miss out on what's happening. They're too closed into what they expect the food to be like to open up and take it for what it is, rather than constantly compare it to what they've tried at home.
Take our plantain dish, for example. Plantain is normally chopped up and fried with a bit of salt. But we've flipped it on its head. First of all, it doesn't look like it usually does because we cover it in flour, fry it, and then sprinkle it with raspberry dust. People are just used to the sweetness of the plantain but we've added tartness. We serve it with a Scotch bonnet mayonnaise, which is fiery. People expect the plantain to be what's hot because of the pink dust and the mayonnaise to be cooling, but it's the other way round.
It's just about showing that you can get different sensations and flavours from a dish that's known to be traditionally cooked in one particular way. It's trying to break perceptions.
The initial concept I asked Jeremy to draft a menu for was actually for a West African restaurant that was a totally different concept to what Ikoyi is now. It was more playful and simple—more of a Nando's—because I'm not a chef and it wasn't a chef-based concept. But working with Jeremy has meant that Ikoyi is a fusion of both of our ideas.
Iré Hassan-Odukale is the co-founder of Ikoyi, a recently opened contemporary West African restaurant in Central London. He runs the restaurant with head chef and friend Jeremy Chan.