“I want drama in the mouth”

Seine Leidenscha­ft für schmackhaf­te Gerichte, die er mit farbenfroh­en Gemüsesort­en und Gewürzen aus dem Mittleren Osten kreiert, hat aus Ottolenghi eine Legende gemacht.

- LORRAINE MALLINDER hat seinen Weg zum kulinarisc­hen Superstar zurückverf­olgt. MEDIUM PLUS

Name: Yotam Ottolenghi

Born: Jerusalem, 1968

Famous as: Chef, food writer, cookbook author

Most recent book: Ottolenghi Test Kitchen – Extra good things, published September 2022, Dorling Kindersley

There was a moment in the noughties when Britain’s urban trendies started keeping a range of exotic ingredient­s in their larders – items such as pomegranat­e molasses, za’atar, tahini and preserved lemons. This turn of events, in a nation not known for its sophistica­ted eating habits, was all because of the influence of one man. His name has become synonymous not only with a style of cooking, but with a lifestyle.

That name is, of course, Ottolenghi – Yotam Ottolenghi. You’ll find him in the weekend edition of The Guardian, where he provides recipes for dishes such as courgette and cantaloupe salad or seafood and plantain coconut milk curry.

His dishes don’t quite fit into a specific cuisine, such as Middle Eastern or Mediterran­ean. Yet you’d never describe them as fusion. They are, simply, “Ottolenghi”.

Making the world love vegetables

Nobody does Ottolenghi like Ottolenghi. And that is perhaps his secret. For this iconoclast­ic chef has invented a freestyle philosophy on food that is all his own, following his culinary vision as far as it needs to go. It takes a certain type of obsessiven­ess to find the ultimate method of cooking unloved vegetables like kohlrabi (slice into it, filling gaps with anchovies and herbs, before roasting).

Ottolenghi made the world love vegetables, yet he didn’t set out with this mission. Indeed, as he has often confessed, to the horror of vegetarian purists, he enjoys his meat. It’s not necessaril­y about healthy eating either: this chef’s colourful dishes are less to do with holding back and more to do with fun, flourishes and lots of flavour.

Take cabbage, for example – perhaps not the most exciting of veg. But Ottolenghi knows how to make it

interestin­g. How about roasted cabbage with tarragon and pecorino? Or a braised version with sherry, prunes and orange? Alternativ­ely, if you really want to turn on the glamour, throw in some ginger cream and Szechuan chilli oil!

As Ottolenghi said in a 2011 interview with The New York Times: “I want drama in the mouth.” But, despite the elements of spectacle, there’s also a home-grown wisdom to his style. His hummus is made with the simplest ingredient­s: chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, salt and – don’t forget this part – a few drops of iced water that makes it so smooth.

Ottolenghi’s hummus comes straight from the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It’s served warm, drizzled with olive oil and a bean topping, eaten with freshly made pita. He says it’s better than other versions around the Middle East because the texture is lighter. If you try Ottolenghi’s recipe, you’ll never buy supermarke­t hummus again.

The flavours of childhood

Ottolenghi grew up in Jerusalem, the middle child of Jewish parents of Italian and German descent. He came from an interestin­g family: his grandmothe­r had been a Mossad agent and had helped capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. His dad worked as a chemistry professor and his mum was a headteache­r. In interviews, he’s described his childhood as loving and stable.

Food was important in the Ottolenghi household. But young Yotam wasn’t so much interested in cooking as in eating. Nicknamed “Goloso” (the Italian word for someone who loves food), he especially enjoyed prawns with lemon, garlic and butter. In interviews, he’s reminisced about his Italian grandmothe­r’s polpettone, a meatloaf made with minced beef, rolled up with olives, pistachios, eggs and cold meat, cooked in stock and sliced so you can see all the ingredient­s.

Tragedy struck in the early 1990s, when his younger brother, Yiftach, was killed by friendly fire during military service. The loss was immensely painful. In a 2020 BBC interview, Ottolenghi confessed that he hadn’t dealt with his grief up to that point.

Magical spices

In his 20s, having completed his own military service, he left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv. He’d already come out as gay to some friends and family, and felt that the city would be a more welcoming place to live. He started a degree in comparativ­e literature, working night shifts as a sub-editor at a local newspaper, Haaretz.

In those days, he imagined that he might eventually become a professor like his father. But the markets of Tel Aviv, the smelling of herbs and spices, were already weaving their spell. Four years later, he moved to Amsterdam with his boyfriend, where he had his light-bulb moment.

He finally completed his dissertati­on – on the philosophy of the photograph­ic image – and printed out copies to

send to family and friends back home. As he said in a 2020 interview at the Sydney Opera House, it was the realizatio­n that no one apart from his supervisor would read his dissertati­on that made him decide to leave academia.

Doing what you love

Ottolenghi had been planning to go to Yale. But now he made an important step towards his true calling, moving to London to study French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. His father was disappoint­ed and wrote him a letter saying: “If you feel that’s what you need to do, do it, but I think you’re making a mistake because you’ve worked so hard to be where you are now.”

The path to superstard­om wasn’t smooth. Ottolenghi worked for a year as a pastry chef at a Kensington restaurant, before joining a chain of bakeries. Conditions at the freezing-cold bakery were miserable; the cream for the cakes was produced by machine.

Out on his scooter one day in search of inspiratio­n, he came upon a traditiona­l bakery called Baker and Spice. It served exactly the sort of colourful, freestyle food that he wanted to make. The chef, Sami Tamimi, came through from the back of the bakery, and they started chatting. And so began the legendary partnershi­p that would change the food habits of a nation.

A dream team

Ottolenghi and Tamimi had much in common. Born in the same year, they had both grown up in Jerusalem, Tamimi on the Palestinia­n side and Ottolenghi on the Jewish side. And they had the same ideas about food. As Tamimi said in a 2012 New Yorker interview: “We both wanted to surprise, but we wanted our food to taste comfortabl­e.”

It was their joint vision that led to the opening of Ottolenghi’s gourmet deli in 2002 in Notting Hill, London. Today, there are two more, in Marylebone and Chelsea, as well as restaurant­s in Islington, Spitalfiel­ds, Fitzrovia and Soho. Ottolenghi and Tamimi would write Jerusalem together, their seminal cookbook on the diverse culinary traditions of their home.

Today, Ottolenghi is a bestsellin­g author. His books sell in their millions, all over the world. Home life, with his Northern Irish partner, Karl, and their two adopted children, seems just as charmed.

He’s spoken publicly about the journey of becoming a parent as a gay man, a prospect that seemed out of reach for a long time. It was a process that took years, but which was eventually achieved through surrogacy in the United States. In a 2013 Guardian article, he described becoming a father as a “second coming out”. It’s been a long journey for Yotam Ottolenghi. The remarkable thing is that, with his laid-back, charmingly modest manner, he makes it all look so natural. Long may he continue to inspire with his infectious enthusiasm for food.

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 ?? ?? Ottolenghi and Tamimi at “Make Food Not War”, Paris, 2016
Ottolenghi and Tamimi at “Make Food Not War”, Paris, 2016
 ?? ?? Ottolenghi’s books sell in their millions, all over the world
Ottolenghi’s books sell in their millions, all over the world
 ?? ?? The restaurant on Upper Street Islington, London
The restaurant on Upper Street Islington, London
 ?? ?? Turmeric fried eggs with tamarind and pickled shallots
Turmeric fried eggs with tamarind and pickled shallots
 ?? ?? Ottolenghi’s prawns in coconut sauce
Ottolenghi’s prawns in coconut sauce

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