In London, Ottolenghi Has Got ‘Em Eating From His Hands

Talking to the Philosopher of the Kitchen and Cookbook

Career Changer: Unlike many successful chefs, Ottolenghi didn’t decide to make a career of cooking until he was about 30 years old.
Keiko Oikawa
Career Changer: Unlike many successful chefs, Ottolenghi didn’t decide to make a career of cooking until he was about 30 years old.

By Dan Friedman

Published March 22, 2011.
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Ottolenghi. In London, the very name conjures up tantalizing mounds of meringues, appealing piles of brightly cooked vegetables and the gleaming, chic emporia containing foods that proudly bear the title. Households around the city and country feature his two cookbooks, “Ottolenghi” and “Plenty,” (published in America on March 23) with coffee tables and kitchens vying to present his trademark food stories and arm’s length list of ingredients.

“It’s a misconception,” Yotam Ottolenghi said when I asked him whether he might come out with a cookbook that has simpler recipes — a question I was relaying from countless friends who are nevertheless happily seduced into cooking or buying his food. “The recipes are not difficult in a technical way. They have a lot of ingredients, but if you look, maybe five or six of them are spices that you will have in your cupboard anyway.”

Talking to Ottolenghi — who owns five “canteens” (think Dean & Deluca, not army barracks) under the Ottolenghi brand, and a new brasserie called Nopi — is a pleasant and enriching experience. Unlike certain prima donna star chefs, Ottolenghi, who was born in Jerusalem, is supremely calm and thoughtful. His approachable and reflective demeanor is reminiscent of the young professor that his father hoped he would be by this point in his life. “I didn’t really cook growing up. I wasn’t that kid,” he said.

Coming to London for a brief break from his studies after completing his master’s degree in comparative literature at Tel Aviv University (working on the ontology of the photograph), Ottolenghi enrolled in a short course offered by Le Cordon Bleu institute. “I had already been doing some cooking,” he said, “but I didn’t think I was changing careers.” But change careers he did, and though perhaps marginally less famous than fellow culinary superstars Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Delia Smith or Nigella Lawson, 15 years later he is perhaps more beloved than all but the latter.

The key to the success of this self-described “chef, cookbook writer and restaurateur” has been to marry exuberance with serenity. His displays are extravagantly bright but simple, his books are passionately profound but reliable and, by all accounts, his shops and new brasserie are almost as calm in the kitchen as they are in the front. In fact, while working in restaurants during and after the Cordon Bleu course, he nearly abandoned his new pursuit when his relative lack of experience provided an excuse for his seniors to yell at him — often suddenly and unreasonably.

It took stints in the calmer workplaces of Baker and Spice and Launceston Place in London to reassure Ottolenghi that he had a future in food. And in the end, teamwork has proved to be a cornerstone of his practice. While in London, training to be a pastry chef, he met Sami Tamimi, who would become his business partner. The two Jerusalemites now head a team they often credit — most notably Helen Goh, their product developer, and Ramael Scully, the chef at Nopi.

Although the introduction of his popular “The New Vegetarian” recipe column in the British newspaper the Guardian has generally too little introduction to reveal this, Ottolenghi has a wry and self-conscious sense of humor. The Ottolenghi website notes that for the people at the company, food is “a way of life, somewhere between a healthy obsession and a bad habit we can’t kick.” With a nod to New York City’s SoHo (an acronym that stands for South of Houston Street), his new London Soho restaurant is called Nopi — North of Piccadilly.

Being a national vegetarian columnist without being a vegetarian ties in with Ottolenghi’s pragmatic attitude toward food and business. “I don’t want to teach or correct. I’m not a missionary,” he told me. He is, however, a great champion of raw ingredients and of building up the layers of inherent flavor. “If you are Italian and have wonderful tomatoes, mozzarella and olive oil, put them together and it’s done, but if you have different ingredients, you might have to marinade or work on them. There are no shortcuts.”

Like a number of other recent crossover chefs, Ottolenghi is a pastry chef, and this, he reflected, makes him more open to intuition and concerned about visual display. When you start off with delicious sugar, cream and chocolate possibilities, variety and invention come from texture and tactility, not from the types of techniques championed by chefs from the El Bulli school.

Though still in its early stage, their next book project is about Jerusalem, and involves Ottolenghi and Tamimi rediscovering the city of their youth, its history and its future. They grew up in the same place and at the same time, but totally separate: Ottolenghi was raised Jewish; Tamimi grew up Palestinian. They want to tell the story of a city and its food, how the commonalities and foodways can reveal shared histories. A stuffed cabbage of an Iraqi-Jewish woman might resemble in myriad ways the stuffed cabbage of a Palestinian woman she’d never met. Showing how techniques and foods are shared is a way for Ottolenghi and Tamimi to give back to a city that is suffering, becoming less cosmopolitan, yet formed them both. Despite Ottolenghi’s success and clear affinity for New York and Jerusalem, he has no plans to open restaurants in other countries. Although he gave a categorical “No!” to the possibility of an Israeli restaurant, he more thoughtfully explained that it would be “difficult to imagine how it could work, keeping the quality if we spread out of the country.” If it’s a question of imagination, then surely the philosopher chef will overcome it; until then, the rest of the world will have to be satisfied with his recipes.

Dan Friedman is the arts and culture editor of the Forward.

Watch a video of Dan Friedman speaking with Yotam Ottolenghi:

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