THE OTTOLENGHI EM­PIRE

Culi­nary flavour of the decade Yo­tam Ottolenghi on Is­rael, gay fa­ther­hood and why hum­mus can't cre­ate world peace

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

MasterChef Aus­tralia.

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.

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