Cooking up a storm in London

An Israeli with a love of Middle Eastern food, Yotam Ottolenghi has achieved a great deal for someone essentially presiding over take-away delis.

chef london 521 (photo credit: KEIKO OIKAWA)
chef london 521
(photo credit: KEIKO OIKAWA)
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 chefs.
Ottolenghi has always been interested in food. “But, at first, more in eating it than in cooking it,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
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 in.”
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 year.
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 principal.
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 relax.”
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 else.
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.
The place 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 lamb.”
Ottolenghi’s restaurant quickly acquired a cult following. One tweet from a delighted customer sums up the response to his baking.
“Ravaged cakes in pastry meeting with Helen and Paulina. Need insulin.”
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 kick.”
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 chili.
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 attraction.
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.
Following its 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 cupboards.”
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.
In 2011, 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 fun.”
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.”
For the 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 Morocco.
His third recipe book, simply called “Jerusalem,” was published in September and may become his bestseller to date.
“Jerusalem,” says 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.”