Gluttony is not immediately apparent when you first encounter the world-famous chef — his slender elegance belies a voracious appetite. As soon as he starts to speak the delight he takes in the pleasure of food is unambiguous.
It’s a pleasure that has shaped his life since he was a small child. His first word was “ma”, short for marak (soup in Hebrew). He was referring, he says, to small soup croutons — salty, sweet, pillows that delighted a young palate. His was a palate forged in a uniquely culturally rich environment.
“I grew up in this incredible mumble jumble of food,” he says. His mother, from a Berlin Jewish family who had come to Palestine via Sweden, was instrumental in introducing culinary diversity.
“I remember my mum had this book called The International Cookbook that was very big in the 60s and 70s, and she would make Malaysian curries and Tiramisu and sabayons and things that were from very different, diverse cultures.”
His Florentine father, meanwhile, inculcated in him an appreciation of simplicity. His “desert island” dish, he says, is still his nonna’s gnocchi alla romana — semolina dumplings, grilled with parmesan and butter — a dish he ate as a boy in the Little Italy his homesick grandparents created in a small Tel Aviv suburb.
Two men prepare a salad; one drizzles olive oil over vegetables as the other mixes a bowl with his hands.
All this, of course, in the rich culinary context of Jerusalem, a city whose flavours he has described as his “mother tongue”. But Jerusalem’s food tradition is itself the product of extraordinary diversity and a complex encounter between disparate cultures — from Ashkenazi Jews to Muslim Palestinians, Sephardic Jews from North Africa to Christian Arabs and Armenian Orthodox.
“I think I benefitted from this very much … I don’t feel that I am bound to one tradition,” he says.
Food offers ‘a gateway to a bigger conversation’
This intricate culinary background furnished Ottolenghi not only with an appetite for certain flavours but for an appreciation of the origins and the cultural significance of food.
“I like the context … I love the stories and I love the history of a dish or of a discipline,” he says.
“Especially in this day and age recipes are so abundant … I love the idea that I can learn a little bit more and scrape the surface, whether it’s political, whether it’s philosophical, whether it’s historical, whether it’s personal.”
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
In making his BBC 4 documentary, Jerusalem on a Plate, Ottolenghi was struck by the ways in which food and recipes could reveal so much about the fabric of everyday life.
“It was interesting to see how you start a conversation talking about bulgur wheat or stock or how to poach a chicken or a piece of lamb and immediately it turns into family and history and daily hardships. And I love these connections, I love seeing how food is a gateway to a bigger conversation.”
His interest in the anthropological aspects of food might, in part, have its origins in his previous life as a student of philosophy and comparative literature.
It was something of a leap from his master’s thesis in aesthetic and analytic philosophy to a cookery course at Le Cordon Bleu and not one his Jewish intellectual family were particularly pleased about. But anyone who cooks from an Ottolenghi cookbook, or eats at an Ottolenghi restaurant will recognise the value of his interest in aesthetics.
A man with greying hair and a floral shirt stands outside in front of a city skyline.
PHOTO: Ottolenghi says he loves the stories and the history behind the food he cooks. (ABC RN: Fiona Pepper)
What it means to be an Ottolenghi dish
What makes an Ottolenghi dish is difficult to define, but his food is almost always characterised by a kind of abundant elegance.
Overflowing bowls of roasted vegetables, herbs, spices, saffron-tinged grains bejewelled with pomegranate seeds, and multi-coloured giant meringues fill the chaotic and inviting window displays of Ottolenghi establishments.
If roasted cauliflower, pomegranate molasses and burnt aubergine seem commonplace today, it’s because Yotam Ottolenghi made them so.
“I have, over the years, discovered or defined what my palate [is]. I don’t think I was born with it,” he says.
“I think I have a much clearer idea of what an Ottolenghi dish stands for than I used to have.”
Of course, for the chef who once famously and evocatively summed up his ambition as creating “drama in the mouth”, the real question is flavour.
This simple pasta is “something almost any person would eat – it’s vegetarian, who doesn’t like pasta, and it’s quick”.
“It’s never been about anything else,” he says. “There’s all sorts of other things I worry about sometimes like health and sustainability and other aspects of cooking but the flavours were always first.
“I think that if you don’t start from that starting point then you’re going to lose people along the way. Food is an essential thing and we are all drawn to it because we do it everyday and we want to get joy out of it.
“Sometimes I worry that other parts of the conversations take prime position and people forget that we have to enjoy what we eat. So joy has always been my prime consideration.
“For me it’s always been about those incredible flavours you can get out of your cauliflower.”
‘It’s all about home cooking’
Ottolenghi today is a global phenomenon: in addition to four London delis and two restaurants, he has co-authored over half a dozen books and writes a regular column for The Guardian. The cumulative effect has, ironically, put him at a distance from food and cooking.
“I cook much less than I ever did,” he says.
It’s the downside, he says, to following his dreams and passion: “You have to become focused, which means you take a little bit of the magic out of it.”
A man wearing a chef’s uniform carefully spoons a creamy food onto a rectangular plate in a professional kitchen.
He nevertheless remains deeply committed to rigorous recipe testing. His “food lab” is not the high-tech kitchen most chefs today
experiment in; he opts instead for something more austere.
“It’s not very sexy because it’s under a railway arch in North London,” he says.
“I made it particularly unglamorous because I didn’t want any high tech equipment, because it’s all about home cooking. It needs to feel like anyone’s kitchen.”
“There’s no thermomixers and sous vide machines — it’s a normal home mixer, it’s a normal hob, it’s a normal oven and it looks very mundane and simple.
“We also shop in normal supermarkets. I wouldn’t get the top of the range ingredients from the local Italian deli because I don’t know that everyone [can] get that.”
It helps of course, in this endeavour, to have changed the nature of many local supermarkets: the availability of pomegranate molasses, black garlic and za’atar was, once upon a pre-Ottolenghi time, hardly a given — a testament to the truly transformative impact he has had on the way we cook and eat in the Anglosphere.
The “greed” of the young Ottolenghi, it turns out, goes hand-in-hand with a deep generosity, a desire to share his appetite for food and his pleasure in its beauty. The world is richer — and more pomegranate-y — for it.
*The article was published in the ABC on February 8, 2019.