‘I want to cre­ate food that smiles’

Renowned culi­nary whiz, Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi, makes his MasterChef de­but, writes

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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,

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