Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh – pic: Peden + Munk

Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice

8th September 2017

Kathy Walton meets Yotam Ottolenghi…

Being described as ‘pornography for the foodie classes’ may not be quite the accolade that every chef wants to hear, but award-winning restaurateur and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi takes it like a man, chewing over it only momentarily before responding to the charge.

“Well, that doesn’t really do our food justice,” he says. “It’s a good thing that food is sensual, because we should experience it through our senses, but porn is superficial, whereas lots of thought goes into our food. Every recipe is tested at least three times, but sometimes it can take up to twelve times to get it right.”

An Israeli Jew by birth and upbringing, Ottolenghi, who has lived in London since 1997, has just collaborated with his Australian-Chinese colleague Helen Goh on Sweet, his sixth recipe book, which he declares is “a celebration of the sweet things in life.” It will certainly have his many fans salivating over the photos and recipe names alone – what foodie could resist Persian love cake, custard yo-yos or campari and grapefruit sorbet for example?

Devoting an entire book to sugary delicacies is a new departure for Ottolenghi, who as the regular food writer for The Guardian, has long been fêted for his adventurous vegetable dishes, where lemon and garlic feature heavily. “If you don’t like lemon or garlic, skip to the last page” was how he introduced Ottolenghi: The Cookbook in 2008. He has even championed the humble broccoli, adding chillies and flaked almonds (along with lemon and garlic, natch) to transform it into a dish that saw Notting Hill residents picketing outside his restaurant when he once tried removing it from his menu.

Aside from Notting Hill protests – and the occasional clash on Twitter with vegetarian fundamentalists who object to his suggestions for fish and meat to complement his vegetables – Ottolenghi’s success seems almost unstoppable, with a list of awards that is longer than the handle of a cake slice. Women are his particular fans. “I know it’s pathetic to know this,” he tells me apologetically, “but more women follow me on Instagram,” before adding: “It’s a gross generalisation that women eat more vegetables, but this is changing.”

Now 48, Ottolenghi grew up in Jerusalem, the son of academics and the grandson of Italian Jews, who escaped to Palestine in 1939, but returned to buy a holiday home near Florence after the war. The dishes cooked by his Italian ‘nonna’, as well as those of his German-born grandmother, gave him a taste for European food, which inevitably, given his talent for fusing the best of European and Middle Eastern cuisines, finds its way into his repertoire.

After studying comparative literature at Tel Aviv university – and intending to become a journalist – Ottolenghi moved to Amsterdam in his early twenties, to edit the Hebrew pages of a Dutch-Jewish weekly and finish a thesis on photographic imagery. No surprise there, as anyone who admires the stunning photos in his books or the way he sets colourful food against the all-white décor in his restaurants, will agree.

With his life apparently mapped out, he decided on what he calls “an overdue gap year” before embarking on a PhD, and, to fill in time, signed up for a six-month course at the Cordon Bleu cookery school in London, assuring his anxious parents: “I just need to check this out, make sure it’s not the right thing for me.” It turned out to be absolutely the right thing for him and, although at 30 he was positively ancient in the culinary world, he knew that when his chocolate brownies were dubbed ‘the best thing ever’, he had found his métier.

A highly successful professional partnership soon followed with fellow Israeli, the chef Sami Tamimi, who is of Palestinian Muslim heritage. After meeting in London, the duo co-founded their first deli in Notting Hill in 2002 and together penned The Cookbook and Jerusalem, famously saying that the Jewish/Arab staple hummus (which according to Ottolenghi should “never” contain olive oil but “always” tahini) could succeed, where years of political negotiations have failed, in bringing peace to the Middle East.

These days, with six restaurants and five best-selling books to his credit, Ottolenghi still pops in daily to his work-kitchen under a railway arch in Camden, where alongside a team of five – “all perfectionists” – he tests new dishes. “We very rarely dump a recipe. A walnut and tahini cake I wrote about for The New York Times was tested twelve times. Cooking is not about going through the motions.”

But he does admit to the occasional disaster – “I have them all the time, you constantly face calamities when you’re experimenting” – the worst of which his husband, Karl Allen, has never let him forget, as Ottolenghi recalls.

“A journalist for the New Yorker spent two weeks with me in London for a 10,000 word feature she was writing – it was a big honour. On her last day, she came to my house and I made a spicy chicken and rice dish from Jerusalem… and I undercooked it. It was not a good look! Fortunately, she wrote about it in a really sweet way, but my husband will never forgive me for it: it still gives him a lot of pleasure!”

Ottolenghi and Karl Allen, 46, met through work and married in 2011. They currently live in Camden with their two young sons, aged four and two.

If two women in the kitchen is the Chinese symbol for war, the thought of two gay men competing for the stove is even more colourful. Do he and Karl row over the pots and pans?

“Not really,” says Ottolenghi. “Karl does most of the cooking at home and I often nick his recipes. I used one of his with eggs and chard in The Guardian and had a great response from readers.”

With two small children, Ottolenghi admits that he has little time for relaxing, apart from twice-weekly Pilates classes – “I’m quite tall and I stand up a lot, so I had back issues” – and the occasional visit to the playground, rounded off at weekends with pancake-making sessions with the boys. Generally, though, the children apparently prefer his husband’s cooking.

“Karl grew up in Northern Ireland and cooks quite differently,” explains Ottolenghi proudly. “The children love his food – he uses lots of butter and is great at cottage and shepherds pies and wholesome chicken casserole.”
This summer the Ottolenghi-Allens decamped to Karl’s parents’ home in County Down to see their cousins and to eat plenty of Karl’s mother’s legendary home-baked soda and potato breads. When not on bucket and spade duty, Ottolenghi undertook some culinary research, although he stresses he has no intention of opening a restaurant in Ireland. “The food scene there is exploding,” he says, “but we need a big city to set a place up.”

And London, he says, is the place he is now happy to call home. “I like the British openness to food and the way you have embraced so many cultures in your cooking. Brits are not chauvinistic and are so open-hearted [about food]”.

Certainly, his own food, both sweet and savoury, has been variously hailed as “bold, exciting and challenging” and as “a noisy mixture of different cuisines”. Is this how he’d like to be remembered?

“Oh, that’s a big question for someone who’s not yet 50,” he laughs. “Can we talk about this in 20 years’ time?”

Signed copies of ‘Sweet’ by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh (pub. Ebury Press) are available from Chorleywood Bookshop, price £27. For more details: 01923 283566 or www.chilternbookshops.co.uk

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