LONDON — In just under 20 years, Yotam Ottolenghi has become Britain’s best-known Israeli and his name synonymous with a particular kind of happily greedy enjoyment of food, lavishly and lovingly presented.
Ottolenghi’s cookbooks are on the shelves of thousands of middle-class kitchens, the gloriously illustrated books providing a kind of food porn for his eager fans.
And yet, as Ottolenghi himself told The Times of Israel, it could all have been so different: He could have remained a journalist for Haaretz.
Speaking ahead of a rare guest appearance at JW3, the Jewish community center for London, Jerusalem-born Ottolenghi recalled a childhood in which he didn’t do much cooking.
“Really, I was mostly interested in eating. In fact, I was very keen on eating. I ate everything and was pretty greedy,” said Ottolenghi.
Both his parents cooked, he said, for him and his older sister and younger brother.
“My father made Italian-esque food: simple cooking with top-quality vegetables. I remember his artichokes with vinaigrette or lentil soups: all wonderfully delicious,” said Ottolenghi.
“My mum is of German heritage but cooked food from all over the world. She’s pretty adventurous with her cooking and has a real knack for it. She cooked Malaysian beef randang in the 1970s, which was very exotic,” he said.
“The food at home wasn’t particularly Israeli; it was a big mix of world cuisines. Going out, though, we often went to Palestinian restaurants or simple eateries in the market,” he recalled.
The British household name is now 47. He served in army intelligence before going to Tel Aviv University, then earned a master’s degree in comparative literature.
At more or less the same time, Ottolenghi worked for the veteran Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“I was working as a sub-editor in the evenings, getting the news in real time, putting it together from the different sources, giving the headlines and arranging the various items on the pages which I was in charge of. It was a high-octane job, with lots of responsibility and a killer deadline: the closing time of the paper, around 1 a.m.,” he said.
‘Even under intense kitchen pressure, there is still something pretty meditative about cooking’
Ottolenghi left journalism just weeks before prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Readers of his weekly Guardian column can immediately sense his journalistic voice as he presents intriguing and offbeat recipes — often featuring enormously long lists of ingredients. Although Guardian readers frequently complain fondly about Ottolenghi recipes, his championing of hitherto obscure foodstuffs like pomegranate molasses or spices such as sumac have made him nationally famous.
By the time he was on the Haaretz news desk Ottolenghi knew he wanted to cook. He enjoyed his academic work, but, he said, “I needed more immediate gratification.”
“In academia you are pretty isolated and hardly ever get proper recognition for your work. When you feed people, you get an instantaneous reaction: a smile, a kind word, a delighted expression. I also found cooking more relaxing than anything I had ever done before. Even under intense kitchen pressure, there is still something pretty meditative about cooking,” said Ottolenghi.
Nevertheless, he still did not intend to make food his career goal.
“My vague plan,” he said, “was, after I’d spent a year or two cooking, to go to university in America and work on a PhD in philosophy or literature. Academia was my Plan B that was more than likely to turn into Plan A.”
‘My vague plan was, after I’d spent a year or two cooking, to go to university in America and work on a PhD in philosophy or literature’
Instead, after time in the Netherlands, Ottolenghi moved to Britain in 1997 and took a cordon bleu cookery course. It led to work as head pastry chef at the London boutique bakery Baker & Spice. And that was where he met two central influences on his life — the Palestinian cook Sami Tamimi and the Australian baker and food writer Dan Lepard.
He and Tamimi were the same age, had both been born in Jerusalem, and had come to London at the same time. They both had strong ideas about food and in previous interviews appear to have been slightly horrified by British food, though it’s hard to get Ottolenghi to say so today.
After five years, Ottolenghi, Tamimi and Lepard, together with Israeli business partner Noam Bar, opened the first of a mini-chain of very different restaurants, all simply known as Ottolenghi. The first such deli/restaurant opened in the fashionable Notting Hill area in West London and was initially mistaken, Ottolenghi has said, for a florist’s shop — its luxurious window display of mouth-watering food was not what Britons were used to.
“Sami and I,” said Ottolenghi, “never intended on being as different as possible [from British food]. We wanted to bake and cook the best food we possibly could and put it out there for the public to enjoy. It was all rather vague but, once we had our little platform, we just went mad: more salads, more veggies, more colors, more cakes, more breads. Our display was, and still is, our passion, where we make food look just as wonderful as it tastes.”
As the shops and restaurants became successful — besides the Ottolenghi chain there is an upmarket bistro, Nopi, in central London — so the cookbooks, some authored with Tamimi, began their inexorable march into Middle Britain’s kitchens. One of the most lavish of the books is “Jerusalem,” in which Ottolenghi and Tamimi hark back to the city of their childhood and lovingly re-create iconic recipes of Jewish and Palestinian origin.
He has achieved an enviable trick, revealing his life’s work and his background without letting politics enter the equation.
“Politics isn’t my field,” said Ottolenghi. But, if asked, he does express his opinions.
“I am sad about the direction which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken; I feel it doesn’t need to be that way and I yearn for a real peace negotiation to resume. Food could be the ultimate bridge for bringing the two sides together, if there was only more goodwill,” he said.
Known throughout the foodie world as a thoroughly nice man, Ottolenghi is famous not just on his own account but also for the “school of Ottolenghi” legacy, with former employees such as Or Golan, Itamar Srulovich, Sarit Packer, and Eran Tibi now regularly wowing London palates in their own establishments.
“‘Legacy’ makes me sound so old,” he laughed. “I am delighted that people that worked with Sami and me have gone on to forge their own successful careers in food. I can’t take credit for any of it but it’s nice to know that the Ottolenghi hub was, at some point, a house to so many talented people. We are a collaborative place, where every employee can contribute creatively.”
An Ottolenghi admirer described the chef — who these days is usually to be found in his company’s test kitchen, working on new recipes — as “very strict” on what goes into his version of za’atar. Not surprisingly, Ottolenghi is equally precise when it comes to other recipes, as well.
‘Of course, anyone can learn to cook — but I don’t think everybody should’
“I do like measurements: for home cooks it is very important that you hold their hands initially. Once you cook something a few times you can, of course, leave the measurements and work instinctively. But, before that, it’s better to follow the recipe. I know I do,” he said.
Ottolenghi has the perfect answer for those who are disasters in the kitchen.
“Of course, anyone can learn to cook — but I don’t think everybody should. Some people aren’t interested, which is absolutely fine. If you’re not that way inclined, don’t feel pressurized to cook; do the things you like doing, get others to cook for you and just do the washing up,” he said.
Yotam Ottolenghi will appear in conversation at JW3 in London on Sunday, May 15.