As a cook and a food writer, I feel like I’m in a constant state of reflection. Childhood memories, past conversations and my travels all inspire me in the kitchen. Food has always been, and will always be, a central part of my life. Heated discussions on how something should be made or where to source a very specific ingredient were commonplace in my Maltese upbringing. I then spent time in Italy where making fresh pasta and shopping daily at the local market for produce became my norm and, after that, Japan, where the seasons are noticeably reflected in the everyday and where I gained a deep appreciation for the most simple of ingredients.
Some say that we are what we eat, but as I look at the dishes I make each day—miso soup and mixed grain rice, hand rolled orecchiette, aljotta (a fish soup my grandmother would always make) —I’m drawn to this idea that perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps what we eat, and thereby often cook, is who we are.
This theory could not ring more true than with cook and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi. He was born and raised in Jerusalem to a German-Jewish mother and Italian-Jewish father; he grew up spending summers in Italy; he’s travelled far and wide; and he now resides in London. This cosmopolitan upbringing is reflected in his cooking, allowing him to stray from tradition. He has given himself, and us, permission to be adventurous with food. His food is bright, interesting and, importantly, relatable. It holds an incredible element of universality while also being unmistakably his.
Now with seven cookbooks, a newspaper column, and several delis and restaurants that consistently draw a crowd, Yotam Ottolenghi is an international food icon.
When I spoke with Yotam during his recent visit to Australia, I felt that same generosity that you feel with his food. I found myself nodding along as we discussed memories through food, travels to Italy as teenagers, and the process of creating.
“I have a lot of childhood memories around food. Actually all my childhood memories are around food.”
What was it like growing up in Israel? Can you tell me about any childhood memories around food?
I have a lot of childhood memories around food. Actually all my childhood memories are around food.
(Yotam and Julia both laugh)
That’s how it is—that’s how I remember my past, through food. One of my fondest memories around food comes from Jerusalem in the 1970s, 1980s. It was difficult to get certain food because of all the kosher and rules, so there was a lot of attraction to forbidden foods. And I had this obsession with shrimps. I remember we used to go to this restaurant in east Jerusalem—in the Arab side—and they used to serve shrimps. With a seafood restaurant, I would always order shrimps with butter and garlic—it was quickly kind of sautéed. I don’t think it was anything really unusual, but it was just so delicious because you couldn’t get shrimps anywhere else and I remember just loving it. And when I had birthdays I’d get my parents to take me there. That would be my ideal birthday present: to go to this restaurant.
And the other thing is that you couldn’t really get pork, because Jews and Muslims don’t really eat pork. But my mum, she comes from a German background and, although they were Jewish, they still ate pork. So she used to go to the butcher in Jerusalem and he would sell her pork under the counter in brown bags and she would put it in our sandwiches for school. But we were not supposed to tell the other children it was ham; we had to tell them that it was turkey breast. A very pink turkey breast.
So your mother is German-Jewish and your father is Italian-Jewish. Do you feel like this cross of cultures influences your approach to food?
Yes, I guess in a sense. Because there was different foods from different places. My dad would cook polenta, pasta… You know, things that were very Italian in style. And my mum would cook some German food—cabbage and potatoes and all that—but also quite international food. She’s adventurous, so she would try making a stir fry or a Malaysian curry… Stuff like that. Both of them were really good cooks. But I think my culinary background is also to do with the food that I had growing up in Jerusalem. The restaurants and the markets and all that, they were very Middle Eastern, so the things that ended up sticking are all those ingredients that I’m using now—core Middle Eastern ingredients: tahni, chickpeas, Middle Eastern vegetables and particular spices, like allspice and cardamom and zaatar and cumin.
“Oh no, I don’t stick to any traditions. In a sense, that is what I think makes my food what it is: it’s the fact that I do all sorts of mixes across all foods that are interesting or different or a little bit unpredictable.”
Do you think that background gave you more freedom when writing recipes or do you feel like you need to comply to certain traditions?
Oh no, I don’t stick to any traditions. In a sense, that is what I think makes my food what it is: it’s the fact that I do all sorts of mixes across all foods that are interesting or different or a little bit unpredictable. Of course the core maybe is Middle Eastern, but over the years I’ve cooked a lot of Asian dishes and recreated things that I’ve had travelling in North Africa and other parts of the world. I don’t mix and match for the sake of it, but I do find that I end up adopting different ingredients and different ways of cooking if they work for me.
I’ve spent a lot of time in southern Tuscany, so I am interested that your first trip abroad was to your grandparents’ house just outside of Florence. It seems you spent a lot of summers there…
Yeah, we used to spend quite a lot of summers there. I remember we used to stay at an apartment in central Florence. I will never forget that my dad used to go in the morning and get bread from the bakery and cold cuts from the butcher or macelleria, and a cheese from another shop. I will never forget those smells. There was a typical Tuscan bread, without salt, which I used to love to dip in the oil and sprinkle salt on top. It was such a wonderful experience. But I also started to like flatter bread, not flat bread, but shallower bread, like focaccia style, schiacciata. My dad would come in the morning and bring all those amazing breads and we would sit around the table and have them with provolone cheese or whatever… You know… All the cheese that you can get there—mozzarella types of cheese. It was really, really special; I remember this very fondly.
It’s very Italian to go to different places to buy different ingredients. Living in London, have you cultivated any routines or rituals around sourcing ingredients for home or for when you’re writing books?
I think it depends on what you’ve got. In Italy at the time, it was great to have that option, but there wasn’t really an alternative. In London it is a bit more tricky now because there are not as many independent shops as there used to be. But I’m pretty lucky because right near where I live there is a really great greengrocer where I get all my vegetables from, so I never buy vegetables from the supermarket. There is also a nice little Italian deli where we get pastas and sometimes cheese or cold cuts. So there’s a few places that I go to… There is a butcher in Marylebone where we often go and buy meat. My day-to-day is a combination of shopping in big shops and shopping in little shops.
“It’s a lot of adjusting and eating and tweaking. And we love it. I love it.”
Your recipe writing and testing is quite collaborative. Can you explain your process of creating a recipe?
The test kitchen is, as you suggest, quite collaborative. There is a group of us that test recipes. We start the day around nine o’clock in the morning and the test team, or teams, normally two chefs, start by cooking things that we have agreed previously on. Sometimes there is a theme… If we need to write a column that has to do with… I don’t know… Moroccan food—then we will have that as a theme. Other times it’s just dishes that we feel like cooking and we will find a home for at a later stage. But there is a plan for the day to try to cook a number of dishes. Once they have been tested we get together and try them as a group, two or three of us, and draw conclusions and make changes for the next test run. Every day we would try anywhere between six and eight dishes.
That’s a lot of eating!
It is a lot of eating. Often you try something many times, because every recipe will be tested anywhere between three to… I don’t know, the record might be fifteen times. But I think on average maybe three or four times per recipe. It’s a lot of adjusting and eating and tweaking. And we love it. I love it. I love it in the morning when I come in really hungry—I always skip breakfast—but I can’t stand it in the afternoon when you’ve had so much to eat and there is that one last dish that you have to try and you really don’t feel like it. I’m not looking for sympathy but sometimes you’re really full and the last thing you want to have is dish number twelve.
I feel like that impacts how you taste it as well.
It does really impact how it tastes—it’s incredible. You always need to make sure that you don’t get too excited about something that you have at eleven o’clock in the morning just because it’s the first thing you’ve tasted and you’re super hungry. Everything tastes delicious when you’re hungry.
“You realise that something so simple like courgette can become a yoghurty salad or you can poach them or grill them or slow fry them and you can make raw salads that are so delicious. This discovery is really very inspiring; that is what I probably love most about what I do.”
I wanted to talk a little bit about vegetables. You’re not a vegetarian and you don’t exclusively cook vegetarian food, however, in a time when they were seen as second best, you challenged the general public’s perception on what vegetables could be through your weekly newspaper column and then your books. Was this intentional? Was it part of your plan to champion vegetables?
I never had a plan; it’s more or less circumstantial. One thing leads to another and then it happens. I find vegetables great building blocks for a meal because, first of all, in the part of the world where I grew up, vegetables feature very prominently, maybe a bit more than Western cooking. If you think about a typical—if there is a typical Arabic meal—often it will include a grain and lots of vegetables with perhaps some starters… Something along the lines of a falafel. So vegetables are really the core of the diet. Of course there is lamb, there is chicken, there are other things I eat, but not to a great extent. So to build a meal around vegetables is very natural to me. I also think that vegetables look good and taste good and are really versatile. It has never been a mission statement, it’s just that I naturally gravitate towards cooking with vegetables. But also, I find that cooking with vegetables doesn’t mean it has to be vegetarian. I find that you can have a vegetable heavy dish, but just season it with ingredients that are not necessarily vegetarian. You see that in many parts of the world that are slightly less affluent, the meat or the fish are just used as seasoning. If you look at Asia, people use a lot of fish sauce or dried shrimps or dried anchovies to season their food. It’s not so much about eating protein, it’s about getting the flavour.
You’ve written a lot of books and you have many restaurants and delis. What pushes you to keep creating all the time?
It’s my job. I have to keep on doing it, and I enjoy it. Discovering new ways with food, like new ingredients, but also new ways of working with old ingredients, gets me really excited. When I look at something like, for instance, a root vegetable, like a turnip or a celeriac or something that I have cooked with many times and, all of a sudden, I find something really exciting new to do with it, I think that makes my job really worth it. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of recipes with courgette or zucchini. Because we go to Greece in the summer and it’s one of the most common vegetables—they grow so easily in the summer in Greece—I’ve been really creative with it. You realise that something so simple like that can become a yoghurty salad or you can poach them or grill them or slow fry them and you can make raw salads that are so delicious. This discovery is really very inspiring; that is what I probably love most about what I do.