COVER STORY

Masterchef guest judge Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi on his bril­liant ca­reer and love of ve­g­ies.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Ot­tolenghi week on be­gins on June 4 at 7pm on Net­work TEN.

Few peo­ple have done more to cham­pion veg­eta­bles than Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi. But the Is­raeli-born, Lon­don-based chef is a veg­etable lover in sheep’s cloth­ing. He eats meat and fish, and when he was first of­fered the chance to write a col­umn about veg­e­tar­ian fare he con­sid­ered de­clin­ing. “One of the things that wor­ried me was that I was go­ing to be pi­geon­holed as a veg­e­tar­ian,” he says. “A decade ago it was a deroga­tory term in the world of chefs.”

The sul­tan of sal­ads is in Mel­bourne film­ing a guest ap­pear­ance on Masterchef Aus­tralia. Nat­u­rally, plant­based in­gre­di­ents will play a ma­jor part in his chal­lenges, in­clud­ing pre­par­ing a veg­etable-fo­cused feast for meat lovers. “I was hop­ing they would have enough con­fi­dence to leave the veg­eta­bles largely alone,” he says of the con­tes­tants. “Not ev­ery­thing needs to be blitzed, pureed or juli­enned. A car­rot is most beau­ti­ful to me when it still looks like a car­rot.”

With four pop­u­lar Lon­don delis, NOPI restau­rant, five best-sell­ing cook­books and a tele­vi­sion se­ries, Ot­tolenghi’s Mediter­ranean Feast,

Ot­tolenghi has long fo­cused on the joy of eat­ing veg­eta­bles. His sig­na­ture style is a blend of bold Mid­dle Eastern flavours, zing­ing spices, vi­brant herbs and vivid pre­sen­ta­tion. Colour and crunch are hall­marks of his dishes, such as beet­root and rhubarb salad, crushed car­rots with harissa, and but­ter­nut pump­kin with za’atar.

“It’s a very vis­ual style when peo­ple come into our delis. That’s al­ways been very high on our pri­or­ity list,” he says. “If doesn’t look good, it doesn’t sell. It’s vi­brant, sur­pris­ing and sunny – in the sense it’s food that grows in the sun. And it’s quite ballsy. It’s food that isn’t meek in any way.”

In per­son, Ot­tolenghi, 48, comes across as hum­ble, thought­ful and af­fa­ble. He also likes to share his break­out suc­cess with his tightknit team. “Ini­tially it was a very in­su­lar, soli­tary ex­pe­ri­ence. Now it’s a group ef­fort – there are three peo­ple cook­ing ev­ery day. I stay very close to the recipes, but I’m very open to other peo­ple’s ideas.”

A key pres­ence is Sami Tamimi, his Pales­tinian ex­ec­u­tive chef who co-founded the first Ot­tolenghi deli in Lon­don’s Not­ting Hill in 2002, and con­tin­ues to look af­ter the busi­ness ven­tures, while Ot­tolenghi fo­cuses on cre­at­ing recipes.

Those recipes are fa­mously pre­cise, of­ten call­ing for ½ tea­spoon of this, 1½ tea­spoons of that – no Jamie Oliv­er­style glug, splash or squeeze here. This is, he says, so peo­ple can have as close an ex­pe­ri­ence at home as they would in the deli. “It’s im­por­tant for me that when peo­ple cook my food they can emu­late as closely as pos­si­ble what I do. I want to make sure peo­ple get it right the first time,” he says.

Ot­tolenghi took an un­con­ven­tional route to cook­ing. Be­fore the kitchen came call­ing, he was an aca­demic, spe­cial­is­ing in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy, and a news jour­nal­ist in Is­rael. Just as he was about to em­bark on a PHD in Lon­don, he en­rolled in a six-month cook­ery course at Le Cor­don Bleu. The PHD was quickly for­got­ten. He started work as a pas­try chef, and this ex­pe­ri­ence will come full cir­cle with his next book ex­pected this year, Sweet, a cel­e­bra­tion of desserts.

“I felt more com­fort­able in the kitchen than in the li­brary or in front of a com­puter screen,” he says.

“I felt so much im­me­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion with cook­ing in the most su­per­fi­cial way. You cook, peo­ple are happy and they smile. Maybe my per­son­al­ity needs that, in terms of peo­ple ac­knowl­edg­ing how much they like what I cook, or now, what I write or recipes I make up.”

Per­haps that’s why he em­pathises with the Masterchef con­tes­tants. “I’m shocked by their com­pe­tence. What you don’t see on TV is how many peo­ple are watch­ing them when they cook. It’s a very un­nat­u­ral way to work. Lots of pres­sure, lots of vis­i­bil­ity. In nor­mal life, peo­ple don’t run like that, from the larder to the bench to the fridge. The end re­sults aren’t al­ways per­fect but con­sid­er­ing the cir­cum­stances, they are very im­pres­sive. I’m full of ad­mi­ra­tion.”

Ot­tolenghi and his hus­band, Karl Allen, are hap­pily en­sconced in Lon­don with their two sons, aged 4 and 22 months. But in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion is on the agenda, and might even in­clude Aus­tralia. In the mean­time, there’s an­other recipe to write, an­other veg­etable to rein­vent.

“Nowa­days, the most cre­ative chefs are work­ing solely with veg­eta­bles,” he says. “Peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of veg­eta­bles, what they are, their im­por­tance, how ver­sa­tile they are, the whole per­spec­tive, has changed com­pletely. In a sense, the world has be­come so much more veg­e­tar­ian than it was five, 10 years ago, for all sorts of rea­sons – for health, for sus­tain­abil­ity, for the sheer fact that peo­ple dis­cov­ered them and how good they are.”

Masterchef Aus­tralia

SALAD DAYS Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi, front, with Masterchef Aus­tralia judges, from left, Ge­orge Calom­baris, Gary Me­hi­gan and Matt Pre­ston.

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