More than a celebrity chef, Yotam Ottolengi (45) is a phenomenon: known as the man who “sexed up” vegetarian food -despite not being a vegetarian himself- he is also according to The New Yorker Magazine responsible for changing the way Londoners eat. His impact on the London culinary scene since the opening in 2002 of the first Ottolenghi deli, followed by two other branches and restaurant Nopi, is deemed so big that the Financial Times recently suggested that a new verb -“to ottolengh”- should be introduced in dictionaries to reflect his influence. Not bad for an ex-journalist who only started his career as a chef aged 30… Here, the Israeli-born delis supremo tells to Chic-Londres about his favourite foodie places in London.
When and where did you start your career? I did a six month cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu in London in 1997. Following this, I worked as a pastry chef in various restaurants before Sami and I met in the kitchen of Baker and Spice in 1999. Our paths had never crossed before but our backgrounds, palates and plans had a huge amount in common. Together with Noam Bar, we wanted to set up the best sweet and savoury take away food deli in London. The scope of the delis and restaurants has evolved and grown since then but, really, we haven’t looked back.
How would you describe the British approach to food and how it has evolved since you became a chef? Brits have always had a tough time of it, culinary reputation-wise, but their lack of a strict culinary tradition -as opposed to the traditions inherent in French or Italian cuisine, for example- means that they are actually really receptive to everything that comes their way. This openness means that what is being experimented with and offered in the big cities in the UK is actually far more exciting and innovative than in a lot of other countries. Like other countries, the British approach to food is constantly moving forward and trying new things. It’s a really exciting place to be a chef.
How do you like to describe you restaurant’s culinary style ? The opposite of easy and bland. Our food is big and bold and full of flavour. Lots of drama in the mouth, lots of bursts of flavour, but simple and comforting at the same time. Sami is allergic to ‘drizzles on a plate’ so you won’t find any of those either.
Do you have a « signature » dish? The chargrilled broccoli with thinly sliced and fried garlic and red chilli has trouble coming off the menu, as do various takes on our roasted aubergine slices.
What defines a good chef in your opinion? Someone with energy, who loves food, tastes everything, keeps moving forward and is able to surprise and comfort all at once in a dish. Renewed perception of an ingredient you thought you knew inside out is also very exciting.
Where do you buy the following in London?
- Cheese La Fromagerie, in Highbury.
- Wine I always like stopping in at The Sampler – they have two outlets, in South Kensington and Islington – and trying a wine that’s new to me.
- Bread If I’m in the area then the E5 bakehouse in East London is baking some of the best sourdough in town.
- CakesObviously my daily visits to the Ottolenghi delis sort out my sweet tooth needs! That said I really like Rococco’s soft Italian pistachio nougat (which I could eat in one sitting)
- Meet Frank Godfrey in Highbury Fields is dangerously close to the cheese shop.
- Fish Steve Hatt, on Essex Road in Islington
- Deli products Same as for cakes athough I’m always a bit of a kid-in-a-sweetshop at the Food Hall in Selfridges as well.
- Fruits and vegetables Clifton Green’s, in Maida Vale, has an amazing selection of fruit and vegetables: I never drive by without stopping by.
What are your favourite restaurants in London? So many! I love tapas bars: Morito on Exmouth market is a favourite. Lots of exciting openings in the last year or so: Honey & Co on Warren street, The Clove Club in Shoreditch, Gymkhana in Mayfair as well as old favourites like Locanda Locatelli.
What is your favourite dish and is there anything you really dislike? The impossible question! It entirely depends on the day, on the moment, on the weather, on the mood: something egg-shaped for breakfast – spicy scrambled eggs, Shakshuka, an aubergine kuku dotted with barberries; something noodle-based and miso-featuring for lunch; Mejadra (sweetly spiced rice and green or brown lentils) any time of the day, with a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt; braised meatballs with plain rice for supper. Ask me again tomorrow, though, and the menu might be totally different. There really isn’t any food that I dislike although I’d be hard-pressed to get excited about falafel which is cooked at any time other than seconds before eating. The cold pre-cooked balls which pass for falafel and are sold to the lunchtime take away crowds are unrecognisable to me.
What culinary advice do you like to give? I’m not a big preacher but, if forced to dispense advice, I’d say that less is generally more when it comes to cooking: blanch rather than boil, if you can; slice vegetables in a way that’s harmonious to their original shape rather than decimating them beyond recognition. Tasting food as you go along and adding what feels right on the day is also really important.