OUT OF THE BOOT Giulia, Cooking Out of the Box at Ottolenghi’s

giulia-bassan-pagine-ebraicheBy Shirly Piperno*

Today Giulia’s favorite dessert is a pear almond crumble with a heart of blackberries.
“Actually…” she quickly adds, “If you asked a mother who is her favorite child, how could she answer?” That’s how Giulia Bassan, 29, feels about the pastries she bakes at the legendary Ottolenghi restaurant on Motcomb Street, London, where she has been working for almost a year.

World-renowned entrepreneur, chef, best-selling author, social media personality, and much more ― Yotam Ottolenghi is the Israeli owner of a famous restaurant chain in London, in which Giulia, a Roman pastry chef, first gained interest due to its Jewish Italian name; in fact, “Ottolenghi” is the same name as her aunt’s. However, when she entered the bright, open space restaurant with its delectable self-service food station and communal tables, it turned out to be much more than a heritage trip. Giulia fell in love with the concept ― a daring reinterpretation of both old and new Mediterranean dishes on-the-go, yet without lacking the attention to detail and freshness.

What sets Ottolenghi’s restaurants apart is what he calls a “loud” cuisine, probably just as loud as his Israeli and Italian origins. The chef now owns multiple restaurants in London, and he writes cookery books, the last one being “Plenty More,” a bible for vegetarians that was given for free to all his employees; Giulia’s copy is a bit special, as a note can be found that says “from one Ottolenghi to another.” This connection with her family and Italian Jewish heritage is something Giulia is proud of, and it has influenced her tremendously as for her the “good food culture” started at her grandmas’ tables. One from Venice and the other from Rome, they ― as good Jewish bubbes do ― fed Giulia with delicious traditional Italian Jewish specialties, both from Northern Italy and from Rome, and this tasty exposure made her palate plead for more.

However, it took Giulia some time before accepting that she belonged to the pastry shop. The young baker had studied first medicine in Rome and then psychology in Pisa, to then drastically change her career path.
“I was so unhappy,” she says. “Being a pastry chef had always been in the back of my mind, but after attending a scientific high school I couldn’t bring myself to think my true vocation was baking.”
In Italy, she claims, creative jobs aren’t yet considered respected professions, and in fact the education system does not encourage creative career paths. Giulia, who has worked as a pastry chef both in Rome and Brianza, found many of her co-workers to be closed-minded, whereas at Ottolenghi’s there is a very international, well-rounded crowd.

Ottolenghi realized the potential of having a multi-cultural staff, and once a month he brings the group of employees together, one for savory and one of sweet, to brainstorm new, exciting recipes, and this is how he creates innovative and unthinkable combos. His inventions have often been defined as “challenging” ― Giulia recalls the lemon polenta cake, or the rosemary orange tea cake, which she created as a reinterpretation of the classic Italian “ciambellone” that she had initially spiced with lemon and thyme.

Giulia learned so much from Yotam, she states. Most importantly, she learned to dare with food ― something that in Italy isn’t very common or popular, according to her opinion; she finds Italian pastry chefs to be stuck on the classics. That, with the unsatisfying, and often unpaid pastry chef life in Italy, made Giulia decide in 2012 to apply for a position in an hotel in Ascot, UK, where she stayed for two years and witnessed “baking atrocities”, such as the tiramisu with gelatin. Due to the demanding working hours and distance from home, Giulia decided to apply to Ottolenghi’s in London last year, where she has been since then. Although at the moment she is not planning on returning to Italy, she does see it as a possibility to open her own, creative tearoom with “tea lists” and “cake accompaniments.”
For now, all this young pastry chef knows is that she is “happiest with the hands in the dough.” And, as long as creativity and food are involved, Giulia is a young dreamer who has a very sweet future ahead.

“It’s been a long journey,” she says. “But I’ve learned my lesson: I need to stay out of the box.”

*Shirly Piperno is a fashion styling and communication student at Istituto Marangoni, London. Simone Somekh, student at Bar-Ilan University and freelance writer, contributed reporting.