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Yotam Ottolenghi

Yotam Ottolenghi is probably best known for bringing Middle Eastern dishes and exotic ingredients such as ras el hanout, dried barberries and pomegranate molasses, to UK kitchens. The chef-patron’s passion for food as a celebration, to be enjoyed around family tables laden with sumptuous, over-flowing plates, has changed homes across the country. Today, the Jerusalem-born chef has four delis in London, NOPI restaurant and ROVI, writes a weekly column in The Guardian’s Feast Magazine, a monthly column in The New York Times and has published six best-selling cookbooks.

FLAVOUR MAKER
While it’s indisputable that Yotam has expanded our tastebuds, some of his recipes have previously been labelled a tad heavy on ingredients. His new cookery book, co-authored with long-standing recipe collaborators Tara Wigley and Esme Howarth, is as good a retort as you could get; Ottolenghi Simple boasts 130 new recipes containing all the inventive elements that Ottolenghi is loved for, but with ‘minimal hassle for maximum joy’. This month he also heads to Wimbledon BookFest on 14 October to talk all things food and Simple. (www.wimbledonbookfest.org)

“People tend to associate my recipes with cooking on the weekend or cooking for a special occasion. I love this – the connection between my dishes and celebration – but I also want to be there for people on a Monday evening, for example, or when people want to put something together more quickly and easily. Every day Ottolenghi cooking, if you like,” explains Yotam.

DELI DESIGNS
Family is key to the Israeli-British chef’s past and present inspiration. “ My parents were (and still are) both great cooks. Dad made me fall for the comforts of pasta, Mum made me fall for the delight of trying new things.” “It wasn’t until I moved to Amsterdam as a student, writing my master’s dissertation that I got into cooking. After I finished, I wanted to go to cookery school to scratch what I thought was just a short-term itch. I never looked back.” After stints at Michelin-starred Capital restaurant, Kensington Place, and Launceston Place, Yotam met fellow chef Sami Tamimi while working as head pastry chef at London’s Baker & Spice and the duo opened the first Ottolenghi deli in 2002. Success followed quickly, as did TV shows, cookery books and new delis. Inspiration, he says, comes from far and wide. “It’s often led by the time of the year. Other times I will return from travelling abroad or eating out somewhere in London, I also spend a lot of time reading books and magazines and online.”

SIMPLE TIMES
For Simple, Yotam partnered with Esme Howarth and Tara Wigley. “Tara is actually a south west Londoner through and through. She is always full of great ideas but one that I cook myself all the time is her gem lettuce salad with a “fridge-raid” dressing that she just came up with one evening when cooking for her family in her Clapham kitchen. So inspiration is everywhere, really.”

Tara worked in publishing for the best part of a decade before switching to food and writing in 2010. For the first year with Yotam she tested recipes with the chef in his West London flat before taking on the role of writing collaborator once the test kitchen was established in 2012. She lives in Clapham with husband Chris and their three kids.

Recalling the moment she first went to work for Yotam, Tara says: “I actually thought it was my husband playing a trick on me and pretending to be Yotam, as he outlined this (dream) job of going to his house, three days a week, from nine to five, to test recipes with him and then write them up. He asked me what I thought and I said ‘if I was to describe my dream job with my dream chef with my dream work hours then this would be it’. That was my interview. I cycled to his house on the Monday and haven’t looked back.”

“At the beginning, in 2011, it was just Yotam and I working out of his flat in Notting Hill. He would come up with the idea for a recipe and then I’d drive off to the supermarket to buy everything and then just simply chop and cook a dish whilst he was working away and he’d jump up every time a dish was ready to be assembled and we’d assess it and re-test it until it was ready,” Tara explains.

“The operation has grown since then and we now work from a ‘proper’ test kitchen which is used by others (chefs from the restaurants who come to test new recipes, for example) as well as Yotam and his direct team,” Tara says.

At this time of year, Tara’s favourite recipe from Simple is the slow-cooked chicken with the crisp corn crust because it “heralds the start of hearty autumn dishes”, and on her doorstep in Clapham she enthuses about the produce and shops. “I was so excited when Hoxton Fruit and Veg opened on Clapham High Street and also their shop on Battersea Park Road. I used to live in Stoke Newington where the green grocers were incredible and I was missing my great big bunches of herbs. Now I shop at Hoxton Fruit and Veg two or three times a week. Bayley & Sage is, also, a dangerous addition to Northcote Road,” Tara laughs.

Proving that cooking the Ottolenghi way doesn’t need to be complicated, Simple’s new recipes are coded; S for ‘short on time, 30 minutes or less’, I for ‘ingredients, 10 or less’, M is ‘make ahead’, P is ‘pantry lead’, L is ‘lazy’ and E is ‘easier than you think’.

Sounds simple enough (ahem) but does he believe everyone can really cook? “People only get nervous if they are trying to be the sort of cook which is not a natural fit for them” Yotam explains.

“They see people being able to cook and talk to guests at the same time, for instance, and think that’s what makes a great cook. It doesn’t need to be like that: there is another whole way of ‘make ahead’ cooking, for example, where you can do it all in the comfort and security of an empty and quiet kitchen.” 

OTTOLENGHI’S LONDON
At home with his husband and two sons in west London, family meals are full of flavour and fun. “My husband Karl does most of the day-to-day cooking in the week and he is a great cook. We have a brunch ritual at the weekend where one of us will take the kids out for a couple of hours and the other will cook up a feast for friends to come over. The menu is then led by what’s in the grocery shop at the end of the road.”

According to Yotam, London still has one of the most exciting dining scenes around. “I love the galleries and the people and the buzz and how close you can be to all sorts of great ingredients, events and shows. I love how easily you can get out of it, as well, to the Kent coast for example, for an oyster and some fresh air. In south west London I really like Soif [Clapham’s wine bar and bistro] – great to have so many natural wines by the glass – and The Dairy is also good. I want to try out Sorella soon.”

Not one for fads – Yotam famously published Sweet, his 2017 dessert cookbook when sugar was all but being ousted by other chefs – one trend he does note is the growing consumer interest in quality ingredients.

“Places doing just one thing, or a small handful of things, can be the ones with the longest queue and I think this reflects a desire for people to have an overwhelming choice removed from them and to just know that they are going to get the best slice of pizza or kebab, for example, around. For home cooking, again, it depends on who you talk to but I also think there is a movement towards buying a smaller quantity of good-quality meat or fish.”

And the best thing about living in the capital? “I love the parks and the views and the great big Serpentine Lake in the middle of it all.”

Yotam Ottolenghi is headlining at Wimbledon BookFest on 14 October. To see the full programme of events visit www.wimbledonbookfest.org

 Photography by Jonathan LovekinPappardelle with rose harissa black olives and capers