There are times in life when you take a bite of a dish and all hell breaks loose – in a good way. Packed with complimentary flavours and textures, all elements combine in harmoniuos synergy and resonate from your palate to the very soul of your being. Your reaction sounds like that famous restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” If you hear nothing but moans at a table once a dish has been experienced, the chef is certainly doing something right. You have bitten into something other than food. You can literally taste the passion.
Chef Izu Anu is the French trained, Nigerian born, British anchored chef who has made Dubai his home and has launched a most promising new home-grown restaurant concept called La Serre Bistro and Boulangerie in Downtown Dubai. A favourite of international stars and discerning food lovers alike, this eatery has earned the respect of fellow chefs and for good reason. Chef, Apprentice and I went to review La Serre some months ago and you can read about it in my column “When Hunger Strikes” in the “wknd” magazine of the Khaleej Times, out tomorrow. Remember to grab your copy early as they usually sell out by midday. (ETA -In case you missed it, see the online version here).
In the meantime, get your exclusive scoop with the man behind the chef toque as we interviewed him exclusively to share with you here on Chef and Steward.
Here is a bit of the warm, smiling, chef with the kind eyes.
Chef Izu, thanks for granting us this exclusive interview on Chef and Steward. From we tasted the first bite of food from your restaurant, we knew we needed to interview you to share your story with our readers around the world. So let’s get right to it!
Where in Nigeria were you born and at what age did you move to London?
I moved to London at the age of 5. I was born in Delta State in Nigeria.
How did the cultural change affect you as a youngster?
At that age I didn’t grasp the cultural change. The only thing I remember was not being able to communicate in English and when I started school I found I was a little aggressive for exactly this reason. However I did fall in love with a girl at the age of 6 so maybe I spoke the language of love before I spoke English!
What are some of the positive influences you have obtained from your Nigerian heritage that have helped to shape your success as both a chef and a family man?
Definitely my values come from my Nigerian heritage – we have respect for our elders, and a culture of hard work. You work hard to be able to eat in Nigeria so that is engraved in me. Food wise, the Nigerians hate to eat bland food, they like a bit of spice and a bit of heat so that has certainly guided my palette.
How did your London upbringing help to tailor your character?
London is such a diverse melting-pot of a city. Growing up there definitely gave me an understanding of other cultures – Spanish, French, etc. and that’s when I started to get intrigued about new countries and travelling.
You discovered your passion for cooking during home economics class in high school. How important do you think it is for youngsters to be exposed to cookery?
I think it’s important. Especially for those youngsters who aren’t necessarily academically driven and need to have a vocation where their emotional and creative sides are more engaged. Cooking for me is a very emotional job.
Is early exposure to the culinary arts important for a potential chef’s development?
I don’t believe it’s crucial, it can grow at any time depending on the individual’s passion. For me it was a very good thing though.
How did your family react to you becoming a chef?
They were a bit surprised at first but overall they were very happy.
Why the culinary arts?
It is a sacred thing I believe. Giving somebody something to eat which they put into their body. I really feel a strong passion for the culinary arts.
What do you think separates a potentially hugely successful chef from the chaff?
I always say it is 10% talent and 90% hard work. I believe that is what separates the highly successful from the mediocre. When I opened La Serre I worked 7 days a week and on average 18 hours a day until I saw that the restaurant was on the right track. You have to be hungry for it, a little crazy and extremely passionate!
What qualities do you look for when you are hiring?
The number one thing I look for is the passion for what they do. If someone goes out of their way to get in touch with me too it always piques my interest as there are so many lazy people who just send out generic CVs without doing any kind of research.
What inspired your vision of La Serre as your first restaurant?
I loved the site as soon as Emaar showed it to me and instantly had a vision of what it would look like. The Boulangerie was very much a passion project for me because after spending many years living in France, I was just sick and tired of not being able to get a decent baguette or croissant in the city! I had this vision of people being able to walk in from the street to enjoy coffee and breakfast and for people to be able to sit on the terrace and watch the world go by as you can do in Paris.
The bistro is an extension of what I love to eat – simple, honest food which is the fresh and light. As soon as I came to Dubai, I realised that this is the food that people really love to eat in this climate.
What inspires you when you are creating new menus?
Many things. It could be a new ingredient, books that I’m reading at the time. Or, a research trip like the one I have just done to Peru where you come back completely inspired about what you’ve seen and tasted.
You have cooked in London, France, Spain and have now settled in Dubai. Why Dubai?
It is an up and coming city where a person who is driven and hardworking can be given many opportunities. However, there is definitely aspiration in me to open restaurants elsewhere in the world, Dubai won’t be the last.
The service at La Serre is impeccable. How critical is it for good food to be matched by good service?
I believe it is absolutely imperative. You could have the best dish in the world but if it is delivered with negligence or arrogance then it leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths which no food can make up for. We have a great front of house team which is consistently growing but we recognise that there is work to do to constantly improve service. I like to think of La Serre as an academy which is teaching and improving the expertise of the staff from the commis waiters upwards.
It is clear from how smoothly your operation runs at La Serre that there is synergy in the kitchen and front of house, how do you inspire your team to give their best?
We have a briefing at the beginning of every service where all the chefs and the front of house team gather briefly to discuss the service ahead. This is crucial to deliver great service. We also have monthly meetings with the entire management team and the senior chefs where we hash out any issues.
What were some of your favourite dishes from childhood?
I love plantain and yam – which are fried bananas with a potato like vegetable, mixed with palm oil and salt and pepper. Delicious!
What is your favourite home-cooked meal?
I love rice and peas with chicken, it reminds me of my mother’s food so there is an element of nostalgia there.
Who cooks at home on your day off?
I do, I love to do BBQs and make simple, classic pasta and French dishes.
On your day off, which do you rather- a restaurant meal or dinner around the family table?
Dinner with the family around the table, I have two sons who are 4 and 6 who mostly run riot in restaurants so it’s safer for all parties if we are at home!
How do you balance the demands of your chef life with having a family with two young kids?
It’s tough as any Chef will tell you as the hours we work are extremely long and unsociable. We do however always try to have breakfast together as a family in the morning and will do fun things at the weekend such as ice skating, going to the water park and movies at the cinema.
What would be the best advice you could share with a chef aspiring for excellence?
One of my mentors, Phil Howard, always used to say cook food that makes you smile. I think that is great advice because your guest feels that emotion and passion when they eat.
Its is little wonder why Chef Izu smiles so much in the kitchen!