Yotam Ottolenghi: ‘There’s a religion of food which I try not to be part of’

If you’re a food lover in the UK, you can’t really escape Yotam Ottolenghi. If you’ve been to a dinner party at any point since his eponymous cookbook debuted in 2008, you’ll probably have eaten his food. You would have asked your host what was being served, and you’d have received a single-word answer: “Ottolenghi”. That never happened to Auguste Escoffier, Elizabeth David, Julia Child or Delia Smith. In the course of two decades, the 54-year-old has somehow managed to create an instantly recognisable brand of transnational cuisine. And his personal reputation is for a sort of unnervingly weird brilliance.

We’ve arranged to meet at Jikoni, a restaurant in London’s upscale Marylebone that I’ve always regarded as a bit of an industry secret. Ravinder Bhogal’s cooking spans all the influences of a peripatetic life, from South Asia, east Africa, the Middle East and Britain — by her own admission, unashamedly inauthentic and proudly immigrant.

Her dishes combine lightness, elegance and fabulously contemporary spicing, but her hospitality is old-school — the sort of warmth of service and portion size you’d expect from your mum if she thought you were looking underweight. She’s at the table when I arrive, deep in chat with Ottolenghi, who is tall, well dressed and handsome in an endearingly geekish way.

“I love Ravinder,” says Ottolenghi, settling himself among cushions. “I like what she does — it’s clever and thought-through. There is this fusion element, but thoughtful. Not just for the sake of it. Also, this place is a little bit of a family. She and her husband run it, working together.”

When Ottolenghi opened the first of his five café/delis in 2002, it would have been hard to predict the influence he was to exert over contemporary food culture. His style is hard to pigeonhole, but his reputation was built on recipes that fused Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and north African influences without being inconveniently authentic to any single culture — and that involved, initially at least, an ambitious list of hard-to-find ingredients. That you can find sumac and pomegranate molasses in a supermarket today, that you enjoy your broccoli charred or that your dining table looks ever more like a hundred-dish, multicultural picnic, is merely the resultant Ottolenghi Effect.

The man himself has arrived fresh from his “Test Kitchen” in north London, which is above a massive branch of the budget supermarket Lidl and roughly the same size. Here, food and other projects — books, articles, festivals, pop-ups — are in a constant state of development. Ottolenghi describes himself as the “conductor of this orchestra”, collaborating with writers, recipe developers and the head chefs of Nopi and Rovi, his two London restaurants. Dishes are tested, copy written, photographs taken. Out of this tight little creative hub passes a stream of people who move on to their own careers. He proudly reels off a list of alumni: Helen Goh, Ramael Scully, Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer (Honey & Co) and Ixta Belfrage, all of whom now run their own restaurants or write their own books.

“Each one left their thumbprint over the business, and I always thought, for us to carry on growing and creating, we needed all these talents. They come there and they do their thing. I don’t always feel like I’m a mentor, as such, although I guess something happens.”

The waiter brings small nibbling portions of lightly pickled vegetables, deep-fried balls of labneh, a keema bun and a prawn-toast Scotch egg with pink pickled onions. Ottolenghi chuckles happily as he dives in. “Oh my God! So much food!”

I’m tempted to point out that he is the guy who single-handedly made meze-style grazing the dominant trope of middle-class dining, but think better of it.

His education was unusual and I have a feeling that it’s an important influence on the way he operates. Born to Jewish parents in Jerusalem, after doing his military service in the Israel Defense Forces, a young Ottolenghi was tapped for an unorthodox scheme at Tel Aviv university, which gathered together exceptionally gifted students to explore and conduct interdisciplinary research. It was known as the “genius programme”, which must have raised expectations a bit.

“When I joined, I was just thrown in the deep end. You arrive and they say, ‘You can take whatever courses you want — physics, Greek mythology, literature . . .’ And although you have a mentor that guides you through it, you don’t have classes.” Graduates from the scheme seemed as likely to come out a screenwriter or composer, a neurologist or a physics professor.

The programme’s founder, the polymath philosopher Yehuda Elkana, often cooked for his students at his home, combining feasting, hospitality and discussion in a kind of symposium. It was inspiring, but Ottolenghi left without finding his niche. “I felt that I left university without being extremely knowledgeable in one particular field. I felt like I dabbled. And then when I started cooking professionally, I felt like, OK, now this is something I can sink my teeth into. As soon as I started working, I felt like ‘I feel this. It’s tangible.’”

Ottolenghi started cooking professionally when he moved to London in 1997. It was difficult to tell his parents — his father a chemistry professor, his mother a teacher — that he wanted to quit academe and become a cook. His father, in particular, felt he should have something more solid as a career. But cooking was becoming newly cool. The direction Ottolenghi took — Cordon Bleu cookery school and then working in fashionable restaurants — was to become a common route for bright kids who were lost and searching for something creative and different.

The next courses arrive: a big bowl of mussels in saffron broth — it’s the bright yellow you’d expect, but the flavour is well away from those clichés, a kind of savoury earthiness with sour notes. In case there was any danger of things getting too serious, Bhogal also sends out aloo avocado chaat, with black chickpeas, something powerful with tamarind and a dollop of avocado mush, all scooped into a hollowed-out potato. It’s huge, absurd and completely disarming. We’re both grinning as we tear into it.

Ottolenghi opened his first café in Notting Hill in 2002, with the encouragement of Noam Bar, his “first proper partner”, who had come to London to study business. “I told him, ‘I’d love to do a bakery and a pastry shop.’ And he said, ‘OK, let me help you.’ He wasn’t going to stay for ever, but he was going to help me set it up. I didn’t have the guts — I’m not a risk-taker by nature.”

If I split with a partner of 10 years, I’m not sure I could deal with running a start-up with them, but that attitude seems a core part of Ottolenghi’s operating procedure. Today there are four “family members” at the top of the expanding empire: Ottolenghi; Bar, the business and strategy guy; Sami Tamimi, the Palestinian chef who joined when the first deli opened and co-authored the first books, and Cornelia Stäubli, a Swiss-born driving force in “front of house” operations.

“A friend calls it the ‘Ottolenghi Kibbutz’. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot recently because I can take a more long view. It’s a gay thing, it’s an Israeli thing and we’re all immigrants. None of us has family here and I come from a culture where family is really central . . . In some ways, I did miss that, and the way Ottolenghi has been put together, by everybody, was as a surrogate family.”

It sounds like a wonderfully congenial way to work, everyone hanging out socially, eating together and exchanging ideas, but inevitably there are tensions. “We often have big arguments about how far do we go, whether we should be expanding more. But in a good way, like how people argue over a dinner table.”

The Ottolenghi group hired its first chief executive, Emilio Foa, last year. “He’s a lovely Italian man who’s trying to kind of put structure in the kibbutz,” says Ottolenghi. “We’re going to grow our business a little bit more, so we want to expand internationally as well for the first time. We are planning to open in Paris, of all places.”

It’s always a brave move to take any kind of food to the French, doubly so during tough years for business, but he’s probably right in assuming there’s a cultural fit. “The French are different from the Italians because they are really willing to try different food, they have a long tradition of loving Asian, north African and Middle Eastern food,” he says. “So yeah. I think they’re going to like the food. This is planned for next year — our big project — so I really want to get it right . . . I think San Francisco or Sydney or Melbourne are great food cities, but the travel is so far.”

While growing the business, Ottolenghi was also building another branch of the family. He and his partner Karl Allen met in 2000 and, as soon as it was legally possible in the UK, began the complicated processes of having a child, finally succeeding through gestational surrogacy in the US in 2013.

“I’m happy you raised it. They’re changing surrogacy rules in this country. They’re trying to make it easier or safer to go down that route. It was just so complicated, so expensive for us. Karl never thought that he would have kids, ever. He just always assumed it’s just not something that’s going to happen to him. And now he says, ‘I can’t imagine not being in that state of mind and not wanting that, because it’s just so much part of my identity and how we live our lives.’” 

Bhogal enters beneath a large plate of pressed Cornish lamb shoulder, cooked for just over an aeon, told off until it collapsed and served with burnt aubergine and saffron sheermal, which, if memory serves, is an Iranian flatbread. My compass is spinning. Both these cooks shamelessly mix influences like cultural DJs and by now, if Bhogal walked in stirring a bowl of pho with a fried Mars bar while Ottolenghi declaimed in fluent Old Norse, it would seem entirely logical.

Ottolenghi’s style seems to have survived a decade of intense self-examination in the food world, which has seen an aggressive purging of “fusion” cooking amid fears of cultural appropriation. It may well be that his first books, a celebratory collaboration between Ottolenghi, an Israeli, and Tamimi, a Palestinian, simply addressed the problem head-on and defied angry comment.

“For me, it’s essential it starts with the food that I love to eat and the ingredients I love to celebrate,” he says. “But I don’t engage in the politics of food as much as maybe other chefs do, because I’m interested in the cultural positioning of food. The place in which food interacts with culture . . . that’s where I’m at.”

There are, though, two consistent strands in his thinking. “My food has evolved in two ways. Around a particular strip of the world — or bits of the world — in which cumin is a dominant spice and chillies and citrus — so it could be north Africa or it could be in Mexico, it could be in South Asia or it can be the Middle East. But it also really, really has evolved around the people that are around me, that I work with.”

His early collaboration with Tamimi was “really about where we emerged, where we grew up in Jerusalem”, but over the years his style has evolved. “So there is this umbrella idea and then people just do their own stuff. I’m overseeing it. Still, nobody has put an actual title on it better than ‘Ottolenghi’.”

He is hopeful about a rising generation of chefs who are making dining more democratic, less hierarchical. “You see younger people . . . put their mum’s food on a plate unapologetically. I think there’s something about that.” And he too has changed over the years, he says. “I don’t take myself too seriously. When I go [to the Test Kitchen], often people say, ‘OK, so if there are 16 ingredients, can I lose some?’ I say, ‘Of course you can lose ingredients.’ Food is very forgiving in so many ways . . . you can be playful with it and nothing horrible will happen. There is the religion of food which I try not to be part of.”

I get the sense that he’s keen to push further, to turn his mind to fresh things. “In some ways, I’m in the best place in the world. I sell books internationally, I travel, I do events, but I’m kind of sucked in. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to constantly carve spaces. I want to write — not food, fiction. I’m trying to make space for this to happen.”

Increasingly, whenever I meet the successful chefs of my generation, I find myself asking the awkward succession question. A celebrity chef is a comparatively recent phenomenon, the principal asset of an organisation that can keep hundreds of people employed. But does a successful leader have to maintain constant vigilance over the brand, or is it possible to take a back seat?

“This is the biggest question,” he says. “The people who co-author my cookbooks are the people that are coming up with the recipes. Of course not in a vacuum, and we have a conversation, but they express themselves through this creative process. So I think that much of the time the creative process really happens independent of me. I set the tone on a very basic level, but it doesn’t always need me to be there.” 

I gently nudge the conversation back to Tel Aviv, the place at the heart of so much of what Ottolenghi does. Does he think his style, nurturing the cross-fertilisation of ideas, is directly rooted in his youthful experience with Yehuda Elkana? Yes, he says. “He just needed to be there and tell you, ‘What you’re doing is great.’ What he always said to every one of the people who were in that programme, was, ‘Just push yourselves wherever you feel passionate’ . . . We use the word ‘passionate’ so much these days, often without actually meaning it, but there is something in it.”

He’s right. “Passionate” does seem like an overworked cliché. But he’s found something to follow and he’s sharing it with good people. Maybe there really isn’t a better word for that than “Ottolenghi”.

Tim Hayward is the FT’s food critic

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