When it comes to home entertaining, nothing whispers monied classes more eloquently than a Yotam Ottolenghi salad; nonchalantly scattered in bejewelled beauty across a long, white plate. In-the-know cooks nod approval, assess the copious number of ingredients and contemplate the considerable time it has taken to make something so packed with flavour yet unassuming.
Ottolenghi – celebrity chef, restaurant owner, Guardian newspaper columnist, cookery book writer and television presenter – has held onto his reign as the yummy mummy favourite since he opened his first eponymous London deli in 2002, and there’s no sign of his Notting Hill glow dissipating any time soon. “I am aware of it, it’s not an image I can deny,” he says without a note of irritation (because he must be sick to death of hearing it); as he takes time out from the photo shoot for his next cookery book, Plenty More. “But I think over time you see more and more people falling in love with some of the elements in this kind of cooking and really start to appreciate it. It’s not essentially expensive to cook this type of food. Maybe you start off by being aspirational, but over time it’s something that people can incorporate into their daily cooking and you really don’t need to be especially worldly or rich or Notting Hill to do that. It just happened to be the case that it started there. And it’s not all using vegetables; it’s a set of ingredients that are good in their own right.”
Mon Dieu! Cordon Bleu!
Born in Israel in 1968 to academic parents, he completed his master’s degree in comparative literature at Tel Aviv where he also worked as a journalist. Ottolenghi left his homeland to pursue a doctorate, and somehow ended up enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu in London on the way. “I didn’t decide on a career in cooking straight away, it took a little while,” he says. “I wanted to give it a shot. It was at a point where I was going to make a decision and cooking was a possibility. So I decided to do the course at Cordon Bleu and then I started working in some places. I never quite made the conscious decision; it was sort of one thing led to another, but I did enjoy it and I’ve ended up staying there.”
A Michelin start…
Starting out as an assistant pastry chef at the Capital restaurant in London, which at the time had two Michelin stars, he gained further experience in other top end restaurants including Kensington Place, Launceston Place and Maison Blanc, ending up in an artisan bakers, Baker and Spice in 1999, where he met his future business partner, Sami Tamimi, with whom he now co-owns four deli-cafes and a restaurant. Discovering that they were both from Jerusalem, Ottolenghi from the Jewish and Tamimi from the Arab quarters, the two chefs quickly became friends, a relationship that wouldn’t have been so likely had they met at home.
The Middle Eastern factor…
“Obviously, the similarity of our backgrounds helped,” says Ottolenghi. “There were a lot of associations and things that were common to us. So we would spend a lot of time sitting out, eating and enjoying food and later on cooking together. And that’s quite immediate if you spend a lot of time with someone who’s grown up in a similar environment to yours. On a personal level, we got on really well, and it went from there. We are similar, so enjoy each other’s company.”
In Jerusalem, the cookery book which Ottolenghi and Tamimi co-wrote and released in 2012, they point to the fact that food is the only unifying force in the much fractured city of Jerusalem and that dialogue between Jews and Arabs is practically non-existent. There is little daily interaction although you will see people shopping together in food markets and eating in each other’s restaurants. This is what makes the relationship between the two of them more remarkable. “I think that the distance definitely helps,” says Ottolenghi. “It softens everything. You don’t have the normal daily pressures that you would get in the quite harsh reality of the Middle East. Over here, everything is much more neutralised and it definitely helps. There’s not that novelty element if we were spending time together back home.”
Harmonious contradictions in food as well as life…
Equally, there is a certain dichotomy and drama to Ottolenghi’s food, which he often refers to as “harmonious contradictions”. “What I’m looking for, is no dull moment when it comes to the experience, so quite a lot of surprises when it comes to eating,” he says. “So various components that you wouldn’t imagine would mutually make sense, but in a wider context they work. When you use things that enhance and work together, you get that sort of surprise.”
This may sound like some high brow food philosophy, but is really just an openness to exploring a wide range of flavours, using what he is familiar with as a starting point and juxtaposing them with ingredients that have a thread of similarity. Yes, to follow Ottolenghi’s recipes, you may need to make yourself more familiar with spice mixes like za’atar, which is considered “part and parcel of the Palestinian heritage and the smell of home to anyone who grew up in Jerusalem”, but you will find many of these ingredients in the Middle Eastern shops that we now have around the country.
“Essentially, there is a sort of continuance from the Middle East towards central and south east Asia,” Ottolenghi says. “There is a certain set of ingredients that are quite common and the techniques vary. There’s quite a lot of chilli, quite a lot of vegetables and a lot of legumes, grains and lentils, so it makes sense to me to follow this root in my cooking. So if I start off in the Middle East and go all the way to South East Asia, you get the same sort of sensibilities in your cooking, wanting to have that intense flavour, using quite a lot of citrus, chilli, salsas rather than North European flavours.”
Irish seaweed a favourite ingredient…
One of the more Asian inspired ingredients he stocks in the pantry in their delis is in fact Irish. “I stock Irish seaweed which I love, I was taken by it recently,” he says. “It’s got a nice saltiness and has a wonderful slurpy texture. It works very well in various salads; it just makes complete sense. I had always loved it in Japanese and Asian foods but I discovered that you can incorporate it into other dishes, vegetable based dishes. You can add the taste of the sea and a really nice feeling and texture.”
Although a stroll into one of their shiny white delis might first make you think of cakes and pastries as you are greeted by tiered plates of giant size, billowy meringues, when you catch sight of the numerous salads, you will soon realise why Ottolenghi is more renowned for being the chef who managed to drag carnivores to the vegetable trough, albeit, amid tut-tutting from vegetarian lifers and mild surprise from the sceptical nose-to-tail brigade.
Incurring the wrath of vegetarians?
“I like to think the vegetarian/carnivore divide is becoming less of a divide, and that people are being more flexible in their diets, because for me, everybody benefits from understanding that it doesn’t need to be one way or the other,” he says. “So when you have a situation where the carnivores eat more vegetables, everybody wins. Because you don’t want to alienate the meat eaters. It’s not a case of; you are either a complete vegetarian or nothing. Coming to a certain compromise in your diet makes complete sense not only for the environment but also for personal reasons. So being a little more flexible rather than dogmatic is the way forward.”
Ottolenghi talks a lot about things that “make complete sense”, so what about the novice vegetarian cook who opens Plenty, Ottolenghi’s much lauded vegetarian cookery book, and is faced with a long list of ingredients, many of them exotic and unfamiliar? “Starting out, you should limit the scope of what you are cooking,” he says. “Basically just learn a couple of recipes really well and feel confident with them before you set out to conquer the culinary world. Cook a few recipes that you are really happy with and through them, learn how to appreciate how the ingredients work, and after a while, over time, you can slowly increase your vocabulary and work with more and more ingredients. It doesn’t make sense to start with a whole set of things, limit yourself so it’s not daunting.”
And then, for his already established fan base, there is his fourth cookery book, Plenty More, which will be out in September. “It’s another vegetarian cookbook. It covers most of the vegetarian recipes I did for the Guardian over the last four years, only this time we have some sweets; we didn’t have them in Plenty. It’s a bigger book, so it’s all the recipes over the last few years plus some new ones as well.”
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi will be guest speakers at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival this year. They will be hosting a pop-up dinner on 17 May at 7.30pm, participating in a panel discussion on the Food of the Middle East on 18 May at 9.30am, and later that afternoon at 2.30pm, will be holding a demo at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
Inside track… Ottolenghi on Food
Q. What chefs inspire you, local and international?
A. Ana Sortun, Najmieh Batmanglij, Deborah Madison, Sami Tamimi and all our Ottolenghi and NOPI chefs, people I meet on twitter: I get inspired every day
Q. What makes a great chef?
A. Someone who can bring a renewed perspective to the everyday, at the same time as keeping true to the produce on the plate. Clocking up a few years in the kitchen also helps.
Q. Your favourite restaurants and why – the big hitters with stars and more low key restaurants, can be anywhere
A. I love to try lots of different things when I eat out so I love tapas or sharing plate restaurants or Sushi. Morito on Exmouth market is great tapas bar, Duck Soup on Dean Street, Yashin Sushi (in Kensington). The tasting menu at The Clove Club, in Shoreditch Town hall is also mighty impressive: I could go there for the bread alone!
Q. What is the most incredible meal you ate in a top end restaurant?
A. Bocca di Lupo is saved for special occasions. I was also pretty blown away by the meat fruit starter at Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Dinner’.
Q. What is the most incredible meal you ate in an affordable restaurant?
A. A simple supper of Hainanese chicken rice from a stall in a hawker centre somewhere in Penang, Malaysia. For something more reachable within a London lunch break, Mangal Ocakbasi, on Arcola Street in Dalson is great. I always have the adana kofte with yogurt, tomato and butter sauce.
Q. Favourite cookbooks and why?
A. Najmieh Batmanglij’s FOOD OF LIFE is the bible for Persian and Modern Iranian cooking. It’s crammed full of recipes I want to eat. I like books which structure themselves in slightly unconventional ways: Ana Sortun’s SPICE, for example, which hangs itself around sets of spices which work together. Deborah Madison’s championing of individual vegetables in VEGETABLE LITERARCY. I’ve got shelves full of cookbooks, though, so it’s really hard to commit!
Q. Any ingredient you dislike and why?
A. Tinned sweet corn, brands of rice vinegar and tamarind which taste of nothing but vinegar, falafels which have been pre-cooked days before and are sold in cellophane packs.
Q. Any ingredient you particularly love and why
A. Lemons, whichever way they come: freshly squeeze, peeled skin or grated zest, preserved, roasted, chopped flesh. . . heaven.
Q. Favourite piece of kitchen kit, can be more than one thing
A. Garlic press, lemon squeezer, sharp knife, chopping board and company.
Q. What every home cook should have in their larder
A. Brown rice, miso paste and sesame seeds; dried pasta, tinned tomatoes, smoked oysters and olive oil would set you up pretty well.
Q. Chef’s secret, the best cheat for a home cook
A. Chilli sauce. Sweet in a dressing or marinade or the hot version swirled through yogurt, it’s a great and legitimate way to cheat.