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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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:


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.