The man who makes vegetables sexy
IN JUST 12 years, Yotam Ottolenghi has carved out a career as a world-renowned food writer, chef and restaurateur.
When the 41-year-old - who was the star attraction at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival yesterday - arrived in Britain in 1998, he had never cooked professionally before.
Made miserable by his work in Israel as an academic and newspaper sub editor, he enrolled at the Cordon Bleu school in Marylebone and immersed himself in cooking as a personal experiment to see whether he would like it.
He soon discovered the “immediate satisfaction of seeing people react and really enjoy your food” and, after several years working as a pastry chef for first Rowley Leigh then Baker and Spice, he and business partner Sami Tamimi opened their first bakery-cum-grocery-cum takeaway-cum-caf� in Notting Hill.
There are now a further three Ottolenghi branches: a 50-seat restaurant in Islington and two takeaways with limited seating in Kensington and Belgravia.
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There’s also a weekly column for The Guardian and two hugely successful cookbooks including the latest vegetable cornucopia: Plenty (Ebury Press, �25).
The man credited with making vegetables sexy, grew up in Jerusalem with an Italian father and a mother of German descent.
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“In our Jewish family, we had a mix of cuisines, at home it was mainly European, both northern and southern, but outside it was very Middle Eastern with a lot of Arab food and influences. There was a lot to enjoy and expose yourself to. I had the best of all worlds.”
Ottolenghi raves about the quality of fruit and vegetables in Israel.
“The basic produce is fantastic, with very strong, wonderful flavours. Supermarkets aren’t as big there as they are here so there is a lot of street food and markets with food piled high, where you are totally exposed to the produce up close.”
By contrast, in Britain, our exposure to fresh produce is limited, swaddled in layers of packaging in the “sanitised, cold supermarket”.
“You don’t get the interaction with the ingredients that you do in Israel, you don’t smell everything and sense everything.”
Ottolenghi’s own stores are a feast for the senses, salads a riot of colour, delicious cakes and pastries in prettily arranged stacks, and window displays of vibrant fresh ingredients.
A dozen years ago, observes Ottolenghi, we British were just learning to steam rather than boil our veg.
“In Israel, many meals are focused on fruit and vegetables, but their use was much less prominent here. People would have a bit of green on the plate as a side dish to make themselves feel better that they were not just eating meat and potatoes and everything was cooked, even the tomato with the breakfast! We eat thinly sliced fresh tomatoes with our breakfast which seems weird. But having fresh veg for breakfast is part of our culture.”
Happily, Ottolenghi is part of a movement that has helped wreak huge changes in British eating habits. He says we are now keener to grow our own produce on allotments or in garden greenhouses, happier to team vegetables with fresh herbs, and to eat raw or partly cooked food, perhaps chargrilled or blanched.
“From restaurants to takeaways to delis to cooking at home, there is much less processing.
“As a consequence, we are demanding better flavour from our fruit and vegetables rather than the superficial requirement that ‘everything looks fantastic but tastes quite bland’.”
Ottolenghi’s food philosophy is focused on flavour, fanatical attention to detail and minimal processing, all on site.
The self-confessed perfectionist insists on constant evaluation, scrutiny and analysis of his chef’s efforts.
“Working in Baker and Spice was a very formative, educational environment for me in terms of how seriously (founder) Gail Stephens took her bread and pastry. It was a hothouse for a lot of creativity and perfection.
“Ottolenghi may have my name above the door but it is a very collaborative organisation with a lot of people involved with the creative aspects. I had a strong sense that a requirement for success was making it a creative environment where a lot of people could contribute and where they are encouraged to innovate.”
He also insists the business of serving food is simplified.
“I wanted to cut down the stages between the process of making the food and presenting it to the customer so it is very fresh and immediate and as close as possible to the home environment. Ingredients arrive in the morning and are processed and served within hours, everything is made on the day and served without packaging or refrigeration.”
Future plans include a larger restaurant in Soho, under a new name, without the bakery or retail element, that will be “more upmarket but still serving sunny, hearty, robust flavours”.
He’s looking forward to the new challenge but adds: “I am fortunate to be able to enjoy various aspects of what I do but my main satisfaction remains from people enjoying and reacting to the food they are served with a physical joy.”