Yotam Ottolenghi is a renaissance man. The Israeliborn, London-based chef has master’s degrees in philosophy and comparative literature and edited the Hebrew pages in Dutch-Jewish weekly NIW before pursuing a career in food.
A six-month course at the French cookery school Le Cordon Bleu, in London in 1997, lit a spark in Ottolenghi; with the 48-year-old graduating to become a pastry chef.
After meeting business partner Sami Tamimi, they opened up a string of Londonbased delis, before Restaurant Nopi was born in 2014.
Now Ottolenghi, the author of four best-selling cookbooks, is bringing his expertise to MasterChef Australia.
You have two master’s degrees but turned to food. Why? I went to university and studied but felt a sense I was missing out on something else. There was a frustration at not being able to do something physical. I felt my mind was racing but in a way that was not good for me because it was relentless. I found in a kitchen you can let your mind rest. Working with my hands as a pastry chef, which is very tactile, was relaxing and liberating.
In these troubled times, can food make a difference? I often ask myself ‘what can I do in this world of Brexit and Trump and isolationism, to break that up a bit?” And what we do in kitchens is extremely important. It doesn’t change the world the way a politician does, but we deliver a message. The really great things that have happened in our world came when cultures met up and created new things. What secret did to share with contestants during your time on MasterChef? Like many of the contestants, I have come into cooking from a different field in life. There is an ethos you have to go through a lot of misery and torture to be a good chef. I tried that for about three weeks in the 1990s and it completely broke me. I thought ‘I’m not doing it that way’. You can make a great career in food, be creative and even famous without being a complete b------.
How would you go as a contestant on the series? I would do terribly. I am full of admiration for the way they do things. This year, they are mostly younger. They have flexibility and drive. They think on their feet. Those kids have some brilliant ideas.
You are an advocate for gay marriage (Ottolenghi is married to Karl OttolenghiAllen and lives in London with their two sons). I think it is extremely important to be vocal about what you stand for and believe in. Being quiet is not an option. When I became a dad four years ago, I thought I would leave that private but then I thought ‘actually, I do have a responsibility’. Over the past decade or two, attitudes towards gay relationships, gay parenthood and gay marriage have changed because people were extremely visible about it.
WATCH MASTERCHEF AUSTRALIA, CHANNEL 10, WEEKDAYS, 7.30PM