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