The Interview: Yotam Ottolenghi
The interview: Yotam Ottolenghi
Holly Louise Eells chats to chef Yotam Ottolenghi about his new cookbook, why cooking should never be a stress, and his memories of Clapham…
IMAGES: YOTAM OTTOLENGHI WITH CO-AUTHOR NOOR MURAD. CREDIT: ELENA HEATHERWICK.
Where do I begin by introducing one of Britain’s best-loved chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi? It seems everyone is familiar with the Jerusalem-born foodie who has shaken up England’s kitchens for well over a decade with his mouth-watering Middle Eastern dishes.
And if I had a penny for every time I have been to a dinner party in the last few years where they have announced, “It is an Ottolenghi recipe”, I would be a wealthy woman. It’s not surprising – his cooking is vibrant, convivial, and a show stopper without being showy or complicated.
THE GREATEST SATISFACTION
His recognised commitment to championing every kind of vegetable has even helped the average home cook like myself to jazz up something spectacular. “I’m glad I have had that effect on you,” Yotam laughs. “Vegetables are so good.”
He adds, “This is one of the reasons why I love book signings and talks as I get the opportunity to speak to people directly. Everyone wants to share their experiences of cooking Ottolenghi recipes with me.”
Ottolenghi has two restaurants, NOPI and ROVI and five London-based delis, which he co-owns with Palestinian chef and author, Sami Tamimi. He says, “When you have a restaurant, people come in and say they have had a great time, but when people cook from your book, this is what I love hearing the most.”
“When the dish you have published has become a household dish in someone’s home, this feeling is like gold,” he adds. “This is a real achievement because I have had a part in making or creating something in people’s lives. It’s very satisfying.”
THE OTTOLENGHI TEST KITCHEN FOR BUSY HOME COOKS
Continuously pioneering the food world, Yotam is also an author of eight best-selling and multi-award-winning cookery books, a weekly columnist for the Saturday Guardian for over thirteen years and is a regular contributor to the New York Times. And now he has added another cookbook to his culinary collection, The Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love, which he has created with the ‘queen of Middle Eastern feasts’, Noor Murad.
This is the first of an innovative new series aimed at the busy home cook. So what can we look forward to? The Ottolenghi Test Kitchen (#OTK) books will share the Test Kitchen’s tried-and-tested recipes but with more flexibility to make them our own.
Packed with tantalising dishes to accommodate everyone’s palette: a one-pan route to confit tandoori chickpeas, sticky miso bananas with lime and toasted rice and a not-your-average tomato salad. All the signature Ottolenghi touches are in the cookery book, boasting mammoth flavours and veggie-forward dish but distilled to maximise ease and versatility.
This series was inspired by the OTK team’s own experience in lockdown. “At the beginning of the pandemic we couldn’t operate the way we normally do and people had to go home,” says the chef-patron.
“The whole operation of the taste kitchen changed dramatically from what we cooked. Suddenly, it was hard to get the ingredients, we couldn’t go out shopping so often, and we changed our perspective slightly for these humble ingredients which we celebrate in the book. It was about things you have on your shelves or lurking in the background or freezer.”
“This then brought up the idea of the cookbook and it was a no-brainer that people really want to get inspired but they didn’t want to be sent on a journey to go and get rare ingredients.”
DAILY COOKING SHOULDN’T BE STRESSFUL
The unprecedented times of the pandemic inspired a huge interest in home cooking, people testing their culinary skills and cooking became more than just feeding yourself. So I had to ask, what was lockdown like in the Ottolenghi household? “It was a really lovely feeling being stuck at home with my family. It was nice to communicate in such a way.”
Yotam explains it was a great opportunity to cook too. “I don’t cook as much as I used to or hardly at all at work as I have a team. At home, I always find the most relaxing times are when I go to the kitchen. You just don’t have to think or worry too much. I try to tell people if they get stressed by cooking, they are doing something wrong. If you cook something you haven’t cooked before and it goes wrong, that is fine. Unless, of course, it is for a big dinner party where you need to impress.”
“When it comes to daily cooking, it shouldn’t be stressful, just cook something you know tastes good. Try to make the experience joyful and not stressful, I really stand by that.”
Yotam adds, “After a busy week, Sunday night I do something repetitive and I do batch cooking for the kids. Some good sauces for pasta, curry and things like that. I’m on auto-pilot and you don’t have to think too much. I can listen to a podcast or some music, it is just so relaxing.”
Yotam lives in North London with his husband, Karl and their two boys, but he still has memories of his first owned apartment in Clapham. “It was nearly 20 years ago, I loved it and I still absolutely love the area,” he says. “In particular, I love walking around Clapham Common. It is such a special, fond memory for me from the old days when I lived there.”
Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury Press, £25)
All photography by Elena Heatherwick.