His success manifests one principle – you’ve got to show up, every single day.
They said he wouldn’t do well in life. A distracted boy from a tough part of London, UK. The child of a single parent, immigrant household. The odds were stacked against him but the will of steel and tenacity his Nigerian mum taught him with her own struggles, defines the culinary icon that is Chef Izu Ani today.
He is the creative genius behind UAE’s gastronomic landmarks such as Alaya, Carine, Eunoia by Carine, Gaia, La Maison Ani, Kai Enzo and the world’s number one olive oil brand Theo, named after his eldest son.
“I grew up with my mother. I have only met my father once. I grew up in Tottenham. It wasn’t the most desirable area. To be honest I don’t know how I didn’t go the wrong way. Many of my friends went the wrong way. Unfortunately, I remember one of them going to prison for doing things, which are not too nice.
“My mother is both for me – my mother and father. She raised four boys alone. Working 3 to 4 jobs in a day. There were certain elements that had to take precedence … had to take priority, such as to eat, to put a roof on our heads, so she had to do that … the part of being emotionally there, looking at me doing my homework weren’t there. Do I have regrets about it? No. She gave me the most important thing. She gave me an example. She woke up early, every morning. She went to do the jobs. She took work home. She was a seamstress.
“I admire that she is industrious. She never waited for anything to happen. She wanted to make it happen. That was my example. That’s how I live my life now.
“It is all about showing up every single day. It is not about the result, but about you being there. That’s what I tell my kids, you have to be there. You can’t just think I’ll do it tomorrow. Tomorrow is not a guarantee. Today when you wake up, that’s where you are. My mother did … she is my idol in many ways.”
My mother is both for me – my mother and father. She raised four boys alone. Working 3 to 4 jobs in a day. There were certain elements that had to take precedence … had to take priority, such as to eat, to put a roof on our heads, so she had to do that … the part of being emotionally there, looking at me doing my homework weren’t there. Do I have regrets about it? No. She gave me the most important thing. She gave me an example. I admire that she is industrious. She never waited for anything to happen. She wanted to make it happen. That was my example. That’s how I live my life now.
From the age of 16 until today Chef Ani has made sure, he brings that commitment into everything he does.
“I started cooking when I was in school. I was 13 – 14 years old. We had to choose subjects, it was part of GCSE. It was Home Economics, cooking class, now called food technology or something. I fell in love with it.
“Every time I came home with something I cooked, my mother would say, ‘It’s delicious, well done,’. I remember doing a Christmas dinner once. I cooked a stuffed chicken. She loved it. Might not have been the best but you know how mothers are because it is their son doing it. She loved it and she expressed it in every way and encouraged me. It is also the way she cooks. I tried doing some of the recipes she does. She does a mean chicken and rice with black-eyed beans, coconut milk and everything. It is tasty and the chicken is absolutely to die for. I tried making it … it is never the same like her. I bow to her level. My son digs it. I remember during the pandemic, we couldn’t go back. When we did, the first thing my son said was, ‘Grandma can you make chicken and rice?’ She was like, ‘Of course darling!’ That’s what I love about food – it brings out emotions.”
Ani was about to turn 16 as he finished school. “I was not doing well academically. Many teachers labelled me as someone who would not be doing well in life. I was in the bottom set for everything. Even Home Economics I barely scraped through. I went to Barnet and Southgate College. I was ‘persuaded’ to leave after three months.”
He decided to work at a bakery store as part of a management education scheme. This was around 1996. He had to sell sausage rolls and hot cross buns, add up the sales, all without the aid of a calculator. The math was a bit of a struggle, so eventually they told him to upgrade his number skills. He decided to do a mathematics course and returned after three months.
“I went back, they gave me a test and they said it was better but not there yet. I was so angry; I had tried hard to improved myself.”
He went back to the local job centre and got placed in a program, in cooking, that required him to work 16 hours straight, for at least four days a week. He stayed for a year and at the age of 17 years; he was accepted into the Hotel Sheraton Belgravia work-study programme. He did level three of the pastry chef course from Slough College. “The Sheraton paid for everything. I was 18 years.”
Post that he held a few positions, working daily from 5am to midnight, and eventually he found himself at the Michelin-starred The Square, in London. This was 1998. He worked there for a year and after he turned 21, he left to learn and work in France. The journey had begun.
“I am 46 now, and I have been here [Dubai] for 13 years.”
The path to success starts early in the day …
He still wakes up early, at about 4 am, especially in the summers, because the weather is hot. “I like to cycle. I go to the desert. I cycle not just for the physical fitness but more for the mental fitness.
“I use about three hours for cycling, it’s a way of meditation because you can’t give what you don’t have. The day starts, you want to give love, give happiness to people, then give it to yourself first. In French, we have a very simple saying, ‘Pour savoir aimer, il faut s'aimer’, which means ‘To know how to love, you need to love yourself’. Deal with you before you deal with anybody else, that’s why I like to start my day in a very simple format - cycle 100 kilometers, it gives me enough time to empty everything from yesterday and allow new things to begin.
“I go to the desert, get on my bike … I want to hear the world, understand Nature… Dubai has a lot of Nature in a different way, there is so much beauty but to enjoy that beauty you have to be ready to look at it. You have to be available for it to be shown to you. Life is all about perspective.”
The day moves on, bringing the artistic freedom of black
“Wearing black is one of the things I started five years ago because I really wanted to concentrate on understanding how I am going to navigate through the day. Creativity needs that space; you need to have the time to do that. Therefore, if you engage in thinking about everything, then you don’t have enough capacity to think of everything. I got comfortable in a simple black t-shirt, allowing myself to think simply and then black is something that doesn’t give any impression of anything.
“It is simple, like my cooking, and to the point. It is about the ingredients. It is not about contriving because when you are contriving, you are saying something is not good enough on its own. I will say I am good enough on my own. It is about having self-awareness of who you are and presenting yourself, instead of trying to describe yourself the way people will accept you. I always say to myself, I don’t want to change myself to be people’s reality.”
Keep it simple; forge a partnership with the ingredients
This is the essence of his culinary philosophy. Looks simple, but each ingredient has been contemplated, understood and brought in to be part of a tableau of tastes that plays out on your taste buds. Time and effort have been invested to bring out the best.
For example, he wanted to understand eggs and how the proteins in it worked, so he bought a book on it. “You have to take interest to understand. I love to feed people. I want to give everyone who comes into my restaurant clean food that means not taking an ingredient and transforming it because you are telling the ingredient that I own you. I don’t believe in ownership, I believe in partnership, in exchange, that’s why you look at the ingredients, understand the ingredient.
“By that, I mean say ‘hello’ to the tomato and people ask, ‘Does it respond?’ I say, ‘Of course it does. It is a living organism’. It is something, which is beautiful, but how does it respond. It says, ‘I am a fruit do not put me in the fridge.’ If you put a tomato in a fridge, it absorbs the moisture inside, sugar draws in humidity, dilutes the flavours and kills the beautiful fruity flavour. Now you have a substance, you don’t have a real product. It will go off, eat it quickly. Therefore, you can only enjoy the beauty if you understand it.
“If you take cola, you drink it warm; it is more sugary because of the temperature. You need it to be at the right temperature to allow your body to taste it better. This goes for everything - that’s understanding your ingredients. This is so vital because when you understand it you let go, you partner… tell a story to our guests, enjoy the collaboration.”
That story is not easy to weave. It needs a library of tastes and skills. Therefore, he travels, explores, eats, discovers and perfects. An example of this was the nine months Chef Ani spent in Spain in his mid-twenties, prior to arriving in Dubai. He worked at top restaurants for top chefs, for free. The reason – he wanted to learn.
“Travelling allows you to experience and exchange with people. It’s like what one of my chefs told me, ‘Izu to have a library of tastes, you must taste.’ It is as simple as that.
“I worked for free, for nine months, with top chefs at Mugaritz. I learnt how to make French toast – Pain Perdu and that is what got me recognised in Dubai. You don’t know the many ways when life will give you back, so you need to invest in yourself. I came here [Dubai] when I was 33. I put Pain Perdu on the menu of La Serre. When I was working free in Spain, I didn’t know why I was working for free, but I was learning something. You just have to believe, I remember that.”
Spain had followed London and five years in France, from the age of 21, working, learning…
“One of my chefs taught me how to use fat – he was making a velouté [light stock] of Cep mushrooms. This was in Grasse [south of France], Chef Jacques Chibois. He was crazy. I am using a very nice word to describe him.
“He was swirling, swirling, the pan and said, ‘Taste’. It was good. He then adds knobs of butter and olive oil, wiggles the pan around. You can see the shine but it wasn’t split. It was homogenous. He said. ‘Izu taste this.’ I went, ‘Wow!’ He says, ‘Izu listen, the flavour you tasted before was nice. Now what you tasted with a knob of butter and olive oil … the fat has brought all the flavours together. The tongue has minute little holes. So when you drink something with no fat, you taste it, it’s gone. Fat allows the flavours to coat all the holes in your tongue, to allow your palate, your brain to identify all the flavours and enjoy it. Too much fat covers the holes, becomes heavy, and becomes sickly. All about balance.
“You cannot sit in one place and expect to experience. You cannot sit on your couch and be fit. My favourite word is causality. Cause and effect, if you don’t start something, it is not going to be made.”
…and falling in love
“My wife was working in a bakery in Normandy, in France. I was a private chef there. Every day I would go to the market to get fresh ingredients. Every morning I would create my dishes based on what was in the market, but the monsieur always liked a certain bread. He always ate the same bread from the bakery I used. She was there.
“Every day I would say, ‘Bonjour’, my French was okay. I used to pronounce the bread wrong and she used to giggle, and I asked, ‘Why you laughing?’ She would say, ‘You are so sweet with your English accent.’ The first year, I was very shy. The next year it was my birthday. I worked two seasons there. So I worked up the courage to say, ‘Okay, it’s my birthday today, do you want to have a drink? This was 2002. I met her when I was 24, only said ‘hello’, officially, when I was 25. We got married in 2010.”
Ani was 33 years old. He was making a name for himself in the culinary circles. Greece, France, London… demand for his skills was growing, the way he combined flavours, ingredients and techniques.
Then Dubai came calling…
“I remember my first ever bicycle. I asked my mother, she asked my stepdad. He said no, not going to pay for a bike. I was disappointed. However, when you face rejection, it builds something within you. So I saved up and bought my first ever bicycle. I was about 13 years old. I have a bicycle now, a few of them, which are very costly. So when I am on my bicycle, I let it sink in because in a fight, I don’t take no for an answer. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something or be something. That’s the most important thing. You have to go through these life experiences. Like when I opened up La Petit Maison (LPM) [in Dubai], 13 years ago.
“I opened it working 7 days a week, for 7 months, my second son, Kai, was born at that time. We had complications; we were going to lose him. The day he was born, I opened. I went to the hospital, and then I left and went back to work. I didn’t even spend the first six months with him because I was working all the time. We set a certain [culinary] trend.”
Ani moved on from LPM. It was a tough decision. His wife, Carine, after whom the restaurant in Emirates Golf Club is named, had quit her job. His two sons Theo and Kai were young. He didn’t want to compromise and take on just about any job but responsibilities were high. This was 2012.
“I didn’t have a job. I was going to move back to London. A week before we moved my wife says, ‘I don’t want to go back to London.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do any job where I am just a chef.’ I had a lot of job offers, but I was very picky.” They cancelled the movers and stayed.
Finally, things worked out and he got permission to proceed to create and develop his own restaurant in Downtown Dubai. That was the genesis of La Serre and the brand that is Chef Izu Ani. It was also when he met his lifelong inspiration and friend, Peter Van Wyk, who was later diagnosed with the muscular degenerative disease - ALS.
“Even to today, Peter is a big part of how I think. He helped me develop Le Serre. Creating a concept for the first time. It means green house. It was as beautiful as it can be and simple. I loved the bakery because I was also a baker in France. When you get bread in France, you wake up in the morning; you go buy two loaves of bread because you are going to eat one by the time you get home. And that was a tradition. I wanted to create a bakery downstairs and a restaurant upstairs. It became very popular, Le Serre had its own feel and the food is French. I appreciate French culture more than my wife does, because when you learn something there’s an appreciation, more than when you are given something because you haven’t worked to have it.
“I created something that I loved and I wanted to share it with people. I was there for four years.”
Again, Ani moved on, in a new direction. He opened his own company YSeventy7. This was 2016 -2017.
“I took two months off travelling in Asia – Japan, Thailand, Vietnam… and took young chefs with me. I paid for the trip, four of us, nearly ruined me. YSeventy7 started.
“Funds were dwindling, paying salaries, I reached my last dirham. I had to do things I didn’t want to do.” He worked on a weekly basis to keep the funds coming in.
Finally the luck turned. The famed Greco-Mediterranean Gaia came into existence.
“This was 2017. It took one and a half years to open. Before that, I did The Lighthouse, same year I opened Carine. I did some projects in Saudi Arabia. I was busy running everywhere.”
By now his friend Peter Van Wyk’s ALS was progressing, it was seven years since the initial diagnosis. He couldn’t speak but managed to communicate. He asked Chef Ani to cook for his wife’s birthday as a present.
“I did a few cuisines in one night. He told me that he missed to eat, missed the simple act of getting a glass of water and drinking it. You know how fortunate we are. He never gave up. He is my role model in everything. I go and talk to him about everything, I just love me so much, and he gives me so much belief. That was a turning point for me – cooking for Peter. This was 2019.”
The end of day … sounds of the night
“The time my day ends is around 12am. I get 4 to 5 hours of sleep, actually 4 hours is my average sleep pattern. It’s not great but five hours I am beautiful, six hours I am dancing. Therefore, I try to get home by 11 or 12pm. I am not too strict on myself as I am about the morning. I don’t do anything before 10am. Even an important meeting not at 10am … it can wait for 11am. I try to put a certain barrier when I start. When I finish, I allow myself to be absorbed by the day. If you are too strict, well when I get into a restaurant, you meet a guest; they want to have an exchange. I have to, even if I am eating … I have to give that to them. They are guests in my home. It is not necessary; it is a choice I have made.
“I am not a businessperson. I am a chef who enjoys cooking and exchanging with my guests. I still work the old-fashioned way. I come, give my word, shake hands and that’s it. Even today I don’t need a piece of paper.”
This sense of can do, he also attributes in great measure to the city that has helped him achieve his dreams.
The secret to his success
“Dubai has played a role in my development in so many ways. It is a place where it has this vibe that it can do it. It’s like what His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, [Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai], says, ‘Whether you consider yourself a gazelle or a lion, you have to run faster than others to survive.’
“You don’t wake up and stay still; you wake up and do things. You can see the city is built on doing things, that environment motivates you. It has that essence of everything is possible. That’s where I have got this saying: ‘I am possible, impossible means I am possible’ and it is so relevant in this city. Dubai has that essence and you dream big. Allow yourself to run, everything is possible.”
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