Q&A with Yotam Ottolenghi

Like a handful of chopped capers to a plate of simply dressed greens, or a few drops of rosewater to a humble compote, a visit to one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s eponymous neighborhood delis can elevate the dreariest London afternoon. Merely gazing at the counter display’s tiered platters is transportive: there are tarts perfumed with date syrup and heather honey, focaccia dusted with Palestinianza’atar, and vibrant salads mingling figs, fava beans, pomegranate seeds and pistachios. The fragrant panorama is reminiscent of a greenmarket stall in Jerusalem (on whose hummus and fattoush Ottolenghi and his business partner, Sami Tamimi, both grew up).

The cuisine found at Ottolenghi or NOPI, however, is not categorically Middle Eastern. Ottolenghi draws from a rich spectrum of culinary traditions, cooking and writing about everything from scrambled eggs – boldly seasoned with cumin, caraway, ginger, turmeric and cardamom – to walnut cake baked with ripe apricots and fresh lavender flowers. Each new dish, regardless of its provenance, has a way of warming both the palate and the imagination. Perhaps this is one reason the former philosophy student who traded his Ph.D. for pastry in the late 1990s has become one of the UK’s most beloved chef-entrepreneurs. Mention his name to Guardian readers or bakery regulars, and they will eagerly profess that they are “obsessed with him.”

Ottolenghi spoke to Indagare about the pleasures of eating shakshuka in Jerusalem and chicken rice in Penang, and the art of making food that brings “a renewed perception of the everyday.”

When you first met Sami Tamimi at the London eatery Baker & Spice in 1999, you were riding your scooter around the city searching for bakeries that looked exciting. How has London’s culinary landscape evolved over the course of your career together?

The city just keeps getting more exciting. The past decade has seen an explosion in what is available and how it is offered to the food-lover, whether eating out or cooking at home. Ingredients that were once considered ‘exotic’ to the home cook are now a staple of most people’s kitchens – it’s easy to forget that sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar were once considered novel! The range offered by supermarkets and local shops opens up the entire world to the experimental cook. Restaurant-wise, London is intoxicatingly varied. There is so much going on: the passion behind the pop-ups, the artisan producers, the restaurants, bakeries, cafés and market stalls is incredible – urban beekeepers, the perfectionism and dedication of baristas and bakers, seaweed foragers. I’m not sure the culinary scene of 1999 would believe half of what is going on today. I love it!

Sami has said that your cooking aims both to surprise and to comfort. Is that a difficult balance to strike?

This balance is at the heart of our cooking: food that is both familiar and different. Our ingredients and techniques are not ‘fancy’ but our aim is to bring an element of drama to the plate. Vegetables will be kept close to their original state – aubergines simply sliced, brushed with olive oil and roasted in a hot oven; green beans quickly blanched, but then paired with something unexpected. Pickled cucumber, preserved lemon, a sharp walnut salsa, star-anise sugar, saffron-infused yogurt, syrup-softened barberries – little bursts of flavor that bring a renewed perception of the everyday. It’s the way we are inclined to cook, so it’s an exciting, rather than difficult, balance to strike.

After more than twenty years away from Jerusalem, you and Sami returned to your mutual hometown “to explore your culinary DNA.” What about the city most surprised you? Can you recommend any culinary ‘musts’ for first-time visitors?

The city hasn’t really changed that much since we were children there. Yes, it is more modern on the western side, and whole areas have been built up or paved over, but the food is pretty similar to what is used to be. There are a few restaurants that are modern and creative and interesting, but, all in all, things are quite similar.

So many of the city’s delights are to be found through exploring the back alleys, following the cooking smells and stopping in wherever you see a crowd. Never miss an opportunity to eat shakshuka – seeking out the roasted red pepper and baked eggs brunch is the first thing I do when I get to the city – or to contribute to the endless who-makes-the-finest-hummus-in-town debate. Restaurant-wise, Rachmo is a no-frills, great-local-buzz place to head. It’s just outside Machane Yehuda Market on Haeshkol Street. Kubbe soup is the specialty here. Choosing between the beetroot and onion, root vegetable and turmeric and Swiss chard and spinach is pretty tough, though, so factoring in a return visit is a must. A bit out of town but worth the trek is Majda, in the village of Ein Rafa up in the Judean hills. Stunning antipasti and Mediterranean meze are served from the ground floor of the home of husband-and-wife team Michal and Yaakov. It’s a haven away from the bustle of town.

Jerusalem so beautifully evokes the city through its cuisine. Where else in your travels have you experienced the vivid relationship between food and place?

Food and place are always connected. Whether it’s eating a bowl of mussels looking out at the sea or a cheese and ham baguette in the mountains in France – even slurping noodles on your sofa at home. If forced to be more specific, however, I felt a real bond between food and place during my travels in Malaysia, eating a bowl of Hainanese chicken rice from a stall in a hawker center in Penang. It was a simple dish of chicken poached with ginger and spring onion served with rice and various condiments, but the coming together of perfect cooking artistry, eating outdoors on the street and the bustle of the place felt incredibly vivid.

Where in the world would you like to eat next?

I’ve been traveling all summer – cooking and eating my way through the islands of Crete, Sardinia, Corsica and Mallorca for the follow-up series to my Mediterranean Feast – so, to be honest, I’m dreaming of a simple bowl of pasta at home with my family in London.

You are constantly coming up with new material for your weekly column in The Guardian. What are your most dependable sources of recipe-inspiration?

I get my inspiration from everywhere: something I have eaten in another restaurant – two months in Boston at the beginning of the year filled me with ideas – the ingredients coming into season; a dish created by one of our Ottolenghi or NOPI chefs, which I’ll adapt for the home cook; reading through cookery books and experimenting from there; trying out an ingredient that is new to me; shaking up old favorites. I’ll go through phases when one ingredient keeps appearing in my cooking – brown miso has recently been usurped by the fermented yogurt, kashk, as ‘the favored child’ – but there are certain common threads that keep my cooking style together. I guess it’s rather like writing novels: everyone has a certain narrative style, but different characters and stories come into view at different times.

Your stateside following is feverishly growing. Is there any chance you might be prevailed upon to open an outpost of Ottolenghi on this side of the Atlantic?

There are no plans at the moment to open in the US. I absolutely love America – I spent a year in San Francisco as a kid and have been hooked ever since – but at the moment we’re staying pretty focused on our London setup. Expanding and growing is a constant conversation among the Ottolenghi team, but for now, we’re a very close-knit family who are together constantly and like to move between our delis and restaurants on a near-daily basis. They feel like our children whom we are not yet ready to let set sail from the nest – overprotective parents perhaps! I visit America a lot, though, and feel very connected to the culinary scene, so the two sides of the Atlantic don’t feel too far removed to me. I can’t visit New York without stopping in at Momofuku ssäm (207 2nd Ave.; 212-254-3500) and milk bar ( for a pork belly bun and cereal milk. Such fun.

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