Until very recently, I’d never actually eaten Yotam Ottolenghi’s food. I’d certainly cooked a lot of it, but I had never been to one of his London restaurants. I knew the Israeli-born chef strictly from his two cookbooks, but that was enough for me to admire how he could take seemingly ordinary ingredients and make them add up to something more vivid than you’d ever imagine from reading through a recipe. His cooking has a clarity and authenticity unusual in a world where chefs work harder and harder to amaze with daring technique and surprising ingredients.
I have cooked my way through “Plenty,” his second cookbook, which collects recipes from his weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. (Ten Speed Press published the U.S. version of “Plenty” with a gorgeous cover photo of halved eggplants dripping buttermilk yogurt sauce dotted with pomegranate seeds.) I’ve become obsessed with the book, actually, and have recommended it to practically everyone I know who loves vegetables and rustic Mediterranean cuisine.
Yet most of the time when I mention the name Ottolenghi, I draw a blank, even from chefs and food fanatics who should know better. That’s about to change, I’m quite sure, with the October publication of a third cookbook, “Jerusalem,” complete with a stateside book tour.
Like the restaurants, it’s a joint project between Ottolenghi and his business partner and now executive chef, Sami Tamimi. In a twist of fate that no one could make up, both were born and grew up in Jerusalem a few miles from each other, Tamimi on the Arab eastern side and Ottolenghi in the Jewish west. When they met for the first time in London in 1999, they started talking and discovered they shared the same passion and nostalgia for the bright-flavored foods of their childhood -- despite their different backgrounds. That conversation hasn’t stopped yet.
Ottolenghi had studied philosophy and literature at Tel Aviv University, while Tamimi had worked in kitchens since he was a young teenager. Yet somehow both ended up in London, in food. In 2002, two years into their friendship, they hatched the idea for Ottolenghi the restaurant. “Fantastically fresh top-quality takeout with everything prepared on the premises as if you were cooking at home,” says Ottolenghi. People could either come in for dinner or pick up everything they’d need for dinner at home.
The tiny space was all white, the better to show off the impossibly beautiful food piled high on platters, “as in a Middle Eastern souk.” Peppers with coriander and pine nut pesto, bufala mozzarella and arugula. Baked artichokes with fava beans and peas. Roasted eggplant with saffron yogurt. Figs with young pecorino and honey. Huge pastel meringues piled on cake platters.
Over coffee and tangerine juice at his year-old London restaurant NOPI (which stands for “north of Piccadilly”), we tasted a couple of breakfast dishes: zucchini fritters with cardamom lime cream and shakshuka, a typical Israeli breakfast dish of poached eggs in a tomato and pepper sauce.
I couldn’t stop eating the football-shaped zucchini fritters. Fragrant with coriander and cardamom, they were slightly crisp at the edges, delicious dipped in a lime cream that carried the crunch of cardamom. “I like the spices not too blended so they burst in the mouth,” said the 43-year-old Ottolenghi, who looks more like a graduate student or laid-back professor than one of today’s crop of hyper-inked chefs. He’s kind of like his food: direct and disarming.
Ottolenghi said that these days, he pretty much devotes himself to writing, except when it’s time to revise the restaurants’ menus. “When we’re creating a new menu for Ottolenghi, Sami and I and all the chefs of the various locations will get together, maybe at my house around a big table. We’ll each bring a couple of dishes, taste and talk about them, tweak them. My function is to approve and suggest.”
His weekly column for the Guardian’s magazine is filled with asides detailing how he likes to make a dish at home and the variations he goes through. Food is not just a technical challenge for Ottolenghi. The appreciation for the table and everything surrounding it is built into his DNA.
And whether he travels to Turkey or Tunisia, where he’s filming a fall series for BBC 4, his curiosity and delight in food comes from the Jerusalem of his childhood.
In the introduction to “Jerusalem,” he writes: “The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue. We imagine them and dream in them, even though we’ve adopted some new, perhaps more sophisticated languages. ... Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences: foods our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goat and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pitas with minced lamb, chopped parsley, chopped liver, black figs, smoky chops, syrupy cakes, crumbly cookies.”
Before I left NOPI that day, we went downstairs where two long communal tables look onto the kitchen. Ottolenghi got his laptop from his tiny office and set it up at a table so I could see the page layout. Looking at the photos and text, I could feel the emotion and all the work -- two years -- that had gone into creating this love letter to Jerusalem in all its complexity. It’s gritty and real, the Jerusalem of an Israeli and a Palestinian, who are both cooks and friends.