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