Yotam Ottolenghi’s path to the world of cooking and baking has been anything but straightforward. Having completed a Master’s degree in philosophy and literature whilst working on the news desk of an Israeli daily, he made a radical shift on coming to London in 1997. He started as an assistant pastry chef at the Capital and then worked at Kensington Place, Launceston Place, Maison Blanc and Baker and Spice, before starting his own eponymous group of restaurants/food shops, with branches in Notting Hill, Islington, Belgravia and Kensington.
When did you first discover an interest in food?
I grew up in the Middle East – in Jerusalem – so I never had many ingredients to work with; mainly Arabic lentils, vegetables and herbs. But through travel and research my knowledge of food began to develop – I like to play around with food. My mum is German and my Dad is Italian so I take influences from both of them too.
What is your favourite food to work with?
The world of the vegetable is so varied. I love working with unloved vegetables – the sweet potato, turnip and sprouts. I always say – it’s not the vegetables fault they don’t taste good – it’s the person cooking that gives them a bad name – over-boiling and under-seasoning.
Tell us about your new cookbook, Plenty More?
It’s all about giving vegetables the love and attention they deserve. People don’t have enough respect for vegetables. When dining in a restaurant, most will send their steak back if it’s overcooked or not to their liking but they won’t send back cauliflower. My book focuses on the cooking techniques of vegetables. Take cauliflower as an example – you could grate it and serve it raw in a salad; chargrill it for a smoky side dish; deep-fry it so it’s got a new texture – crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside; or even put it in a cake. It’s a mix of sweet and savoury recipes focusing on flavour and texture. news.
What has the response been to your book?
Really good. Although I have been tormented by the amount of ingredients I include in my recipes. Some feature up to 18 ingredients and up to eight varieties of spices from the Mediterranean to Asia. Although complex, the results are worth it. There are some more simple recipes for beginners though and ingredients can be substituted if you don’t have an exact match in your cupboard.
Do you cook at home?
Usually I don’t eat on an evening. I nibble so much throughout the day, testing different dishes, I’m too full to stomach a meal. I just drink wine and watch TV instead. I eat out at friends’ houses fairly often though – in fact one of them cooked a recipe from my new cookbook at a dinner party recently. It was delicious if I may say so myself.
Have you ever had a kitchen disaster when trying out a new dish?
Oh yes. Last month I appeared on a cookery show and they asked me to create one dish – so I decided on a Quinoa cake. It disintegrated in the pan and there was nothing I could do as I had the exact measurements provided for me and no extra ingredients. Distaster! I play around with food a lot too so I do of course have some failures. I once cooked a whole salmon for a 1970s party and covered the entire fish in tiny slices of cucumber held together with gelatine. It took me hours to make and it tasted awful. All food was awful in the 1970s though.
How did becoming a food columnist for The Guardian come about?
The newspaper’s offices are based near to where I work so they came in one day and asked me if I was interested in becoming a contributor. I had a struggle writing my column at first. It’s a lot of pressure writing recipes for a national newspaper – I didn’t know how I’d be able to come up with a recipe every week and I was worried what the response would be from other chefs. Now I can create four or five recipes per week.
What motivates you in life? Food.
I love making it. I love eating it. I’m a big believer that once you’ve had your stomach filled nicely, you’re at ease with the world.
What’s your food heaven? A south Asian dish made from Arabic rice, lentils, fried onion, cumin, cinnamon and full fat yogurt. It’s divine.
And food hell?
A cold falafel. Traditional Arabic Falafel should be fried and served hot, but supermarkets in the UK think it’s acceptable to serve it cold the day after it’s cooked. It’s like serving chips the day after