Ottolenghi for summer dining supplement JN May 20 2016 from Jenni Frazer
Yotam Ottolenghi, the renowned Israeli chef and cookery writer, will eat almost anything, it turns out. Except two things: the famously stinky durian fruit and the equally notorious yak’s milk, both discovered on eating expeditions in Asia and eastern Europe.
But as an audience of avid Ottolenghi fans at JW3, the London Jewish Community Centre, discovered, the man who introduced pomegranate molasses to Britain is affable and laid-back, and happy to talk about his life and career.
In discussion with writer and broadcaster Tim Samuels, Ottolenghi reminisced about his childhood in Jerusalem and his parents’ “adventurous” cooking at home — though he admitted that he, the middle of three children, was the one forever dragging his family out to try new restaurants.
These days a typical week for Ottolenghi starts in the test kitchen of his six-strong restaurant business. “I send myself little notes on the phone,” he says, “thinking about what would be good with what. I think of the visual aspect of the food.” On Monday mornings, he and the rest of the team begin putting together various recipes to see how they work, although Ottolenghi admitted that at 11 am, “everything tastes delicious. By the time you get to 4pm, everything tastes the same.”
And one of the measures of whether a recipe will work, he said, was the answer to the question “Is it Ottolenghi enough?” By that he means, does the recipe have that extra twist of flavour or surprise which has become his trademark, both in his Guardian column and his cookbooks.
Laughing, Ottolenghi acknowledged that he had become famous for long lists of ingredients. But a thrilled audience — 90 per cent of whom appeared to be women from the north-west Jewish London heartland — were cheered when he spoke of the enjoyment he had had in publishing a booklet of “easy Ottolenghi” recipes for the Guardian. “Won’t you do 15-minute meals, like Jamie Oliver, except that his take 30 minutes?” begged an Ottolenghi fan. ‘Well,” joked Ottolenghi, “if Jamie can do it, I can certainly do it.” Which may well mean that a book of quick and accessible Ottolenghi recipes is on the cards.
And meanwhile the Israeli is going back to his beginnings as a chef — he started working as a pastry chef, and in that role met his Palestinian business partner, Sami Tamimi, when both men were working in the West London establishment, Baker and Spice. Ottolenghi, who these days thinks of himself more as a cookery writer than a chef, is working on what is bound to be an ecstatically received publication — the Ottolenghi Cake Book, featuring mouthwatering concoctions designed for sheer enjoyment.
Enjoyment, he told Tim Samuels, is what led him away from working as a journalist in Israel — he worked on Ha’aretz’s night news desk — to working in food. “Listen,” he said with a smile, “I come from a very middle-class family. I was set to be an academic or a lawyer or a doctor, not a cook. But when I was a student, I moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and I was living next to the Carmel Market, with such an abundance of wonderful fresh produce. I ended up cooking for friends — all poor students — and making big dinners every week. And I just loved it.”
Cooking, reckons Ottolenghi, is “liberating”. In 1997 he came to London and enrolled on some Cordon Bleu courses, met Sami Tamimi and ultimately set up the first of his various restaurant ventures with Sami and two other business partners.
For a very long time, he said, he had thought of himself as “culturally Jewish” with little or no contact with Jewish practices or the Jewish community. But today he and his partner have two young sons, aged 10 months and three and a half, and he is endeavouring to give the children some idea of their heritage. Last year they celebrated Chanukah for the first time and he hopes to extend that as the children grow older. As a family they often visit Israel though he is, he said, fighting a battle to speak Hebrew to the boys. He also, he revealed, consulted the “bible” of Claudia Roden in order to make authentic Jewish food, though he drew the line at fried gefilte fish. That, he declared firmly, needs to be boiled, in its own jelly, and “with a carrot on top”.
Tim Samuels had one vital question for the renowned foodie. “What do you put on your matzah?” An audience leaned forward, as one person. “Has to be chocolate spread like we had in Israel,” responded Ottolenghi. “But with butter, first?” begged Samuels. “Why not”, replied Ottolenghi. “Everything is welcome.”