Global cuisine

CULINARY WORLD ADVENTURES OF IZU ANI

CHEF-IZU-ANISource: Chef Izu Ani

TRAVELLING THE GLOBE WITH THE DUBAI-BASED CHEF

Nigerian born and London bred Izu Ana is known as a dynamic chef behind some of Dubai’s most exciting projects. He was the head chef at La Petite Maison, and La Serre Bistro and Boulangerie. He has since set up his own restaurants – each focus on various parts of the world, from Asian Aya and Greek Gaia to French-Mediterranean Carine and Fika. Now a household name in Dubai, this social and smiley guy comes from humble beginnings. Brought to London from Nigeria as a small child, he was lovingly supported into this career by his mother, who noticed Izu’s passion for cooking early in life.

From cooking at Home Economics classes, Izu progressed to working at some of the best-known London restaurants, like Vanilla and The Square, where he was mentored by legendary Philip Howard. His professional and personal journey continued in France. Having arrived there without speaking a word of French, Izu was determined to learn about French food, the language and local culture. In Izu’s words, “My life changed after finding a placement at the two Michelin-starred La Bastide Saint Antoine in the region of Grasse.” There, under the wing of a highly acclaimed chef Jacques Chibois, the hopeful young man continued learning; he even toured perfumeries in Grasse so he could better understand the scents and flavours of the region. In Alsace, a historical region in north-eastern France, Izu was mentored by Paul Haeberlin, a chef patron of the world famous three-Michelin starred Auberge de L’Ill.

Izu was also inspired by other favours of the world, including modern Spanish cooking, and in particular the outstanding achievements of chef Ferran Adrià and his team at El Bulli (a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Catalonia which was opened for almost a decade, but closed in 2011).  Izu travelled to Spain – a Mecca for molecular cuisine enthusiasts – and volunteered to work in the kitchens of some of the world’s best restaurants including Magaritx, Arzak and Akelarre. However, it soon became apparent that he preferred a classic approach to cooking food. To this day, Izu follows the belief that ingredients always come first. He also believes simple, high-quality cooking enhances the natural qualities and flavours in food.

Q. When did you decide that you wanted to be a chef?

A. It started when I was about 13 years old in Enfield, North London. It was time to choose subjects for GCSEs at school. One I chose was Home Economics, which included a lot of cooking! I would bring food home for my mum to try and she liked it. She encouraged me to cook more. Once, she asked me to cook for our family Christmas dinner. I decided to make stuffed chicken, and everybody loved it. I remember feeling so happy when they complimented me. That’s when I realised that cooking was about pleasing others and giving them joy. I still tell my chefs that we don’t make food; we create happiness for our customers. Food is not about processing food to simply look good, but it’s about putting your heart on a plate.

CHEF-IZU-ANI
Source: Chef Izu Ani

Q. You’ve achieved a lot in your career. Do you have any role models that have helped you?

A. I was lucky to have many role models and mentors in my life. I can’t even mention them all, but I must tell you about Paul and Marc Haeberlin – chefs from Alsace. The first time I went there I couldn’t even speak French. Learning about the local food and the language was a hard process, I nearly gave up several times. Thanks to Marc Haeberlin, now a chef with three Michelin stars and his father, Paul, I stayed. Paul and Marc taught me how to treat other people and how to treat food. I was the first black person to work in their kitchen and the first black person to get a promotion. They showed me that what we do is about who we are and if we are not nice people then we can’t cook nice food.

Q. What cities are you most inspired by?

A. I love Paris. There’s so much to see and experience there, from the history and culture to discovering the food scene – which is just insane! I grew up in London and I love its layers of British culture. The city gives you a playground of endless discoveries. It’s full of people from all over the world and when people from different places come together, they have things to share. I believe that when you share your experiences you double the knowledge. New York is also an amazing city. One of my first memories of the city is seeing the sun, but you can’t feel it because buildings overshadow it. I love the energy of both New York and London. These cities challenge you and they make you question who you are and what your purpose is in life.

Source: Vered Caspi

Q. What is your experience of Alsace?

A. It only takes two hours to get to Alsace from Paris – it’s my second home. I spent three years working with the most amazing people from there, who are like family to me now. At first, people in Alsace can come across as stand-offish, but if you get to know them well, you can become true friends for life. Now, when I travel there, my friends won’t let me stay in a hotel because they’ll prepare a room for me – they share their food and their home with me. Food is amazing in Alsace; it is not contrived. There, they serve tradition on a plate and they really focus on good quality ingredients.

Q. Any other cities that have inspired you and your food?

A. Tokyo is the best city in the world and my memories of it are endless. When I arrived at the airport, I was stunned that everything worked so seamlessly – even suitcases arrived neatly arranged one next to another on a conveyor belt. People there wait patiently in line to get on a tube, one by one. I attribute it to the culture of respect that is embedded in the Japanese society. It goes into their food too. Food there is so clean; you can eat in a little shack in Japan, but it will be a great meal, because people respect you, the ingredients, and their work.  

I love that many Asian cultures treat food like a medicine. The food that you put in your body should be beneficial for you. I noticed that they eat a lot of fermented food. In Japan, it is miso, which is made out of fermented soya beans; in Korea, it’s kimchi, which is a spicy fermented pak choi cabbage. Fermentation creates good bacteria that is not only good for your gut flora, but it also helps to break down other food you’re going to eat. It’s a very intelligent way of eating.

Photo-by-Zach-Inglis_Unsplash
Source: Zach Inglis

Q. What’s the most unusual food you’ve ever eaten?

A.

In Seoul, I ate an octopus right at a market stall and it kept moving in my mouth. I went to a counter, chose an octopus – it was still swimming around; then a woman grabbed it, chopped it up, put some soy and sesame seeds on it and that was it. Thailand was crazy for eating bugs. Crickets and scorpions were okay – they tasted like crisps. I won’t recommend eating slugs though if you are not ready – they are crunchy on the outside but very mushy on the inside. 

there wait patiently in line to get on a tube, one by one. I attribute it to the culture of respect that is embedded in the Japanese society. It goes into their food too. Food there is so clean; you can eat in a little shack in Japan, but it will be a great meal, because people respect you, the ingredients, and their work.  

I love that many Asian cultures treat food like a medicine. The food that you put in your body should be beneficial for you. I noticed that they eat a lot of fermented food. In Japan, it is miso, which is made out of fermented soya beans; in Korea, it’s kimchi, which is a spicy fermented pak choi cabbage. Fermentation creates good bacteria that is not only good for your gut flora, but it also helps to break down other food you’re going to eat. It’s a very intelligent way of eating.

Q. Being British-Nigerian, tell us about living in Nigeria?

A. I was born in a city called Asaba, the capital of Delta State in Nigeria. I only lived there for a short time before I moved to London. The earliest memories I have of my home country is the smell of rain. I still find the smell of rain very comforting because it reminds me of those times when I used to play outside in the yard. As for my food memories, I remember grabbing boiling hot yam from a big plate that I shared with my brothers. It was ridiculously hot and painful to touch, but you had to be quick because if you were slow you stayed hungry, so nobody bothered to wait for it to cool down!

Photo-by-Neil-Fedorowycz_Unsplash

Q. What do you love most about living in the United Arab Emirates?

A. Abu Dhabi is the capital and it’s a very elegant Emirate. Abu Dhabi focuses on family life whilst Dubai is a young and fun place to live. Abu Dhabi is also very classy and everything about it is pristine. One of my best memories in Abu Dhabi is taking my sons to Ferrari World Abi Dhabi theme park. Living in Dubai is a great opportunity to do a lot of outdoor sports. I enjoy wakeboarding in Dubai. It’s a great place to hire a boat with friends and spend the whole day wakeboarding. Another great thing to do in the UAE is go on a desert safari on quad bikes. I love the desert. In a way it can be a scary place because you don’t know where anything is – everything looks the same. But I love the calmness of the desert. Cycling there is incredible. It’s my time to get to know myself.

Q. Where have you seen the best sunset?

A. It must be in Santorini, Greece. I once worked the whole summer there. There is a caldera view (a large volcanic crater). You get to see the sun set over a group of these beautiful islands (Santorini, Therasia, Aspronisi and Nea Kameni). It’s such a magnificent view to watch the sunset from there. It’s the highest spot on the island and sunsets are simply magical – you just feel very small in front of such natural beauty.

Q. Your most memorable sunrise?

A. In the UAE, every morning when I wake up at 4 a.m. I go for a morning bike ride in the desert. The sun creates an incredible ripple effect that is just so unique!

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