Arguably Israel’s most renowned chef and restaurateur, Yotam Ottolenghi, doesn’t
ply his trade in the Jewish state.
Instead, the 44-year-old Jerusalemite
works his culinary and PR magic in London, where, since 1997, he’s been reaping
success by offering homemade-style food, primarily at take-away establishments
he both owns and runs. Indeed, thanks to extensive positive publicity about him
and his restaurants, Ottolenghi is one of London’s better-known
Ottolenghi has always been interested in food. “But, at first,
more in eating it than in cooking it,” he tells The Jerusalem
Ottolenghi has certainly taken London and its food world by
storm, setting up one restaurant after another, publishing bestselling
cookbooks, writing a weekly food column for the Guardian Weekend magazine, and
hosting TV shows. Ottolenghi is becoming a household name in a city renowned for
its wide range of food choices.
What Ottolenghi loves about London is the
open-mindedness that foodies display toward all sorts of cuisine. “The city just
hugs every possible food trend in a very genuine way, and no other European
capital does that,” he says, adding that elsewhere people are chauvinistic (his
word) about their food.
In London, Ottolenghi makes food the way he wants
to, and still reaps kudos from his customers. “I guess that is what has kept me
here,” he says. “I never planned to come here, but London just sucks you
Though some Israelis scoff at countrymen who relocate abroad,
Ottolenghi expresses no desire to return to his homeland and set up eateries
there. “I don’t think about opening restaurants in Israel,” he says. “I’m
focused on London. I didn’t try to open restaurants in Israel because I wasn’t
going to be living there.” He visits Israel three or four times a
Ottolenghi has been described as elegant, gentle and calm. His
beard is short and scruffy, and his glasses give him a professorial look – not
the appearance of a chef at all.
He exhibits little passion in our
interview, but as he lists his accomplishments, it is plain to see he takes
great pride in becoming a popular, London-based chef.
His love of cooking
and exploring how to improve on various foods began for Ottolenghi when he was a
child, traveling with his father, Hebrew University physical chemistry Prof.
Michael Ottolenghi. His mother, Ruth, was a high school
Ottolenghi served in the Intelligence Corps during his
mandatory army service. In 1992, his younger brother Yiftach was killed by
friendly fire on the Golan Heights. After completing his military service,
Ottolenghi studied philosophy and literature at Tel Aviv University, obtaining a
Master’s degree in comparative literature. By the time he completed his studies,
however, he had begun thinking about cooking as a profession.
In 1997, at
the age of 29, Ottolenghi moved to England and trained at London’s Le Cordon
Bleu Cookery School, the famed French culinary school. He began working in
London as a pastry chef at some of London’s best restaurants. “I loved the
feeling of working with dough and I liked the physicality,” he recalls. “I liked
the fact that I didn’t have to think too much about what I was doing. I enjoyed
the intellectual activities at university, but with cooking, I could
By 1999, Ottolenghi was running the pastry department at the
famous Baker and Spice shop in Chelsea, where he became head pastry chef. It was
there that he met and befriended Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian Arab from East
Jerusalem, who had also moved to London to work in the cooking world. They were
quite the odd couple: As an Israeli and a Palestinian Arab, they were certainly
one of the most unlikely cooking teams in London – or anywhere
Tamimi had worked as a chef at a Jerusalem hotel, and he had risen
to the position of head chef at Lilith, a top Tel Aviv restaurant, but it is
unlikely that he and Ottolenghi would have forged the friendship and business partnership that evolved from their meeting at Baker and Spice had they
met in Israel.
In 2001, Ottolenghi decided to go into business with Noam
Bar and Tamimi, creating the Ottolenghi deli in Notting Hill.
was small and designed primarily as a take-away. It had tables that sat a
maximum of 10 people. Colorful salads were arranged on the counter, said one
food critic, “like a buffet made in heaven, [and it] tasted fresh, complex and
tangy, like nothing we’d eaten before.”
Recent recipes that Ottolenghi
and his staff have prepared include herb and ginger fish cakes with beetroot
relish, tomato and pomegranate salad with garlic dressing, fig and goat’s cheese
tart with lemon icing, shakshuka with smoked aubergine, and chicken meatballs
with preserved lemon and harissa relish.
Describing the chicken meatballs
recipe, Ottolenghi suggests, “The relish might be more than needed, but it is
completely delicious and will last in the fridge for a couple of weeks at least.
Serve it with roasted vegetables, grilled chicken or slow-cooked
Ottolenghi’s restaurant quickly acquired a cult following. One
tweet from a delighted customer sums up the response to his
“Ravaged cakes in pastry meeting with Helen and Paulina. Need
The business started growing; and after just a few months,
Ottolenghi knew the place would be a success. “We received a warm reception,” he
recalls. “People liked our food with colorful flavors. We became well known in
London. It was like home cooking for our guests. We had a way of making the
presentations of the food very attractive.”
Although Ottolenghi enjoyed
preparing food because it required little thought, he eventually developed a
philosophy and style about cooking that has added excitement to his culinary
efforts. As he notes on his website, “Our food is familiar and straightforward,
yet highly innovative.”
The food that he and his team make is familiar
and personal because they “love preparing food as well as indulging in it,
gorging on it, chatting about it endlessly.
It is a way of life,
somewhere between a healthy obsession and a bad habit we can’t
Ottolenghi’s basic strategy about cooking is to constantly
experiment, to look at the food he prepares “from extraordinary angles,” to make
it tastier, more sensual and vibrant. With an acknowledged focus on
Mediterranean food traditions, he uses bold flavors and daring colors. His
favorite ingredients are “noisy” – lemon, pomegranate, garlic and
His food is, as he puts it, uncomplicated, unadulterated, made
from scratch. He only buys raw ingredients and refuses to use coloring or
preservatives. He will not freeze or refrigerate for long periods. For
Ottolenghi his mission is clear. “We like to think of ourselves as the haute
couture of the foodto- go world,” he says.
Ottolenghi has opened three
more restaurants in the past decade. The second one in Islington, in north
London, and also called Ottolenghi, was larger than the first – it could seat
50. In 2009, he opened the third restaurant in Kensington, a small takeaway
place like the Notting Hill one. Its freshly baked food proved a big
As of early 2013, Ottolenghi has four eateries in London:
Notting Hill, Kensington, Belgravia and Islington.
Part of the
popularizing of Ottolenghi, his food and his restaurants can be put down to the
weekly vegetarian recipe column, “The New Vegetarian,” he has been writing since
2006 in the Guardian. The column will soon be expanded from one to two pages and
now includes meat as well as vegetarian recipes.
publication in May 2008, “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” turned into a surprise
bestseller, with over 100,000 copies sold in its first two years. One Telegraph
writer, Xanthe Clay, noted that after reading the book, “the middle classes took
pomegranate molasses, sumac and za’atar to their hearts and their store
In 2010, Ottolenghi and Tamimi wrote a second cookbook,
“Plenty,” a collection of 120 vegetarian recipes that had been published in the
Guardian, plus 13 new ones.
“Plenty” has sold 250,000 copies in England
and is being translated into a number of foreign languages. In addition, the
book won the coveted Galaxy National Book Award and also made The New York Times
best-seller list following its release in the United States.
Ottolenghi “starred” in the award-winning BBC 4 one-hour documentary, “Jerusalem
on a Plate.” He was filmed meeting Jewish and Arab chefs whose recipes appear in
his recipe book, “Jerusalem.”
Says Ottolenghi, “The most important thing
for me is to walk the little alleys of the city, to find the little alcove where
someone is cooking something and just watch them do it. That’s my idea of
His second TV series (in four parts) was aired on the More4
television channel last November and was called “Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean
Feast.” Tel Aviv is one of the four cities that Ottolenghi visited for the
programs, along with Marrakesh, Istanbul, and Tunis, exploring the history and
culture through the food. The destinations were chosen, says Ottolenghi, because
they were ancient places, “where the Arab world meets the West.”
show, he meets all sorts of colorful “chefs” – an opinionated septuagenarian
Egyptian lady stall-holder in Tel Aviv who “hates modern chefs”; the Sudanese
man who bakes tangias – casserole-filled jars – in the fire of a Marrakesh hamam
(public steam bath) while belting out a song.
Sensing that he has little
to teach these older folks about cooking, he asks lots of questions. “I love
learning from people,” he says. “This is my real passion. I really don’t think I
have anything to teach these old folks. They know perfectly well what they are
doing. I only can learn from them.”
One such foray led him to discover
Tunisian scented geranium water, made the same way as orange flower water or
rose water, and used in sauces and desserts. He learned new ways to use familiar
ingredients, such as the use of cumin and salt as a dip for slow-cooked lamb in
His third recipe book, simply called “Jerusalem,” was published
in September and may become his bestseller to date.
Ottolenghi, is his first attempt at summing up his kind of food for the home
cook. The 140 recipes cover everything he does: “our prominent salads and roast
vegetable dishes, cold meat and fish, substantial main courses from our dinner
menu in Islington, some of our wholesome breads and savory pastries, and a good
mixture of the sweets that distinctively adorn [our] windows.”