‘I want to create food that smiles’
Renowned culinary whiz, Yotam Ottolenghi, makes his MasterChef debut, writes
Yotam Ottolenghi inspires an almost-religious devotion. The Israel-born, British-based chef, restaurateur, newspaper columnist, TV show host and author has earned an enthusiastic global following for his enticing, brilliantly colourful food. Since he began work in a London deli and started to contribute a vegetarian recipe column to a newspaper, he has been hailed as the man who made vegetables and grains sexy, and turned pomegranate molasses and freekeh into desirable pantry staples.
Making his fourth visit to Australia and his first to Melbourne, Ottolenghi is appearing as a guest judge on MasterChef Australia. ‘‘I like to come to Australia because I love the food culture and I learn something when I come here,’’ he says with a charm that shines through jet lag. Although he had been approached previously to appear on the show, the timing was right earlier this year, he says, noting that the opportunity to escape the freezing northern winter was a happy bonus.
Beyond that, though, he appreciates the way that MasterChef Australia goes about its business. ‘‘Generally speaking, I don’t like cooking competitions,’’ he says. ‘‘But some do it better than others. If the bottom line is a kind of journey of discovery and learning and growth, then I can relate to that and put my name to that.
‘‘But there are a lot of shows I wouldn’t do and not all the MasterChefs around the world are equal on that level. The main reason I like this show is because it’s quite humane and positive.
It’s about the personal development of the contestants more than the competition.’’
Ottolenghi receives the customary rock-star greeting on set from judges Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, and from the 15 remaining contestants, who race through the mystery box challenge determined to impress a master with what they can do with eggplants and tahini.
After only two days in the MasterChef kitchen, Ottolenghi says he has been impressed by the skills on display. ‘‘They’re way more mature and developed and sophisticated than I naively gave them credit for before I came on the show,’’ he says. ‘‘I thought, ‘Oh, it’s TV, they choose them for the characters’. But, no, they know what they’re doing.’’
Ottolenghi describes himself in part as a ‘‘recipe developer’’ who aims to create dishes that ‘‘smile’’, explaining, ‘‘It’s something that we understand intuitively, even though it’s not a term that people normally use with food. We have our London delis where there’s food for people to take home. One of the things that we emphasise is how it needs to look good, a beautiful spread of vegetable dishes, salads and cakes, overlapping colours and textures, because, if it doesn’t, people won’t buy it. We’re not going to make money if the food doesn’t smile.’’
By his own admission, Ottolenghi is no minimalist when it comes to creating dishes. ‘‘I have a minimalist in my family. My Dad is Italian, and Italian cuisine, especially from the north where he comes from, is very understated. It’s all about putting a few really good ingredients together and letting them do the talking. The food of the Middle East that I grew up eating more, where the streets are full of Arabic, Palestinian and Lebanese food, is messier, busier, more intense, more highly spiced. Hence my threshold is quite high: I need quite a lot there to satisfy me. I like spices, I like intensity, I like flavours that make a statement. That’s my nature: maybe because I’m a bit reserved as a person, I like the food to be very intense.
‘‘But it also needs to be balanced and I’ve tried to pare it down a bit. It’s not that I cook with five ingredients – there’s got to be at least 10 – but what I want is the excitement. With the cuisines that use a lot of ingredients, like Indian and south-east Asian and Mexican, you take quite a lot of spices and you cook them together and you create something quite complex.’’
But when he gets home, after a day spent in the test kitchen which is a 10-minute walk from the home he shares with his partner, Karl Allen, and their two young sons, he’s more inclined to go for something simple.
‘‘I have nuts and a glass of wine, or plain rice with some parmesan folded through. All I want it a bit of saltiness or umami-ness and a glass of red wine. I don’t want sweetness and spice because I’ve had it all day.’’
That said, it’s worth noting that after a week of enjoying his gracious and instructive contributions to MasterChef, fans can get another serve of Ottolenghi with a new book due in September:
‘‘It’s called Sweet,’’ he says.
‘‘It’s a cake book, essentially cakes, biscuits and desserts.’’
Which is definitely news to make his fans smile. – Fairfax
MasterChef Australia Tuesdays to Fridays 7.30pm and 8.15pm Saturdays, TVNZ1.
Yotam Ottolenghi describes himself in part as a ‘‘recipe developer’’ who aims to create dishes that ‘‘smile’’.
Ottolenghi is impressed by the talent that’s put to the test in MasterChef Australia,