People 7 minutes 08 February 2024

Meet The Duo Behind Michelin-Starred Akoko

Founder Aji Akokomi and Executive Chef Ayo Adeyemi talk about their One Star West African restaurant

African London Editor's Pick Chef Interview

Monday 5th February 2024 was a special day for Ayo Adeyemi and Aji Akokomi. For both of them, it was the culmination of years of hard graft in the restaurant industry: One Michelin Star for their restaurant, Akoko. For Executive Chef Ayo and Founder & Owner Aji, it is a fitting reward for all the hard work they have poured into the place.

Inside the stylish, minimalist dining room with terracotta walls and wooden surfaces, Ayo leads a kitchen serving food that looks to both the past and the present for inspiration. Traditional West African flavours are inspired by founder Aji’s Nigerian heritage, while the kitchen team use modern techniques to bring an innovative twist to some of the gorgeously presented dishes.

Having already spoken to both Ayo and Aji a few months before receiving their Star, we caught up with Ayo at The MICHELIN Guide Ceremony 2024 to get his reaction to such brilliant news.

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Ayo, you’ve just received One Michelin Star. How are you feeling?

Ayo: I feel ecstatic and relieved. I was very anxious before because you never know what to expect, and I'm nervous as it’s my first time being here. But honestly, I feel honoured and privileged to just be associated with this amazing array of chefs that I've looked up to for so many years – I've always wanted to be a part of this club. I've worked hard and travelled around the world, to be able to push and strive for this level of cooking. I regard Michelin as like the gold medal in the Olympics of cooking, so honestly I’m just honoured.

Like you say, you've been around the world cooking. Do you think that's helped you get to this point?

Ayo: I just think my hard work has got me to this point. Obviously, the travel helps because it helps build my palate, and I learned a lot from the restaurants I've worked in and the places I've been. But all in all, I've just been very driven and focused on cooking great quality food and striving for that excellence.

We’ve spoken before about you working with Aji, Akoko’s Founder. Do you feel like your collaboration is going from strength to strength?

Ayo: Absolutely. The partnership me and Aji have is amazing because, firstly, Aji has a great heart. But he also brings so much to the table not just as a restaurant owner, but there's this passion that he brings that's incredible. With my experience in terms of the cooking and his mindset, we kind of morph together very well. And I know deep down that he's very proud of me and the team being able to recognise this achievement.

I think we’ll just keep going onwards and upwards. It's not just like you get a Star and that's it, you're done. Now you need to retain it! So we're already gameplanning: what are we going to do to better ourselves from last year? Because that's how you're judged, you're judged year by year. So we want to now elevate things and go to the next level. Again, that comes with a lot of hard work, research, development and creativity.

It's been a very good year for London, with lots of new Stars. Are you pleased to be a part of the city’s dining scene?

Ayo: Of course. I didn't grow up in London – I was born in the UK and raised in the south coast – but I've worked in London for a little bit before. Everybody knows that London is a big player in the world, and there's so much competition, so much diversity in London. To be able to stand out among those restaurants, to have a Michelin Star, is an honour and just an amazing achievement for my team and for the restaurant.

Being here and seeing some of my past colleagues and friends in the industry, and them giving me the feedback of ‘we're happy you're here, you deserve it’ – that is an achievement alone, even before getting a Michelin Star. So yeah, I've played the game in London, because you have to, but at the same time I've enjoyed it and I've learned a lot from restaurants around the area. I've networked with a lot of great chefs and London is just a great city, a buzzing city, with so much diversity, so much great food and an amazing dining culture.


We also spoke to both Ayo and Aji a few months before they received their Star; they discussed their vision for Akoko, increasing the profile of West African cuisine and their favourites dishes.

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What can a first-time diner expect to find at Akoko? How would you describe your approach to food?

Aji:
First-time diners can expect a unique culinary adventure that respectfully emphasises the exceptional quality of the ingredients and showcases innovation within traditional West African processes. Our food tells a story from start to finish, beginning with a deep understanding of ingredients and their cultural significance. This immersive experience takes diners on a journey to different West African regions, exploring history and unveiling the rich tapestry of flavours that define each dish – whether it's Senegambia's use of acid and seafood flavours, Ghana's unique approach to making sauces or Nigeria's unique spice mixes and layering of flavours. We are committed to preserving and evolving West African culinary traditions to provide an unforgettable exploration of the cuisine.

What can people expect from the feel and décor at Akoko? What sort of atmosphere are you trying to create?

Aji:
Our décor draws inspiration from the simplicity of African adobe terracotta clay architecture, reflecting the sustainable and organic way of living in this region. The space is designed to evoke a warm and inviting ambience with carefully selected artwork to transport diners to a remote and scenic part of Africa, where the beauty of the landscape remains untouched.

It's been around a year since Ayo joined the Akoko team as Executive Chef. How have you found this time working together?

Ayo:
I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year running Akoko as Executive Chef. It’s been an exciting and fulfilling challenge for my personal career, to truly embrace my cultural heritage in the fine dining world. I am really excited for what the future holds with the journey and growth of this company.

Aji: Ayo and I have shared a deep commitment to elevating West African cuisine beyond the surface level. We have focused on exploring the unique techniques and traditional principles that make this cuisine exceptional. Together, we've strived to create dishes that not only taste incredible but also tell the story of West Africa's culinary heritage. It's been a year of united dedication to this vision.

Ayo, what do you think you’ve brought to Akoko from your previous work in kitchens around the world?

Ayo:
 I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to take myself on a culinary journey worldwide, from America to Southeast Asia. Throughout this time, I’ve been exposed to a vast range of different flavour combinations and unique ingredients, which has helped me to educate and enhance my palette and culinary knowledge tremendously. In particular, with my last restaurant experience – as Head Chef of the Tippling Club in Singapore – I felt I had developed the patience and empathy required to run my own kitchen at this level.

The cooking at Akoko is influenced by your shared West African heritage. How important was it to you to work somewhere that celebrates West African cuisine?

Aji:
Celebrating West African cuisine holds great significance for both Ayo and I. Ayo, with his extensive experience in fine dining restaurants worldwide, has always been passionate about elevating the food of his background. West African cuisine is still relatively new to many in the western world and is often underrepresented, particularly in the realm of fine dining. To truly celebrate this cuisine, we must not only showcase its excellence but also change the narrative surrounding it. We aim to prove that West African cuisine deserves its place in fine dining by highlighting its unique flavours and culinary traditions on its own terms.

Can you tell us a bit about your approach to West African fine dining at Akoko? Guests might find dishes they recognise, but you put creative spins on them.

Aji: Our approach to cooking is both inventive and authentic, centred around live fire cooking, umami and spices. While guests will find familiar dishes like jollof and moimoi with little or no spin, we also showcase our creativity through snacks and desserts that combine unique spices and ingredients. Our process follows the principle of ‘creative constraint’, drawing inspiration exclusively from West Africa and using exceptional British produce.

Our goal is not to alter or adapt West African cuisine to cater to other tastes. Instead, we invite our diners to embrace and understand the unique flavours and cultural significance of the dishes. We believe that fine dining provides a platform for innovation, demanding a commitment to excellence and a deep understanding of dishes and ingredients from an intellectual perspective. With dedication to preservation and innovation, we are pushing the boundaries of West African culinary traditions.

Although there are a lot of West African flavours in the cooking, your menu uses largely British produce. Is it important to you to use local and seasonal ingredients?

Aji:
We place great importance on sourcing local ingredients. We are fortunate to have access to wonderful, high quality produce in the UK, and the range of available ingredients is truly remarkable. As an African restaurant, we are acutely aware of the impact of climate change on farming worldwide. We believe that change begins from within, and we take our responsibility seriously by prioritising local produce, reducing wastage and supporting ethical principles. This ensures fair practices for farmers globally, enabling them to sustain themselves and ultimately leading to positive environmental and social outcomes.

Furthermore, it is crucial for us to showcase that West African food is familiar. We are using the same produce found in other cuisines, such as lamb belly, dry-aged beef and lobster; it is the cooking techniques and spices that differentiate and enhance the flavours. By highlighting the unique combination of cooking methods and spices, we aim to demonstrate the distinctiveness and deliciousness of this cuisine.

Fire and smoke play a big role on the Akoko menu too. What do you think using live fire techniques brings to a dish?

Aji:
We take pride in using premium Namibian Kameeldoring and Sekelbos wood for our live fire cooking. These high-density hardwoods have a moisture content of less than 2%, ensuring long-lasting coals. We combine both types of wood to achieve the perfect balance of flavours.

Sekelbos wood contributes a smoky and aromatic flavour, while Kameeldoring provides a long burn time, keeping the fire going for hours. Cooking with Kameeldoring wood also imparts a musky aroma and adds great flavour to our dishes. We believe that using it is an excellent choice for enhancing the taste and overall experience of our live fire cooking.

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What are your favourite dishes on the Akoko menu?

Ayo:
My favourite dish is the moimoi, which is a steamed black-eyed bean pudding. Currently, it is served with vatapa and yellowtail amberjack. The moimoi is inspired by a family recipe and when paired with vatapa – a rich Brazilian sauce made from shrimps, peanuts, bread and coconut milk – it creates an explosion of flavours that is truly delightful.

Aji: My favourite is the signature jollof rice. It has been a labour of love to design a recipe that pays homage to the history of jollof from Senegambia, while incorporating the unique properties of the Ghanaian and Nigerian versions. Not only is it delicious, but its rich and flavourful taste keeps you coming back for more.

Like many restaurants today, you choose to serve a tasting menu only at Akoko. What are the reasons behind this?

Aji:
We have chosen to serve a tasting menu for several reasons. Firstly, we truly enjoy cooking this way because it allows us to be creative and take our diners on a beautiful journey of flavours. The tasting menu format provides us with the opportunity to showcase a wide range of dishes and ingredients, allowing us to experiment and push the boundaries of West African cuisine.

Additionally, serving a tasting menu reduces the pressure for diners who may not be familiar with the cuisine. By entrusting the chef to lead them on this culinary adventure, they can relax and fully immerse themselves in the experience without the need to make individual dish choices. It creates a sense of trust between the chef and the diner, allowing them to fully embrace the flavours and surprises that await them.

Furthermore, the tasting menu format also allows us to be more efficient and reduce waste. By carefully planning and portioning each dish, we can ensure that ingredients are utilised to their full potential. This helps us minimise food waste and maintain a sustainable approach in our culinary practices.

Overall, the tasting menu at Akoko combines creativity, an immersive dining experience and a commitment to efficiency and sustainability. It is a way for us to express our passion for West African cuisine and provide our diners with a memorable and delightful culinary journey.

When you're away from Akoko, what kind of food do you like to eat and cook?

Ayo: I have a particular fondness for Southeast Asian food. The vibrant and diverse flavours of this region never cease to amaze me, and I find great joy in exploring and experimenting with its various dishes. However, I also appreciate a wide range of cuisines; I enjoy the simplicity and heartiness of comfort foods, as well as the indulgence of a well-prepared steak with flavourful sides or a delicious pasta dish.

Aji: I have a passion for cooking and in addition to West African cuisine, I also adore Indian food. The flavours, spices and aromatic ingredients used in Indian cooking never fail to captivate my taste buds. I also have a bit of a sweet tooth and find desserts to be the perfect way to end a meal. In fact, I must confess that I’m quite disappointed when I come across a restaurant menu that lacks a good selection of desserts.

Photo Credits: Jodi Hinds Food Photographer

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