The Yotam Ottolenghi effect: The superstar chef on how the pandemic, and parenthood, have simplified his recipes – Stuff

Posted By on July 23, 2022

Its difficult to overstate Yotam Ottolenghis influence on food today, both the home-cooked and restaurant varieties.

When the Israel-born chef published his first, eponymous cookbook in 2008, it introduced the world to the food with which he and his business partner Sami Tamimi had been transforming Londoners palates since they opened their deli joint venture six years before: inventive, complex fare that brought once exotic ingredients into a certain food mainstream. If youve ever eaten a dish including rosewater, sumac, zaatar or pomegranate molasses in a Kiwi restaurant - not to mention found them available to buy in a local shop - youve probably, in part, got Ottolenghi to thank.

The same goes for many of the hero vegetables that have come into fashion in recent years. Think whole roasted cauliflower, buttered kohlrabi or, really, anything involving eggplant; so unusual was the dominant use of vegetables in the early 2000s that for several years Ottolenghi wrote a column for The Guardian entitled The New Vegetarian despite not being, nor ever having been, a vegetarian.

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More cookbooks followed Ottolenghis rapid ascent to fame - seven in the next decade, many of them bestsellers on the industry standard New York Times list - but it has to be said that a significant tranche of those buying them were doing so, ultimately, for the prestige and the pictures. Through the 2010s, Ottolenghis food might have been handsomely praised and wildly influential, but for a good deal of home cooks it was also an aspirational step too far. Synonymous with laundry lists of ingredients and complex methods demanding the use of every pot and pan in the kitchen, Ottolenghi recipes werent exactly the kind of thing most of us were whipping up on a Wednesday night.


I think me and my audience, or my readers, have kind of met in the middle, says Yotam Ottolenghi.

But now, as he looks ahead to the publication of his 10th book this southern spring, Ottolenghi thinks thats changing.

I think me and my audience, or my readers, have kind of met in the middle, he says. So Ive gone a bit this way - he moves his right hand towards his left - and theyve gone a bit that way - and the reverse.

Its 8am in London and Ottolenghi, 53, is sitting at home in front of a large print of dozens of illustrated lemons and flanked by bursting bookshelves. He shares this house with his husband of 10 years, Karl Allen, and their two sons. Max was born in 2013 via gestational surrogacy, prompting Ottolenghi to come out as a gay father in a Guardian essay in which he detailed the prolonged, arduous and expensive process of being able to achieve their dream of fatherhood and argued gestational surrogacy, which they had to go to the US to get, should be more readily available; Flynn followed in 2015.

Parenthood is partly responsible for the simplification of his food style, Ottolenghi says.

Anyone that has kids, or has kids around them, knows its a very different mindset. Even [with] kids that are really quite adventurous about the way they eat, the conversation about food is very different than adults.

This came to a particular head during the early days of the pandemic, when the family was in lockdown.

In non-pandemic conditions, Ottolenghi says, he doesnt cook much at home anymore. Allen is the boys primary caregiver and by the time Ottolenghi gets home from busy days in his test kitchen or one of his six restaurants, theyve usually already eaten.


Cooking at home for his husband and children something Ottolenghi rarely did pre-pandemic has influenced his upcoming new cookbook.

But during the UKs first 2020 lockdown, for about three months, he was cooking a lot for his family.

I found myself adjusting to [my kids] palate, he says. Especially my little one, Flynn, he likes starches, pasta and rice - I think its quite familiar to a lot of parents that sort of thing - so I really tried to just embrace it. I would make potato cakes with peas and spices, either as a cake in a pan or as individuals, fried, or I would load the pan with pasta with lots of different things to create a meal in a pan. That notion that you take things that they love and you load it with other things that maybe wouldn't be their first choice but you want them to eat that, there was a lot of that kind of cooking. I think Ive become an expert in the one pot of something that turns into a pasta.

No, really. This style of cooking filtered through to his book Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love, which he wrote during the pandemic. Ottolenghi points to a recipe for his version of pasta al forno, an Italian baked pasta dish, his recipe for which has dry pasta go into the pan right along with the chicken, aromatics and herbs.

It goes under the grill with a bit of extra cheese so its kind of like a gratin but again, not with so much preparation, so it all comes together in one pot.

Its a far cry from even as recent a book as 2020s Flavour, where the recipe for saffron tagliatelle with ricotta and crispy chipotle shallots calls for 21 ingredients including saffron threads, 00 flour and chipotle flakes; as the name implies, Shelf Love is all about recipes you can make with stuff you probably already have lying around (apart from spaghetti and chicken thighs, the al forno recipe calls for onion, garlic, tomato paste, breadcrumbs, parmesan, parsley, thyme, and - the most exotic ingredient - lemon zest).

This, I suggest, would be a good jumping off point for Ottolenghis two-stop New Zealand speaking tour, which will finally be happening in January next year - following one postponement and one cancellation and not before, we imagine, the cost of living crisis is over.


When Ottolenghi first announced New Zealand dates he was supporting his book Flavour. In the two years since, he has published another, Shelf Love.

I can only say that theres a lot of really cheap ingredients that you can use creatively, he says. Shelf Love is full of recipes for legumes, for rice, for frozen peas, all these bulk ingredients that we have and we dont know how good they are until we try cooking with them, and theyre very cheap to cook with.

Should we, then, be waving goodbye to the Ottolenghi food of old?

Not exactly, he says. Ottolenghi may have changed but so, in part due to his influence, has the world of his readers.

The ingredients that I introduced to people are maybe more staples now, he suggests, so people are more likely to have tahini in their cupboard, or are more likely to have spices that I like to use in their cupboard. It means they dont necessarily need to go and look for exotic ingredients every time they cook Ottolenghi.

Cook Ottolenghi - what does that mean, exactly?

The man himself laughs. Ive been asked this before and every time I kind of approach it from a slightly different angle. I think its vegetable heavy, an Antipodean barbecue is not an Ottolenghi meal There's quite a lot of colour contrasts as well, its very generous in terms of the flavours, the quantities, the presentation. Its kind of sunny food, and its very modern or current.


Ottolenghi frequently collaborates on his cookbooks. At right he is pictured with Flavour co-author Ixta Belfrage.

What its not, he insists, is particularly Israeli. Ottolenghi was born and raised in Jerusalem but didnt come to cooking until his early 30s, following a short career in journalism. He studied French pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in London and worked as a pastry chef in restaurants including the now-closed, Michelin-starred Capital Restaurant before moving to artisanal bakery Baker and Spice, where he met Tamimi.

Though the pair told the Independent they bonded over a shared incomprehension of traditional English food, Ottolenghi says the way he cooks now is closer to the kind of cuisine youd find in California, in the way that it treats ingredients, in the freshness. Middle Eastern doesnt do as much fresh stuff as I tend to do.

This is true even of Jerusalem, his 2012 cookbook collaboration with Tamimi. Both men were born, within a couple of years of each other, in Jerusalem - the same city, but very different worlds. While Jewish Ottolenghi is from Ramat Denya, a prosperous residential area in the citys southwest, Tamimi, a Palestinian Muslim, spent the first 17 year of his life in the occupied Old City.

Jerusalem the book was their attempt to capture the religious and cultural melting pot of Jerusalem the city in 100 recipes, not just Muslim and Jewish but Christian and Armenian, ancient and modern, traditional and aggresively 21st century.

And Ottolenghis influences continue to be assorted and diverse. He points to his test kitchen, which has grown from one person to five full-time recipe testers from all over the world, and even a YouTube channel. Everybody brings a slightly different perspective, so its that plurality, I think, that really gives voice [to the dishes]. Were all open to whats going on in the world.

Ottolenghi is looking forward to finding out in person whats happening on the other side of the world. This will be his second trip to New Zealand. Back in 2011, he and Allen went on a road trip with Peter Gordon, eating everything from Logan Browns paua ravioli to service station pies, and hes looking forward to coming back.

Im dying to come and see what has been happening in the New Zealand food scene. Im planning to eat as much as I can.

Who knows - maybe an Ottolenghi take on a mince and cheese pie will make an appearance in an upcoming recipe book.

Yotam Ottolenghis Flavour of Life speaking tour has shows in Auckland and Wellington in January 2023. Visit for information and tickets.

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The Yotam Ottolenghi effect: The superstar chef on how the pandemic, and parenthood, have simplified his recipes - Stuff

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