The Yotam Ottolenghi Effect: Superstar Chef on How the Pandemic and Parenthood Have Simplified His Recipes

It’s hard to overstate Yotam Ottolenghi’s influence on today’s food, both the home-style and restaurant variety.

When the Israeli-born chef published his self-titled first cookbook in 2008, he introduced the world to the food he and his business partner Sami Tamimi had been transforming the palates of Londoners with since opening their delicatessen joint venture six years earlier. : Inventive, complex food that brought once exotic ingredients to a certain food mainstream. If you’ve ever had a dish featuring rosewater, sumac, za’atar, or pomegranate molasses at a kiwi restaurant—not to mention found them available for purchase at a local store—you probably have some to thank. to Ottolenghi.

The same goes for many of the plant heroes that have come into vogue in recent years. Think whole roasted cauliflower, buttered rutabaga, or really anything that involves eggplant; so unusual was the pervasive use of vegetables in the early 2000s that for several years Ottolenghi wrote a column for The Guardian titled “The New Vegetarian” despite not being, and never having been, a vegetarian.

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More cookbooks followed Ottolenghi’s rapid rise to fame (seven over the next decade, many of them New York Times industry-standard bestsellers), but it must be said that a significant portion of those who bought them they did it, ultimately, for the prestige and the photos. Throughout the 2010s, Ottolenghi’s food might have been highly praised and highly influential, but for a host of home cooks it was also an aspirational step too far. Synonymous with lengthy ingredient lists and complex methods that call for the use of every pot and pan in the kitchen, Ottolenghi’s recipes weren’t exactly the kind of thing most of us were whipping up on a Wednesday night.

“I think my audience and I, or my readers, have met in the middle,” says Yotam Ottolenghi.

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“I think my audience and I, or my readers, have met in the middle,” says Yotam Ottolenghi.

But now, as he looks toward the publication of his tenth book this southern spring, Ottolenghi thinks that is changing.

“I think my audience and I, or my readers, have met in the middle,” he says. “So I’ve been here a bit” – he moves his right hand to the left – “and they’ve been there a bit” – and vice versa.

It’s 8am in London and Ottolenghi, 53, is sitting at home in front of a large poster with dozens of illustrated lemons and flanked by bursting shelves. He shares this house with her husband of 10 years, Karl Allen, and her two children. Max was born in 2013 via gestational surrogacy, prompting Ottolenghi to “come out as a gay father” in an essay for The Guardian in which he detailed the long, arduous and costly process of being able to achieve his dream of fatherhood and argued the gestational surrogacy, which they had to go to the US to obtain, should be more available; Flynn followed in 2015.

Parenthood is partly responsible for simplifying his style of eating, says Ottolenghi.

“Anyone who has kids, or has kids around them, knows it’s a very different mindset. Even [with] children who are quite adventurous with the way they eat, the conversation about food is very different from that of adults.”

This came to a head during the early days of the pandemic, when the family was in lockdown.

In non-pandemic conditions, Ottolenghi says, he doesn’t cook much at home anymore. Allen is the children’s primary caregiver, and when Ottolenghi gets home from busy days in his test kitchen or one of his six restaurants, they usually have eaten.

Cooking at home for her husband and children, something Ottolenghi rarely did before the pandemic, has influenced her next cookbook.

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Cooking at home for her husband and children, something Ottolenghi rarely did before the pandemic, has influenced her next cookbook.

But during the UK’s first lockdown of 2020, for about three months, she did a lot of cooking for her family.

“I found myself adapting to [my kids’] palate,” he says. “My little boy, Flynn, especially likes starches, pasta and rice; I think a lot of parents are pretty familiar with that sort of thing, so I really tried to accept it. He would make pea and spice potato cakes, either as a pie in a pan or individually, deep fried, or he would fill the pan with batter with many different things to create a one pan meal. That notion that you take the things that they love and load them up with other things that maybe wouldn’t be their first choice but you want them to eat that, there was a lot of that kind of cuisine. I think I’ve become an expert on ‘a pot of something that turns into pasta’.”

Not really. This style of cooking seeped through his book Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love, which he wrote during the pandemic. Ottolenghi points to a recipe for his version of pasta al forno, an Italian baked pasta dish, whose recipe calls for dried pasta that is placed in the pan along with the chicken, aromatics, and herbs.

“It’s grilled with a little extra cheese, so it’s like a gratin, but again, not as much prep, so it all comes together in one pot.”

It’s a far cry from even a book as recent as the 2020 one. Sabor, where the recipe for saffron tagliatelle with ricotta and crispy chipotle shallots requires 21 ingredients between strands of saffron, 00 flour and chipotle flakes; As the name suggests, Shelf Love is all about recipes you can make with things you probably already have lying around (aside from spaghetti and chicken thighs, the al forno recipe calls for onion, garlic, tomato paste, breadcrumbs , parmesan, parsley, thyme, and – the most exotic ingredient – lemon zest).

This, I suggest, would be a good starting point for Ottolenghi’s two-stop New Zealand lecture tour, which will finally take place in January next year, after a postponement and cancellation and not before, we imagine, the cost of living. it’s over.

When Ottolenghi first announced dates in New Zealand, he was supporting his book Flavour.  In the two years since then, she has published another, Shelf Love.

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When Ottolenghi first announced dates in New Zealand, he was supporting his book Flavour. In the two years since then, she has published another, Shelf Love.

“I can only say that there are a lot of really cheap ingredients that you can use creatively,” he says. “Shelf Love is full of recipes for pulses, rice, frozen peas, all these bulk ingredients that we have and we don’t know how good they are until we try to cook with them, and they’re so cheap to cook with. .”

So should we say goodbye to the Ottolenghi food of yesteryear?

Not exactly, he says. Ottolenghi may have changed but he has also, partly due to his influence, changed the world of his readers.

“The ingredients that I introduced people to are maybe more basic now,” she suggests, “so people are more likely to have tahini in their pantry, or have more spices that I like to use in their pantry. It means they don’t necessarily have to search for exotic ingredients every time they cook Ottolenghi.”

“Cooking Ottolenghi” – what exactly does that mean?

The man himself laughs. “I’ve been asked this before and every time I approach it from a slightly different angle. I think it has a lot of vegetables, a barbecue from the antipodes is not an Ottolenghi meal… There are quite a few color contrasts too, it is very generous in terms of flavours, quantities, presentation. It’s kind of sunny food, and it’s very modern or current.”

Ottolenghi frequently collaborates on his cookbooks.  On the right, he is pictured with Flavor co-author Ixta Belfrage.

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Ottolenghi frequently collaborates on his cookbooks. On the right, he is pictured with Flavor co-author Ixta Belfrage.

What it is not, he insists, is particularly Israeli. Ottolenghi was born and raised in Jerusalem, but didn’t start cooking until he was 30, after a short career in journalism. He studied French pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in London and worked as a pastry chef in restaurants, including the now-closed Michelin-starred Capital Restaurant, before moving to the artisan bakery Baker and Spice, where he met Tamimi.

Though the couple told The Independent they came together over a “shared misunderstanding of traditional English food,” Ottolenghi says the way he cooks now is closer to the kind of cuisine you’d find in California, “in the way deals with the ingredients, in the middle east freshness doesn’t do as many new things as I tend to do”.

This is true even for Jerusalem, her 2012 cookbook in collaboration with Tamimi. Both men were born, a couple of years apart, in Jerusalem: the same city, but in very different worlds. While the Jew Ottolenghi is from Ramat Denya, a prosperous residential area in the southwest of the city, Tamimi, a Palestinian Muslim, spent the first 17 years of his life in the occupied Old City.

Jerusalem the Book was his attempt to capture the religious and cultural melting pot of the city of Jerusalem in 100 recipes, not just Muslim and Jewish but Christian and Armenian, ancient and modern, traditional and aggressively 21st century.

And Ottolenghi’s influences continue to be varied and diverse. He points to his test kitchen, which has grown from one person to five full-time recipe testers from around the world, and even a YouTube channel. “Everyone brings a slightly different perspective, so it’s that plurality, I think, that really gives voice. [to the dishes]. We are all open to what is happening in the world.”

Ottolenghi is looking forward to seeing in person what is happening on the other side of the world. This will be his second trip to New Zealand. In 2011, he and Allen went on a road trip with Peter Gordon, eating everything from Logan Brown’s paua ravioli to gas station pies, and he can’t wait to get back.

“I’m dying to come and see what’s been going on in the New Zealand food scene. I’m planning on eating as much as I can.”

Who knows, maybe an Ottolenghi version of a mince and cheese pie will appear in an upcoming cookbook.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Flavor of Life Lecture Tour has shows in Auckland and Wellington in January 2023. Visit ottolenghi.com.au for information and tickets.

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