Prince of plenty

Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi’s bold and flavour­ful recipes have the world eat­ing out of his hands

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Food -

He doesn’t have a Miche­lin star, nor is his face as fa­mil­iar as many of the brash young celebrity chefs who dom­i­nate our tele­vi­sion screens.

But Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi, who launched his ca­reer with a hum­ble epony­mously named cafe in Lon­don’s Not­ting Hill a decade ago, has tapped into the Zeit­geist of ca­sual, shared foods and Mediter­ranean flavours, and we can’t get enough of him.

Ot­tolenghi’s new­est book, Jerusalem, a fol­low-up to best­sellers Ot­tolenghi and veg­e­tar­ian bi­ble Plenty, has been a smash hit in Bri­tain and the US, mak­ing it on to

TheNewYorkTimes best­seller list within days. It has re­ceived a sim­i­larly en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse in Aus­tralia for its bold and flavour­ful recipes, from roasted sweet pota­toes with fresh figs, and lamb-stuffed quince with pome­gran­ate and co­rian­der, to car­damom rice pud­ding with pis­ta­chios and rose­wa­ter.

Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi’s Mediter­ranean Feasts, a four-part tele­vi­sion se­ries in which he trav­els to Morocco, Turkey, Tu­nisia and Is­rael, in­tro­duc­ing his au­di­ence to the lesser­known flavours of the south­ern and eastern Mediter­ranean, aired on SBS in March, fur­ther whet­ting our ap­petite for this unas­sum­ing cook born to an Ital­ian fa­ther and a Ger­man mother, who grew up in West Jerusalem. So what is it that has cap­tured our at­ten­tion when cook­books and trav­el­ling chefs are a dime a dozen?

“It’s a com­bi­na­tion of a few fac­tors, I think,” muses Ot­tolenghi on the phone from Eng­land. “In Lon­don the food of the Mid­dle East has never been ex­posed that much, at least not in a good way, though it is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent in Aus­tralia with your large Le­banese and Turk­ish com­mu­ni­ties.

“Sec­ond, I think it’s our em­pha­sis on non-meat dishes, which peo­ple are more and more keen on ex­pe­ri­enc­ing; they want to in­cor­po­rate more veg­eta­bles and grains into their diet ... Then there’s the aes­thetic.”

The Ot­tolenghi aes­thetic is one of abun­dance — over­sized plat­ters piled high with brightly coloured sal­ads or pas­tries, a sense of lav­ish­ness and plenty of­ten lack­ing in more struc­tured and tra­di­tional restau­rant en­vi­ron­ments. At a loss to label his food style, Ot­tolenghi prefers to de­scribe as “noisy” the of­ten-un­usual in­gre­di­ents he in­cor­po­rates into his dishes.

“Nor­mally when you try to de­scribe a cui­sine, you end up re­vert­ing to a part of the world; you talk about Viet­namese or Sar­dinian or a cer­tain part of In­dia, but we draw in­spi­ra­tion from many re­gions so [re­fer­ring to] the in­gre­di­ents is a very good start­ing point,” Ot­tolenghi says.

He and busi­ness part­ner and Jerusalem co-author Sami Tamimi like a lot of spices and herbs and cit­rus. “We love gar­lic and all the sweet condi­ments such as date mo­lasses — things that are sub­stan­tial in flavour and hit you when you taste them. We find it more in­spir­ing to work with them than with things that are sub­tle or un­der­stated.”

Tamimi and Ot­tolenghi grew up on op­po­site sides of the fence in Jerusalem — Tamimi from a Pales­tinian rather than Jewish back­ground — meet­ing only as adults when work­ing in Lon­don. Ot­tolenghi had trained for six months at Le Cor­don Bleu Lon­don then worked in a va­ri­ety of restau­rants, cafes and delis as a pas­try chef be­fore open­ing his first cafe, Ot­tolenghi, in Not­ting Hill in 2002 (he has since opened three more, in Is­ling­ton, Kens­ing­ton and Bel­gravia). Tamimi joined him in the early days of Not­ting Hill. The pair’s di­verse cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences and food her­itage pro­vided fer­tile ground for recipe de­vel­op­ment, as has col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Ot­tolenghi group’s wider pool of tal­ented young kitchen staff, in­clud­ing Aus­tralian Ra­mael Scully, who heads up kitchen at Nopi, the only restau­rant in the Ot­tolenghi group, which opened in Soho in 2011.

“Within our busi­ness we have a lot of creative forces, and the chefs we work with have a big in­flu­ence,” Ot­tolenghi says. “[Scully] came to us a few years ago and his food is very spe­cial, and dif­fer­ent from what we used to cook. His flavours very much in­flu­ence the stuff I pub­lish and what ap­pears on our menus.”

Like many chefs in hot de­mand, Ot­tolenghi ad­mits he spends lit­tle time in the Ot­tolenghi kitchens th­ese days, in­stead fo­cus­ing on recipe de­vel­op­ment at the group’s Cam­den test kitchen and writ­ing books and a food col­umn for Bri­tain’s Guardian news­pa­per.

“It’s funny, when we opened that first cafe, lots of peo­ple asked if the own­ers were Aus­tralian — they thought there was some­thing very Aus­tralian about it.”

Ev­ery­one’s favourite Mediter­ranean mae­stro, Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi, in Lon­don

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