Nigeria-born and UK-raised Chef Izu Ani expounds on the importance of being humble, the necessity of positivity, and telling stories with ingredients
I’ve been cooking for so long that you understand that each moment is something to treasure,” says Izu Ani, a French-trained award-winning chef Nigeria-born and UK-raised. “I’ve taken the sweet, but also enough bitter to keep me entertained.” Now restaurateur and founding managing director of YSeventy7, a creative consulting and management agency specialised in F&B, Izu has made his name across Dubai’s culinary scene, leaving his fingerprint at outlets he opened, conceptualised or partnered with. From La Petite Maison to La Serre, Lighthouse and IZU Bakery, from international hotel restaurants to his most recent carine at Dubai’s Emirates Golf Club, Izu is on a mission to help create an honest food scene. “No guest should eat bad food,” he says. “People don’t want to eat your ego, they want tasty food. And approaching it in an honest way is all we should be doing, not trying to make food something it isn’t. That’s what I want to be a part of, making the Dubai food scene honest.”
Honesty, heart and positivity resonate through Izu’s – including his initiation to cooking. “Do you want the truth or the story I tell everyone?” he chuckles of his home economics class beginnings. “There were lots of ladies. I thought, ladies are nice to be with, so I basically fell into cooking because I was wanting to get some numbers,” he laughs, clarifying that he was 15. “But I did start to take it seriously and worked my way up.” By 19, Izu branched out after working at venues such as Gregg’s, Sheraton Belgravia, and Seldsdon Park. He came to Dubai by 2010 when La Petite Maison owners pursued him from London to Greece and back again to not only create recipes, but open the now iconic Dubai branch.
“Dubai is a young, dynamic city with a ‘can-do’ attitude. It strives for more and for better,” he says. While Izu’s culinary DNA can be traced to French-Mediterranean, “I bring different layers of culture into my food,” he explains. “I try not to do fusion – I don’t like that terminology because fusion is very aggressive in trying to take over another culture. For me, food is all about the culture itself. Food tells the story of a culture, so I don’t want one to overtake another, and make sure you can taste where it’s from.” Beetroot Salad
Manipulating sweetness, acidity, texture and spice, Izu believes in bringing myriad elements to a plate, lest you not return “because you know the plate already.” With a particular preference for spice play, “I love it, not only fragrant spice, but hot spice, because I’m born in Nigeria and that was my first culture. Whenever my mother eats food with no spice, she says it has no flavour. It isn’t food.” Toning this down to allow other flavours into the story, as well as to please a broader palette, Izu strives to, and has actively, captured diners’ interests. “People know your style of cooking, whatever concept it may be,” he says. “I know the market and the market knows me, and if I’m entering another venture with another partner, there is an element of risk. What I try to do is I bring a percentage of the known, and a percentage of the unknown, and the known always lets people know that I’m here, so they have more confidence to try the unknown.” This includes ‘signatures’ such as cheesecake or Burrata. But Izu changes it up – “The onion tart is different in every place I’ve done. There’s still a similar touch, but the setting changes the flavour.”
Similar recipes will incite different experiences dependent on the atmosphere, he explains. Lighthouse, d3’s Levantine-Mediterranean eatery has a store atmosphere and is full of creatives, but focuses on light food, as compared to the Greek-Levantine restaurant he is opening in September. “It will have a similar feel, but more family-style. You can’t have a whole baby goat at Lighthouse, it’s not the right environment for the product because it has a different encasing and mindset.” The new outlet will present “a predominantly Greek language of food, which I love,” he shares. “It’s about generosity but not heaviness.” Having spent some time in Santorini working in hotels, this venture will “bring something different to Dubai’s scene.”
His new restaurant carine further highlights the importance of setting. “From the terrace you see the golf course, the water… It’s one of these moments you think, wow. Simple food, but done in the right way.” The French restaurant is simple, he says. “You come, sit, and the first thing you get is bread. A French restaurant without bread is no French restaurant. Start again.” Incorporating staples like crème brûlée and richer ingredients that hark back to Northern French cuisine, Izu remarks that there are enough French elements to understand the story, but while other layers assimilate in, carine’s emphasis is on the al fresco experience, which via a film analogy, Izu outlines how whatever the draw of a particular dish or restaurant, its ‘main actor’ needs to shine, with all other elements playing supporting roles.
Mutual respect was firmly instilled in him early on. “You can’t respect your ingredients if you don’t value the people you work with. Say hello to your tomatoes, get to know them. It’s a partnership; you can’t extract the best out of the product if you don’t know what it is. Trying to own it will never reveal its secrets, because you never respected it.” Cooking is a philosophy, not simply technical execution, requiring understanding the innate connectedness. “As humans, we are made of 65 per cent water,” he says. “We carry energy. If you’re happy, it translates into your food, if you’re negative, your food will be in so many ways and won’t taste as it should.”
Izu believes that Dubai offers an opportunity to grow. “It’s an exchange, a social responsibility that more people should have,” he says. “Whenever you share knowledge, you double it, when you share material stuff, you halve it. That’s why I’m partnering with great up-and- coming chefs. I give my knowledge, they bring theirs, and let them free invest Dubai with good food.” Izu’s cites Churchill’s “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty” to illustrate the necessity of positivity. “A very good friend of mine, beautiful human being, who helped me build La Serre, became terminally ill,” he recounts. “He sent a text I will never forget. He said he loved my food, but that ‘this is a pleasure I will soon never have, to be able to swallow, to chew. I wish your food will be the last I will eat.’ The simple act of eating, we take it for granted, and too many people only see what they don’t have.”
Izu reinforces his philosophy with a simple example: “Charlie Brown says to Snoopy, ‘Someday, we will all die!’ and Snoopy says, “True, but on all the other days, we will not!’” Izu laughs. “Exactly! One day you will die, but that day isn’t today, so live it then!”