Yotam Ottolenghi:
It’s complicated

Does Yotam Ottolenghi's new book reveal a little guilt that he’d been sending cooks out for lists of obscure ingredients as long as their arm?

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Yotam Ottolenghi is determined to convince us that his new cookbook is thoroughly uncomplicated. He’s really, really trying. It’s called Ottolenghi Simple, for a start. And look, he says, he’s made the methods really basic, pared down his ingredients list (no need to source much that’s outrageously unusual) and promises that at least some of the recipes can be made in the blink of an eye.

The cookbook’s title is even an acronym, so you can filter your recipe choices by how little time you have or whether there’s a tin of chickpeas in the back of your cupboard. Simple stands for: Short on time – less than half an hour; Ingredients – 10 or fewer; Make ahead; Pantry-led; Lazy; and Easier than you think. All are things that should appeal to the home cook but they’re not very, well, Ottolenghi – which has become a something of a byword for convoluted dishes with curious ingredients.

In case you haven’t already heard of him Ottolenghi, 49, is a British-Israeli chef, food writer and owner of several delis and restaurants in London. His bestselling Middle Eastern cookbooks, including Ottolenghi, Plenty and Jerusalem, are credited with changing the face of the British food scene in recent years. They’re packed with signature bold flavours, heavy on spice and famous for their exotic ingredients. If you’ve been served a dish featuring a) za’atar b) pomegranate molasses or c) labneh recently, it’s probably down to Ottolenghi.

His new-found dedication to all things fuss-free came after a revelation. “I don’t think I’ve always, with every recipe, given a lot of thought to what it means for people to actually cook that recipe,” Ottolenghi admits sheepishly. So is he saying that the showmanship that comes with being a hotshot chef has come to an end? “Absolutely,” he agrees. “It’s got to do with age or a stage in life. I don’t need to show off and people around me can enjoy the food all the more for that.”

“The one ingredient you won’t find in my new cookbook is anxiety,” the chef laughs. “Cooking should be something enjoyable.”

Ottolenghi is legendary for his recipes’ often mammoth list of ingredients, many of which have been mind-bogglingly specific, as well as time-consuming and often expensive to track down. Were they really all essential? “I can stand behind my recipes and say they are all delicious,” he boasts. “But can I say that every single ingredient that I’ve ever advocated using was necessary? I don’t know if it was.”

The focus now, he stresses, is taking the stress out of the equation. “The one ingredient you won’t find in my new cookbook is anxiety,” the chef laughs. “Cooking should be something enjoyable, otherwise, what’s the point?”

Ottolenghi says he still finds it nice to experiment with new ingredients but insists he’s “not preachy or pedantic” about it. One problem, he says, is that home cooks can get obsessed about following a recipe to the tee. “I always say, take it with a pinch of salt, and it doesn’t need to be Maldon salt. If you don’t have that particular ingredient, by all means substitute or remove it,” he says, betraying himself by sounding rather reluctant at the very thought. “Especially when there is something like 18 ingredients on a recipe list – which I will raise my hand to say that I’ve done.”

Despite Ottolenghi’s spiel, when you look through his cookbook’s 130 “brilliantly simple” recipes, one is faced with faff: you’re not simply expected to use harissa, you understand, but rose harissa; not a pinch of mere chilli flakes, but urfa chilli flakes; and not just garlic, but black garlic. I’d always thought specifying a specific brand of sea salt was a bit of a push. But Ottolenghi is quick to defend his choices.

“I recommend buying just 10 key ingredients,” he says, citing the above, as well as sumac, za’atar, tahini, barberries, ground cardamom, pomegranate molasses and preserved lemon. “Once you have those, you’re ready to cook from this book. They’re what I like to call ‘flavour bombs’. They offer a lot in return.”

If you’re short on money, he continues, it might sound counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do is stock up your spice cabinet

Those kinds of ingredients, I point out, can be very hard to find, especially outside London. “Yes,” he admits, but “buying online is so easy – and can be cheap”. The black garlic, perhaps, is a little expensive, he admits, but he’s quick to point out that making his food doesn’t have to break the bank. “If I look at the recipes in this book, and not wanting to blow my own trumpet, the ingredients are cheap. I mean, there’s a recipe for fusilli pasta with chickpeas, anchovies and za’atar. That feeds a family for less than a couple of pounds.”

If you’re short on money, he continues, it might sound counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do is stock up your spice cabinet, buying in bulk rather than those small jars from the supermarkets. “Spices are not terribly expensive and can really elevate simple ingredients.”

He points out that you don’t need to do much to a piece of expensive steak, although it will cost you an arm and a leg. But when it comes to ingredients such as lentils, onions and rice, “spices transform those cheap ingredients into something else altogether”.

All this talk of being simple and straightforward is great, but don’t Ottolenghi’s diehard fans actually want all the jazzy ingredients and noble fuss that goes with cooking his food? It’s something of a badge of honour to serve up one of his recipes to a group of friends. Surely those home cooks aren’t looking for a Jamie Oliver-style five-ingredients-in-15-minutes kind of cookbook in the first place?

“We’ve given that a lot of thought,” he admits. “When people think of an Ottolenghi recipe, there’s a certain set of expectations about the flavour, about how novel the ingredients are going to be.” So Ottolenghi and his co-author Tara Wigley have worked hard to find a balance that marries both sides of the coin.

He helps where he can, taking food to a public garden near his test kitchen where homeless people sleep in tents

Ottolenghi’s London restaurants include Nopi in Soho. Is it morally wrong for people to spend sometimes hundreds of pounds on a meal when outside, people are hungry and homeless? “I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” he says. “You can spend the money if you have it. But it’s also very important to engage in the other side of life, which doesn’t have all that much money to spare.”

The chef lives in Camden, north London, and says the number of rough sleepers in his neighbourhood in recent years has shocked him. “It’s very, very, very, very sad. A really sad sign of these times.” But he helps where he can, taking food to a public garden near his test kitchen where homeless people sleep in tents. “It’s important to engage in those problems. I seriously think the fact this has not been addressed for a while by this government is scandalous. It’s so clear that it hasn’t, as [homelessness] is on the increase. Everybody feels it.”

Can street papers help people get back on track? Ottolenghi thinks so. “Anything that engages people who are not engaged in or have been on the margins of the general conversation or way of life, it must be a good thing. I can’t think of anything better than to offer a job, engagement and certain amount of involvement, that would be ideal – even if it’s just for a few out of the many.”

Ottolenghi may be lauding the concept of simplicity but admits that his own life is often rather more complex. “When I have a book out, I always get very busy, which means the stress levels are higher, as I have to fit another thing into my busy life. But I do try to take time for myself and reduce the amount of work I do, so I’m not working evenings or weekends. I try to enjoy my family more. It doesn’t always work out like that.”

Life is made all the more hectic by his two young children, Flynn, three, and Max, five, who he has with husband Karl Allen. As you’d expect, they’ve been roped in early to help in the kitchen. “Cooking with children is a good thing in theory, but it’s more about playing than putting a meal on the table. They’re interested, they look and they try to help. But it may take a few years before I can give them a task that I’d expect them to fulfil in an acceptable manner.”

Ottolenghi’s push for simplicity is welcome, especially in a world where it’s tempting to order another ÜberEats or Deliveroo or pop to the takeaway again, sod the bank balance and our waistlines. But still, it’s ironic that all this comes from a chef who advocates making your own patisserie: “If you’ve got a free weekend and want to engage in making your own croissants for the first time in your life, then by all means, I think that is a great thing to do.”

But not all of the time. “What I’m doing is showing that cooking really good, multi-layered, wonderfully impressive or delicious food is something that you can do on a daily basis and doesn’t have to break the bank or break your back.” However, I can’t shake the feeling, that for Ottolenghi, the king of the OTT recipe and decadent dish, “simple” will always be a bit of a faff.

Ottolenghi Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi, Tara Wrigely and Esme Howarth is published by Ebury (£25)

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    04 Jul 2019 12:26
    […] A Cookbook (written by Yotam Ottolenghi, chef and restaurateur credited for “changing the face of the British cooking scene” in London) made it onto almost all US Top Cookbook Lists in 2018, […]

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