Yotam Ottolenghi wants to talk to you
If Yotam Ottolenghi were the type of person to say, “I told you so,” the pandemic would have given him every right to say it.
In the midst of lockdown, loneliness and uncertainty, people found refuge and comfort in the place he has devoted his whole career to acquainting them with — the kitchen.
“People who didn’t cook or weren’t keen cooks had to cook — and they had to kind of, you know, learn to like it,” he told me in a phone conversation.
I caught up with Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born London restaurateur and author of numerous bestselling cookbooks, during the first leg of a two week United States speaking tour that includes a May 9 appearance at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center in Manhattan.
As we spoke, he was packing to leave Houston, where he appeared before a full auditorium the night before, for another sold-out talk in Dallas. On the way, he said, he was stopping for banh mi, a staple sandwich of the city’s large Vietnamese immigrant community.
“I asked, ‘What do I have to eat when I’m in Houston?’ and they said, banh mi. So I’m going to have banh mi.”
Speaking with Ottolenghi is like reading Ottolenghi — the words are clear, relaxed and precise, and even the most complex recipes — I mean, thoughts — are approachable. The former doctoral candidate in philosophy has a way of shuttling, in his Hebrew-inflected English accent, between the mundane and profound.
The pandemic, he said, has brought about a newfound appreciation for “tins of beans and dry barley and frozen peas and corn.” Combine that with newfound technical skills from spending so much more time in the kitchen, and you have, “a very fundamental change in how we see food, how confident we are with food, and what we see is the role of food in our lives.”
Those shifts, the way the pandemic affected him and the world of food, are one subject he explores in his on-stage talks.
“I don’t think this pandemic is a one-off thing,” he said. “We’re just increasingly living, unfortunately, in a much less stable world. And food is a bit of an antidote to that.”
Like the rest of us, Ottolenghi, who is 53, sought refuge and comfort in the kitchen during the pandemic. His go-to dish for himself, his two boys and his husband: variations on the oven-baked pasta his late father used to make. The recipe, featured in his latest book, “Shelf Love,” uses whatever pasta is left in the pantry and bakes in a hot oven so the pasta shards that emerge from the molten cheese turn bronze and crunchy.
Pasta al forno, he said, is the perfect dish when you have to cook with what’s on hand, “and still have really delicious flavors and food.”
The pandemic may be kind-of, sort-of winding down, but its impact on how we relate to food will remain.
Ottolenghi, who co-owns seven London cafes and restaurants with his business partner Sami Tamimi, said one enduring lesson of COVID is that the hospitality industry has to be more hospitable to its workers.
“Certain aspects of the business I’ve just taken for granted, and we are now changing that,” he said, “and it’s a better environment, for sure.”
His restaurants are once again packed, as people once again feel the need to eat with one another.
“You can just feel the energy, you know, they’re happy to be with each other,” he said.
I asked him if the two phenomena weren’t related — the pandemic drew us to the kitchen, and post-pandemic we swarm to dine out together. Is there something in kitchens and restaurants that feeds, or even replaces, the function of churches, mosques and synagogues, which have been off limits during the plague years?
“I think that makes a lot of sense,” he said. “The collective activities that we do in big groups have been substituted by cooking. Because it’s very elemental, isn’t it? We had to find something to keep us busy that is beyond the anxiety about what tomorrow will look like, and food does that.”
In his past talks and writings, Ottolenghi has spoken about food as a bridge between cultures. In 2013’s “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” he and co-author Tamimi, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, wrote about Arabs and Jews bonding over a common love of hummus.
“It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it — what have we got to lose? — to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will,” they wrote.
I wondered if Ottolenghi could still imagine that — especially given the fact that Russians share so many foods — borscht, rugelach, stuffed cabbage — with the Ukrainians they’re trying to obliterate.
He still believes that people eating together could lead to a healing conversation. But reality, he said, proves that food, by default, doesn’t create or engender peace. “You can’t just solve conflict through food,” he said. “It’s just, unfortunately, in our world, it’s not really working.”
If world peace is a stretch, better understanding is doable, and Ottolenghi said that in “Jerusalem,” and in Tamimi’s 2021 book on Palestinian cooking, “Falestin,” the links between Arab and Jewish food and culture should be apparent to anyone willing to see.
“I don’t think there’s enough understanding how deeply rooted Israeli food, as it’s cooked at the moment and seen all over the world, is actually based on Palestinian cooking,” he said. Israeli Jewish chefs are “incredibly inventive,” he said, “but many of the ingredients and basic recipes and techniques are based on Palestinian cooking, and that needs to be told as much as possible.”
Ottolenghi had to go: a banh mi was beckoning. I mentioned that the thread I saw running through all his work — the political and social commentary, cookbooks, articles, TV spots and videos — was the basic joy of delicious food.
“Yes! It doesn’t matter how much you talk,” said Ottolenghi. “It will never land properly if it doesn’t come with a really delicious dish.”