Yotam Ottolenghi: on his new Simple cookbook
Yotam Ottolenghi talks flavours, nervous cooks and coming to Wimbledon with Chantal Borciani
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.
While it’s indisputable that Yotam Ottolenghi 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 Common’s Bookfest on 14 October
to talk all things food and Simple.
“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.
Family is key to the Isreali-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.”
“I love 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”