‘Before I wanted to cook, I wanted to eat’: Yotam Ottolenghi on his roots, recipes, and guilty food pleasures

In the past 20 years, the London chef has revolutionised the way British people see vegetables, but his motivation remains as simple as ever: to share delicious food.

It’s 9 a.m., and Yotam Ottolenghi has just arrived in his eponymous test kitchen in Camden. Morning light from outside, where school children are laughing and learning cricket, is pouring into the beautiful space, hitting shiny metal chef’s implements and illuminating a bookshelf on which books by peers like Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, and Meera Sodha – plus about 300 more – sit.

He warmly greets his colleagues, asking after their weekends and chatting about Donald Trump’s tax numbers. Noor Murad, the kitchen’s recipe developer, offers him coffee, causing a debate – in his calm, easy-going way – over whether or not to use oat milk instead of dairy.

“Hmmm”, he murmurs softly, pondering the carton’s ingredients carefully, “I don’t know if I want rapeseed oil in my stomach this early.”

The Ottolenghi test kitchen is where the London chef and his cooking team create and test the recipes that have made him a household name. Born and raised in Jerusalem, Ottolenghi has now lived in London, where he moved in 1997, for over 20 years. In 2002, he opened a delicatessen that quickly became a cult favourite in Notting Hill, not just for his unique flavour combinations but the way he treated vegetables as a focal ingredient, worthy of respect and bursting with possibilities.

'The process of grabbing [ingredients] and playing with them, making things from scratch – I just found it so amazingly powerful'

From there, the ascent was rather speedy: in the next few years, he started a weekly food column for The Guardian, and opened two more delis; fast forward to today, and Ottolenghi now boasts three additional restaurants, a shelf’s worth of bestselling cookbooks – including his latest, FLAVOUR ­­– and a reputation as one of the UK's most revered chefs, responsible for revolutionising the way British people think not just of vegetables, but food as a whole. In 2014, The London Standard said that Ottolenghi had “radically rewritten the way Londoners cook and eat”; Bon Appetit said he “made the world love vegetables.”

But it started, as all delicious recipes do, with good ingredients. While Ottolenghi says he has “a lot of fond memories of watching my mom, my dad, my grandmothers, cook”, he had no ambitions, as a child, to be a chef: “Before I wanted to cook,” he says, “I wanted to eat.”

It was in university that he became enamoured with ingredients, spices and good produce.

“I was living in Tel Aviv and my boyfriend and I were near a really great fruit and vegetable market – Carmel Market, which is in the centre of Tel Aviv. And I used to remember, especially on the Friday, I used to go and do the shopping for the weekend and week. And there was… I just loved the produce. I would just walk there and see these incredible mountains of vegetables and cheese and herbs. It was just so seductive. And so the process of grabbing all of those things and playing with them, making things from scratch – I just found it so amazingly powerful.

Yotam Ottolenghi
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

“I remember learning how to cook, more the Middle Eastern fare – incredible Arabic rice dishes and things with aubergines, salads with aubergines – things that were just of the region and were perfectly right for the time. I absolutely loved it and I think it was through the ingredients and that market that I really found the love of cooking.”

It would be another few years, he says, before he considered cooking as a career option.

“I was in university for about four years. I finished a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature and Philosophy; I just thought in my head that I was an academic. But I decided to take a year off and try cooking as a professional capacity; that’s when I came to London.”

In London, Ottolenghi took cookery courses, and worked in restaurants and bakeries before starting his own business. He worked as a pastry chef at three different London restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Restaurant at the Capital, before being made head pastry chef at London’s Baker and Spice, where he met Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi. The twosome, who would later open the Ottolenghi deli together in 2002, bonded over a shared language and an “incomprehension of traditional English food”.

When he moved to the city, Ottolenghi says now, “there was a food revolution already underway. There were restaurants where you could have really good European food: Italian, French. And then you would go to Soho and Chinatown and get really good Chinese food of the different regions, and good Indian food.”

But in their homes, he says, Londoners “were eating very basic food, and that was the thing that kind of shocked me. It was all about the meat. The roasts. There was never any love for vegetables; vegetables were really an afterthought. They were boiled to death; the broccoli would be a shade of grey, it would look like a corpse of the actual vegetable.

“I found that really disappointing in a sense, because for me, vegetables are just so superior to any other ingredient. I’m an omnivore – I eat everything – but vegetables are where the interesting stuff happens in the kitchen. That’s where the colour is, the flavours are really interesting, there’s so much more you can do. And I thought, ‘What a wasted opportunity.’ The most interesting cuisines in the world are the ones that have a really good use of plant-based ingredients.”

'There was never any love for vegetables; the broccoli would be a shade of grey, it would look like a corpse of the actual vegetable'

The Ottolenghi revolution was a quiet one. He’s admittedly “not a mission kind of person”, and “when The Guardian approached me back in 2006 to write a vegetable column, or vegetarian column actually, I had moments of doubt where I wondered how much I could work with vegetables – how far can you innovate? But, because I’ve travelled, because I’ve lived in Israel and I’ve seen how Israeli and Palestinian food do amazing things with vegetables, I knew that there was so much out there.

“I didn’t want to change the way people eat, because I think that people need to see their own palates and experiences. So, it was about putting things out there rather than convincing anyone that they were doing something wrong. You put delicious things out there and you hope that people will see the light.”

And they did. Almost all of Ottolenghi’s eight cookbooks have won awards; his last one, SIMPLE, became an influential design objet; and FLAVOUR is already a bestseller. Put together over the last year, it’s another well-designed expression of Ottolenghi’s core belief that “you don’t need to convince people to eat delicious food; you just need to put it out there and show that good things are delicious.”

Books by Ottolenghi

Not that ‘delicious’ and ‘good’ are necessarily synonymous; even great chefs like Ottolenghi allow themselves cheat days. Asked whether he has any guilty food secrets, Ottolenghi admits he has his secret obsessions.

“The combination of strawberry and vanilla is incredible. I love almost the artificial strawberry-vanilla flavour that you get in sweets; it takes me back to childhood, where we had this ice cream which was banana and strawberry ice cream. I’m sure it’s never seen a banana or a strawberry in its life, but it’s that kind of flavour.

"My current obsession is with the Mikado sticks, you know those breadsticks? I go to a Korean shop here in Camden and I buy [them]. They’re awful, but they’re so good. My son might say, ‘You like that trashy sweet, don’t you?’ Even he knows that I have a soft spot for that.”

Yotam Ottolenghi
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

His sons, Max and Flynn, are Ottolenghi’s toughest critics.

“Both my husband Karl and I are constantly rated by my children – we get ratings from 1 to 10 on everything we cook. Children are not a polite audience. They’ll say what they think and what they like and what they love. They don’t adjust themselves to you; you have to adjust yourself to them, and I found with lockdown, it was pretty clear to me that I need to move myself in their direction. I’ve created things that they love. We do French Toast in the morning; they love berries so I’ll make a little compote. I work with what I’ve got and they appreciate that and I love that.”

Always innovating and never one to rest, Ottolenghi is already at work on a new book, which features “a one-pot chicken pasta dish that I made for them during lockdown. It involves putting the pasta straight in, without pre-boiling, into the sauce with the chicken. It’s quick and easy and delicious. It ended up in the book because I think everyone would love that – you don’t have to be a kid to love a crispy pot of pasta and chicken.”

'You put delicious things out there and you hope that people will see the light'

Finding positivity and human connection through food remains a through-line of Ottolenghi’s career; early on, he declined several offers to be a guest judge on cooking shows until he agreed, finally, to appear on Master Chef Australia, “because it’s quite human and positive.” There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of competition, he says, but “the enjoyable cookery competitions are about making better cooks”. He cites Bake Off as a good example.

“I think The Great British Bake Off has been so popular because it’s a positive show. Although it’s a competition, it is also about personal development. And it’s also about learning and teaching, about sharing and telling the story of food and enjoying it.”

He’s self-deprecatingly worried that it might “sound a bit basic”, but the best thing about food, according to Ottolenghi, “is that joy that is very clearly manifested when someone has something delicious. That is… it’s the most humane thing to experience. Seeing someone enjoy your food. I think, when we hit the spot, when someone eats something delicious and recognises it and expresses it… that’s the ultimate joy. It really is.”

FLAVOUR by Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage is out now.

Photos: Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

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