Stone & River interview with Gaz Herbert, senior sous chef at Ikoyi
Written by Lucy Orr-Ewing
28th August 2019
Stone & River's Lucy Orr-Ewing caught up with Gaz Herbert, chef at the MIchelin starred, West African inspired Ikoyi.
In an impossibly quiet backstreet behind Piccadilly Circus in St James’ Market is Ikoyi, a restaurant that has a completely unique cuisine based on an “interpretation of West African ingredients”. There I met Gaz Herbert, heading the kitchen under co-founder Jeremy Chan, who gave me an insight into the sphere of fine dining and the emphasis they have on top suppliers and ingredients, as well as Ikoyi’s turnaround and where it is today.
St James’ Market is an odd place; it’s a £450m development in the heart of London, yet feels remarkably secluded. Some ventures have subsequently struggled in this location, with Tonkotsu’s fine-dining sister project, Anzu, closing in January of this year, while Salt Yard’s Veneta closed its doors after a year’s trading, yet bucking the trend, Ikoyi will soon be celebrating their second anniversary this summer. Ikoyi is somewhat dwarfed in the shadow of the massive, 300-cover Aquavit next door but Ikoyi’s humble 30-cover space is arguably the most successful in this little market backstreet. As Gaz says, “We’re tiny! Look at the size of our kitchen – we should be a café!”, which makes their creations all the more impressive for the micro-kitchen they emerge from.
Ikoyi has had the lifetime of a well-established brand condensed into two years: a well-publicised launch in summer of 2017, a near collapse in Christmas 2017, a ‘turnaround’ in January 2018 to being awarded its first Michelin star in October of that year.
Gaz explains that Ikoyi attracted a flurry of excitement when they first opened in July of 2017. Articles were written about the “new kid on the block” and business was booming. But when this attention naturally dipped towards Christmas of that year, so too did that initial thrill. The founders are careful to never call themselves a West-African restaurant as such, but more of a reference to well-known West African influences and ingredients. However, this resulted in consumer perception becoming confused; West Africans thought their dishes were insulting to their cuisine, and non-West Africans thought they were being cheated out of their Nigerian evening. Seats were largely empty, if not filled with unhappy customers.
So they began the new year with a new strategy. They got rid of the ‘à la carte’ menu which was proving too confusing, and put in a taster set menu at a higher price. This drove higher revenue and freed up the chefs to play around with ingredients and recipes, earning customers’ trust and broadening their culinary horizons. In doing so, the team modified their restaurant into a full sensory experience that sets out to astonish. I can vouch from first-hand experience that the taster menu surprises and delights in equal measure, and each new dish arrives more beautiful and bizarre than the last.
Ingredients and suppliers
Gaz says it wouldn’t have been possible without the conscious investment they made in first-rate suppliers and the relationships they have built with them over time. A Michelin-star restaurant will always have quality ingredients as its cornerstone, and Gaz is unsurprisingly “absolutely obsessed with quality”, taking only the very best from their suppliers. “We have to work with ingredients at their absolute prime”, Gaz tells me, “we can’t afford to be having sub-par ingredients for the prices people are paying”. All ingredients are sourced according to season and location for maximum quality, which has the added benefit of a low carbon-footprint.
He tells me there was a pescatarian trend forming after Christmas 2017, and so part of their turnaround involved packing their dishes full of fish to comply. And as we chat, a bicycle turns up with fresh fish caught that very morning from the coast. “We work with a fab supplier called Pesky who remove the middleman (fish markets) and go straight from coast to restaurant. For instance, a pollock is caught in the morning and shipped straightaway onto a train to Paddington (never frozen), where someone picks it up and whisks it over by bike”. Fish is an ingredient where freshness and quality is particularly easy to spot, and this couldn’t be fresher for inner-city fish.
They also have a “spectacular” meat supplier in Cornwall who have extremely high welfare for their animals. For example, calves are kept with their mothers for a full year, instead of a few days at most other farms. This translates to a much richer, tastier meat which isn’t sold to just anyone; they want to be mindful of what is done with their meat and, rest assured, it’s going to a good home at Ikoyi. “We send them photos of our dishes and they can’t believe what we do with it”.
As seemingly with every conversation, Brexit emerges into ours. Its impact on the industry has been well documented but Gaz points out one advantage: “of course it’s affected international supplier relationships and prices have skyrocketed but it has meant we lean more heavily on seasonality and local providence which actually stimulates our creativity”, he explains, “we call up, we ask ‘what have you got for us? What’s in season? What’s good value for this time of year?’ and they send it over and we make something new with it”. The immediacy of their supply chain also protects them from stock wastage, as well as unpredictable seasons as things are coming in and out of season at bizarre times due to strange weather conditions. This has given rise to around 400 completely new recipes that have been created in the last 18 months.
When dining at Ikoyi, you’re made to feel part of the warm, family-feel team as they guide you through the sensory bewilderment that arrives with each dish. There are only seven FoH and seven BoH staff and their turnover is virtually nothing. Since they opened, they’ve only had one shift reshuffle and four out of seven in the head team have been there since opening. Purpose is the buzzword for business at the moment, but it is proving to be the difference between a successful brand and those going into CVA agreements. Gaz says that their reason for their great team is a strong sense of purpose “the hours are pretty good for a kitchen, but it ultimately comes down to what kind of organisation it is, and everyone’s so behind what we’re doing”.
Their roots remain in London and Jeremy has been a staunch believer that Ikoyi wouldn’t have worked in any other city. Gaz describes London as “a melting pot of different cuisines”, born from the “terrible reputation we had for food in the late 80s…we were a blank canvas” Gaz adds. Slowly the industry modernised, and now, says Gaz, “you can put your finger anywhere on a world map and there will be a restaurant in London serving that cuisine. Relatively speaking, African cuisine is very underrepresented so we’re lucky in that respect”.
London is currently experiencing a cull of slow-moving, outdated restaurants that aren’t keeping up with consumer demand. Fine dining is a totally different beast to casual-dining and they encounter different trends at different times due to the higher price point. “There’s a trend against mid-market restaurants as people become more aware of food but also fundamentally better at cooking. There are amazing cookbooks getting people excited by home-cooking. Supermarkets are doing great partnerships to improve the ‘ready-meal’ and, of course Deliveroo and Just Eat have changed the game.”
"We’re in the experience economy, that’s why high-end restaurants can charge what they can. We have the shock factor"
Gaz Herbert, Ikoyi
Co-founder Jeremy has engendered in all his chefs a sense of uniqueness and quality and encourages them to constantly push boundaries, “it’s very difficult to be original but it’s about having the balls to just try it out”. You certainly feel this in the air on a visit to Ikoyi, and I implore anyone with an appreciation of food and fun to head there very soon.
Would you like features like this sent direct to your inbox?Sign up to our newsletter