THE OTTOLENGHI EMPIRE
Culinary flavour of the decade Yotam Ottolenghi on Israel, gay fatherhood and why hummus can't create world peace
If you’ve ever unearthed a pomegranate in your My Food Bag, on some level you have Ottolenghi to thank for that.
When I told my flatmate I’d interviewed Yotam Ottolenghi, he was proper impressed. Five years ago, the flatmate was living in London doing stand-up comedy at “small pubs in small towns, where people hadn’t necessarily paid to see you perform”, renting a flat 10 minutes’ walk from one of the famed eateries which bears the Ottolenghi name.
It was a grim existence for a Kiwi in baggy trousers who’d moved to the UK to make a name for himself on the comedy circuit. The flatmate recalls spending most of his time travelling four hours out of town to perform a 30-minute set, “for very little money and very little crowds”.
The bright spot, though, was the restaurant down the road. Its windows were stacked with meringues the size of human heads, drizzled Jackson Pollockstyle, with berry coulis. Enormous bowls of salads featuring foreign-sounding ingredients festooned the bright white counters beyond.
After every gig, the flatmate put a few quid from his paltry pay packet in a Mason jar on his bedroom dresser. Once a month, he’d empty the jar and treat himself to lunch at Ottolenghi, taking a seat next to a trendy suit or a yummy mummy at one of the restaurant’s long, communal tables.
“I’d get a couple of salads, some meat and a glass of red wine and have those little moments where I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, you know what, things are OK.’”
Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born chef, restaurateur, cookery writer and newest judge on MasterChef Australia, would no doubt be pleased to hear this. His goal has always been to create dishes that “surprise, comfort and delight”.
The Ottolenghi brand has been gathering momentum since he opened his first deli in Notting Hill, London, in 2002. Today, the 48-year-old co-owns three eponymous establishments in the city and two other restaurants. He writes a weekly food-and-recipe column for the Guardian and a monthly baking column for the New York Times. His cookbooks – Ottolenghi, Plenty, Jerusalem, Plenty More and Nopi – have been bestsellers across Europe and the US. His sixth, Sweet, is out in September.
Moreover, “Ottolenghi-style” food has been steadily infiltrating the foodie landscape since the journalistturned-chef began writing for the Guardian 10 years ago. The cook’s “culinary language”, as he calls it, has been adopted by chefs and home cooks the world over.
To put it another way: if you’ve ever unearthed a pomegranate in your My Food Bag delivery, on some level, you have Ottolenghi to thank for that.
Speaking by phone from his house in Camden, Ottolenghi spells out the hallmarks of his cuisine: international ingredients, particularly from the Middle East, married in ways that defy genre or trend; an aesthetic of generosity – bright, colourful dishes, piled on platters; a light-handed approach to cooking, favouring grilling and shallow-frying over slower methods. And surprising flavour combinations, such as coriander seeds with Italian burrata (cheese), or anchovies with roasted eggplants that make diners think “Oh, I’ve never had that before.”
Then there are the vegetables. It’s difficult to say whether the historically humdrum food group put Ottolenghi on the map, or whether it was the other way around. Certainly, his treatment of edible plants – whether slathered in buttermilk-yoghurt sauce or sprinkled with za’atar spice – has convinced plenty of carnivores that veges, once a side dish to be tolerated, are a viable main event.
Ottolenghi’s authority on vegetable matters has not been without controversy. His Guardian gig began as a vegetarian column; he filled a vacancy left by a writer who has been described as “an ardent herbivore and astrologer with an army of sandal-wearing fans”.
The column caused some consternation among that very constituency. Ottolenghi’s recipes didn’t involve ingredients that had once had a face or a mother, but he often suggested serving them with ingredients that had. Three years in, his editor lifted the moratorium on meat. Today, Ottolenghi’s Guardian archive features recipes for a vegetarian Christmas alongside those for
Easter lamb, not to mention brown sugar prawns and maple-glazed bacon. Ottolenghi was born and raised in Jerusalem but readers perusing his recipes will note he is not an observant Jew.
Ottolenghi’s father was an Italian chemistry professor. His mother, born to German parents in Sweden, was a former teacher who worked for Israel’s education ministry.
After high school, Ottolenghi completed the obligatory three years in the Israel Defence Force, serving in the intelligence unit, before moving to Tel Aviv with then-boyfriend Noam Bar. He worked evening shifts as a reporter at the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper while studying at university. They were living in Amsterdam when Ottolenghi submitted his Master’s thesis in philosophy and comparative literature.
All the while Ottolenghi had been cooking. And so it was that he announced to his parents, via a note buried in a copy of his thesis, that he was putting further study on hold and going to culinary school.
Nearing 30, Ottolenghi thought he’d spend a year doing something different. He enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in London, studying at the world’s largest hospitality training school for three months. It was there he discovered he had an affinity for pastry.
In a way, the kitchen was less stressful than the newsroom, Ottolenghi says. At the end of a shift, he’d clean up his station and go home.
“With the things I’d done before, there was always the sense that there’s more I need to do. I felt less responsible somehow – like, when you’re done, you’re done.”
After a year or so working at restaurants and bakeries across London, Ottolenghi was allowed the freedom to trial his own ideas, garnering positive feedback from wait staff, chefs and, eventually, customers. “I found the whole business of feeding people very gratifying.”
The newest judge on MasterChef Australia (he replaces the lovable tyrant Marco Pierre White), Ottolenghi’s unorthodox path to success will no doubt inspire contestants who’ve put their day jobs on hold in pursuit of their passions.
He says his experience is proof that it is possible, though the restaurant lifestyle won’t suit everyone.
“I think there is sometimes a misconception where people think, ‘Oh I love cooking, I love watching cookery shows, maybe I can do this,’ when it doesn’t really reflect the actual industry,” he says.
“When you start working in the restaurant, doing it day in day out, with long hours, it’s quite exhausting. “You pay a price.”
The Ottolenghi brand’s legend centres on a serendipitous encounter with co-founder of his restaurants, Sami Tamimi. Tamimi, a Palestinian Muslim, grew up in east Jerusalem; Ottolenghi, an Israeli Jew, grew up in the west. The pair, who are the same age, didn’t meet until they were both living in London in 1999, when Ottolenghi nabbed a job at the bakery where Tamimi was working. Three years later, they’d opened the first Ottolenghi deli in Notting Hill.
Today, Tamimi is the chef at the helm of the brand’s empire and co-author of two of Ottolenghi’s cookery books. Ottolenghi spends most of his time developing recipes for his columns and books in a test kitchen, though he makes regular appearances at the restaurants, where he is obliging of customers’ selfie requests.
When he’s not cooking or writing, Ottolenghi’s two sons Max, 4, and Flynn, 2, and Pilates, are his “much-loved distractions”. Indeed, our phone call is briefly interrupted by Max, described by one British media outlet as the celebrity chef’s “best creation”.
Max was conceived with the help of an egg donor and a surrogate mother, both based in the US, after a five-year-long process. Six months after Max was born, Ottolenghi wrote an article in the Guardian, in which he “came out” as a gay father.
He and husband Karl Allen – a Northern Irishman Ottolenghi met at the gym in 2000 – had resolved they couldn’t be shy about telling their story if it meant it might inspire potential “alternative parents”.
Ottolenghi and Allen ruled-out co-parenting with a lesbian couple and underwent four failed rounds of IVF treatment with a female friend, before signing up to an LA-based agency that matches gay couples with egg donors and surrogate mothers.
The conception went off without a hitch. When the couple got the call their surrogate mother was pregnant, Ottolenghi writes, “We just looked at each other and smiled and smiled and smiled.”
The Ottolenghi brand’s success has been a team effort from inception. The five eateries are co-owned by four partners: Ottolenghi’s former partner Noam
It was announced to his parents, via a note buried in a copy of his thesis, that he was putting further study on hold to go to culinary school.
Bar is the company strategist, Swiss-born “mother hen” Cornelia Staeubli is the general manager. Then there’s Tamimi, and Ottolenghi himself.
Much has been made of the pair’s apparently unlikely partnership, and the role cuisine might play in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Indeed, Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s book, Jerusalem, is a mutual celebration of their hometown’s fare.
While dishes might differ in their particulars, often their fundamentals are the same. For example, they write: “Everybody, absolutely everybody, uses chopped cucumber and tomatoes to create an Arab salad or an Israeli salad, depending on point of view.”
But Ottolenghi, who supports a two-state solution and Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, is pragmatic about how much hummus might contribute to a settlement. It’s a question he’s asked frequently.
“On the one hand, food does have this power to bring people together,” he says. “It’s one of the very few things that people do share even if they’re on opposite sides of the conflict.
“But there needs to be a lot of other things fall into place before food would be able to do that job.”
About seven years ago, Ottolenghi and husband Allen were treated to a culinary odyssey of New Zealand, courtesy of their close friend, Kiwi chef Peter Gordon.
The men drove from Auckland to the South Island over three or so weeks. (Ottolenghi would eventually return the favour, hosting Gordon for a week or two in Israel.)
While in New Zealand, the Israeli chef was delighted by cakes he sampled in homes and bakeries along the way, and by collecting pipi at low tide.
“It was like I’m literally picking my food off the bottom of the sea,” he recalls. “I’d never done anything like that.”
The chef, writer, husband, dad and now TV cooking show judge, has always intended to return to New Zealand, he says.
“The only reason why I haven’t is because I don’t have time.”
MasterChef Australia is on TVNZ 1, Tuesday to Friday, 7.30pm and Saturday, 8.15pm. Ottolenghi appears as a judge in the week beginning June 27.
Yotam Ottolenghi is now turning his attention to rising stars of the kitchen, as a judge in
Delicious fare is created for menus, cookbooks and newspaper columns.