Yotam Ottolenghi could simply have left Jerusalem behind. Nearly 15 years after coming to England and a decade into building a growing empire that includes a small constellation of wildly popular London restaurants and two best-selling cookbooks, he has established himself as one of Europe’s hippest purveyors of flavor-packed, pan-Mediterranean food.
But Jerusalem wasn’t just any place. “It intrigued me from a food perspective,” said Ottolenghi by phone from London. “I know it sounds strange since I was born there, but I don’t think I had ever seriously explored it in a broader culinary context.”
So when a colleague suggested Ottolenghi make his third cookbook an edible study of his birthplace, it just made sense. But in order to fully realize the project, one more person needed to sign on for the homecoming: Sami Tamimi, business partner and head chef of his and Ottolenghi’s restaurants.
Ottolenghi, who is Jewish, and Tamimi, who is Palestinian, met when the two were young culinary aspirants in late-1990s London. In Jerusalem, where Palestinians and Israelis live with daily tensions, their friendship would have been near impossible. But within the safe confines of an expatriate kitchen, the two bonded almost immediately, speaking in Hebrew as Tamimi cooked and Ottolenghi baked. “We connected over what we shared, and focused a lot less on our differences,” said Ottolenghi. In 2002, he launched his first eponomous restaurant, called Ottolenghi, and asked Tamimi to join; they’ve worked together ever since.
The Ottolenghi restaurant empire (which now includes four bakery-cafes and a fine-dining restaurant, NOPI) has well-documented culinary bona fides, but nearly as much ink has been devoted to describing the partners’ similarities, which are striking. They are the same age, 44. Both are gay. And, perhaps most significant, they were both born in Jerusalem within months of the city’s reunification in 1967 — Tamimi in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and Ottolenghi in the western, Jewish enclave of Ramat Danya.
“We never wanted to get into the ‘two gay guys’ and ‘Israeli and Arab’ angles because that is what is expected,” said Tamimi when I met him in Chicago, where he was vacationing with his boyfriend. “But you can’t really ignore it, can you? That’s the juicy story.” Still, they both insist that the more accurate narrative is less of an attention-grabber. “We are both just obsessed with making great food,” he added.
That is evident from the very first recipe in “Jerusalem,” their cookbook, which will be published in October. The lushly photographed collection of recipes and stories was completed over two years of visiting, researching (with the help of a friend, Nomi Abeliovich), cooking and eating in Israel’s capital.
What emerges from the vivid street-life photographs, meticulously curated recipes and insightful text is a highly personal, perfectly captured portrait of a cuisine as complex as the city it comes from. The food in “Jerusalem” is an expression of the city’s multicultural foodways, shaped by the impressions of two chefs grateful for the chance to revisit the traditions that helped define them.
Ottolenghi approaches recipes like the academic he almost became (he abandoned graduate studies in comparative literature to study at Le Cordon Bleu in London). “I can’t stand recipes that don’t have background,” said Ottolenghi. “What does this mean? Who cooks it? And why?”
Through the recipes and pictures the book also highlights traditions Jerusalemites take for granted — using market-fresh produce and cooking seasonally — that inform the Ottolenghi aesthetic.
“This is Ottolenghi saying, ‘I’m not running away from where I came from,’” said Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The Observer, in England. “Most people in London — and Ottolenghi is a very cosmopolitan London phenomenon — don’t really identify him as an Israeli chef from Jerusalem. This is him further putting a stamp on his identity.”
Ottolenghi’s parents and sister, whom he visits often, no longer live there, so the project gave him the chance to approach Jerusalem from a different vantage point. In a city that strikes Ottolenghi as increasingly polarized with every visit, he found a food culture that hummed along to its own rhythm.
“When I looked at it with objective eyes I was really surprised by the diversity — each group cooking their own food so authentically,” said Ottolenghi. “The incredible places in the shuk [Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s centuries-old covered market], the little restaurants, the ethnic enclaves here and there and everywhere, and all making amazingly fresh, delicious food. This was really an eye-opener.”
While the book does pay homage to the Ashkenazi heritage of Ottolenghi’s parents and many other Jerusalemites, the authors don’t conceal their preference for Jerusalem’s Levantine traditions.
“Middle Eastern cuisine has the same depth of ingredients and processes as other cuisines,” said Ottolenghi. “They just haven’t had as much exposure.”
The same could be said for Palestinian food, an unexplored roster of dishes among even the most passionate and well-traveled eaters.
For Tamimi, whose mother passed away when he was 7, the project has been a chance for him to help bring dishes like his mother’s couscous with onions and tomatoes; her fattoush (bread and vegetable salad), and maqluba, a preparation of meat, eggplant and tomatoes that is at the centerpiece of many a festive Palestinian meal to a greater audience (all are popular items on the Ottolenghi menu back in London).
Woven into the text are Tamimi’s childhood recollections — his father chilling watermelons in the river near their home; his mother stringing okra for the purpose of drying and preserving; snatching and snacking on figs drying on a neighbor’s roof — that add humanity to a culture many Israelis and Westerners see from only one perspective. While Ottolenghi is forthcoming about his relationship with his family, it becomes clear in conversations with Tamimi that his relationship with Israel and his own family, are more complicated. “In Israel I always lived on the border between Arabs and Jews,” he said. “Let’s just say living in London is easier.”
Among the Palestinian dishes, Ottolenghi himself was captivated by the discovery of muttabaq, a combination of sweetened ricotta and goat’s milk cheeses encased in filo dough. “It was a revelation,” he said. “The idea of mixing the cheeses together, the texture and flavor, just delicious.”