Off Duty is a series of lively conversations with influential people, from CEOs to celebrities, on life, work and the art of taking time off.
When buzzy Chinese-Canadian chef Jeremy Chan appears on my Zoom screen, he looks rather forlorn. His bike has been stolen, he tells me. But after a beat, Chan’s face brightens considerably when we move on to another topic: his grandfather Fred Ross, the acclaimed figurative painter from Saint John, N.B., whose intimately dramatic work hangs in the National Gallery of Canada. Chan enthuses that his grandfather was once featured in The Globe and Mail, too.
The London-based Chan has much to be proud of in his own right. In addition to his upscale West African restaurant, Ikoyi – which he runs with lifelong friend, Iré Hassan-Odukale – earning two Michelin stars, Chan also penned the recently published Phaidon title Ikoyi: A Journey Through Bold Heat with Recipes.
At the start of the book, Chan writes, “In a kitchen, there is nowhere to hide: raw ability and attitude eventually triumph.” It’s a statement that says as much about the author – who after a brief stint in finance spent time in the kitchens of famed boites including Noma and Dinner by Heston – as it does his food. The book’s dishes – including a corn, ube and razor clam combo as well as a smoked jollof rice and crab custard – further amplify Chan’s creative, unabashed approach to cooking, showing he has more in common with his grandfather than one might assume. Here, he talks about cooking and curiosity, why he wanted to write a cookbook and what’s capturing his interest in the farming industry right now.
You studied philosophy and the theory of languages at university, and that leads me to think you’re a very curious person. What kind of curiosity does cooking satisfy for you?
I don’t think it ever satisfies, and I think that’s why I do it. It’s an evolving world of knowledge; once you think you know something, there’s always another way to do it, or another perspective. And perspective changes how you feel and how your taste develops. As you get older, your likes and your dislikes transform. So, I find that cooking is frustrating but also satisfying, because it’s a very open-ended field that relates to culture, technique, recipes, ideas, traditions and how to use ingredients. Cooking is never static. It’s never just, this is what it is. It’s always changing, and it’s cross-disciplinary as well. I interpret my experiences and my memories together with ideas and try to make things that are beautiful and delicious out of a very personal experience. It’s endlessly challenging and artistic.
I know that the restaurant business is notoriously gruelling; how do you prioritize downtime?
I don’t. I’ve been searching for a way of doing that, but especially with this year of being at a new location for the restaurant, it’s kind of like starting from scratch again. It’s been very challenging mentally and physically. But I’m lucky that we close the restaurant on weekends; because of that, I have some time to myself and I usually just catch up on sleep on Saturdays. I like to run and cycle, and I’ll usually cook at home a bit. It goes by quite quickly.
Not to mention you had this cookbook project on the go; tell me more about why you wanted to write one.
I’d never had a desire to do one, but once I had the opportunity, it was a very special experience. I made it clear to myself that I didn’t want it to be a research or reference book – I wanted it to be a very personal narrative. So I basically wrote it like a novel, or personal essay; everything that went into it had to come from my mind and my hands.
What are you hoping people get out of reading it?
It isn’t just for cooks – or even really intended for cooks. It’s really for anyone who’s interested in culture, family and theories about cooking, creativity, spice. … It’s got so many ideas. It’s about how to get into your own mind and develop creative ideas and know that you’re not going to be able to recreate every recipe – the ingredients are too obscure, or the cooking techniques are too labour-intensive. But the point is that you can read the recipe, and you can get inspiration from one aspect of it.
And what about the dishes featured in it – how were they chosen?
I chose recipes that were seasonally feasible to be photographed. I wasn’t going to write an essay or recipe that was contingent on sourcing very specific ingredients that couldn’t be found within the timeframe I was given to write the book. That’s just not how we work at Ikoyi – I don’t just call a supplier at any time of the year and ask for this or that. It’s like, if something’s grown and available then it’s there. It shows my methodology and mindset of taking everything into consideration, not just my desire to put a specific recipe in a book. It’s about the whole picture and trying to optimize this moment of time with the resources I have.
This is a good segue into the final question I have for you: What are you passionate about advocating for in the food or farming industries?
One of the main things I’m really interested in is grass-fed meat – rotational grazing, and animals that have grazed in silvopasture, which is pasture that’s covered in woodland. What I’m overall attuned to is that the closer the farming system is to nature, the more diverse the environment they’re creating and the better the ecosystem they’re creating. I’m inspired by people that are trying to work naturally and create natural flavour; I think there’s something about things being done this way as having a form of perfection that we don’t have control over.
This interview has been edited and condensed.