Ottolenghi: The New Vegetarian

 

 

Today, Yotam Ottolenghi, a native Israeli, is one of the big names in the London food scene. After studying philosophy and literature in Tel Aviv, he went to London to attend a culinary arts school and then worked in several restaurant kitchens in the British capital. After that, he was ready to start a food revolution.

The display window of Yotam Ottolenghi’s flagship deli in the London district of Islington calls to mind those Renaissance paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldo with their sumptuous arrangements of fruits and vegetables. Platters aglow with displays of delicacies such as thick, dark-yellow sweet potato slices covered in golden peanut butter and sprinkled with red chilies, green coriander, and spring onions; purply pomegranate seeds crowning cress, mint and soft white Labneh cheese atop a bed of sliced blood oranges, and golden-orange colored beetroots; hearty quiches, huge raspberry and chocolate meringues, and blackberry-vanilla cupcakes create an impression of opulent abundance. A stark contrast to this luscious display is provided by the long, narrow interior of the restaurant, its walls, shelves, tables, and Verner Panton chairs almost all in white. Now a signature feature of the delis, Ottolenghi initially envisioned an entirely different decor. "I wanted something rustic, with dark wood and a lively atmosphere like a marketplace," Yotam Ottolenghi recalls. Yet, Alex Meitlis, friend and architect who has assisted him with the furnishing of the Ottolenghi delis from day one insisted on a totally different concept – the gleaming whiteness of Greek islands village dwellings – until he was able to convince his stubborn client otherwise. "And he was right," Ottolenghi admits with hindsight. His mini imperium has meanwhile grown to include four London delis and the NOPI restaurant in Soho. "With a white backdrop, our dishes are transformed into statements."

Aesthetics are very important to us at Ottolenghi’s. But when all is said and done, to me, it's always about the food.

Yotam Ottolenghi sits at a long – white! – communal table and is surprisingly calm for a person who is an international celebrity in the often boisterous food scene. With his fine manners, his bookish features, and a slight forward stoop when seated, Ottolenghi resembles a scholar more than a chef de cuisine who habitually wields sharp blades and hefty pans. The son of a chemistry professor and a school principal, he grew up in Jerusalem. He went on to study literature and philosophy in Tel Aviv, even writing a thesis before he exchanged the world of books for that of buttery mille-feuille and braised eggplants. Despite living in London since 1997, the influence of his native Mediterranean-Oriental cuisine is unmistakable. "The intensive colors, spices, the aromas of the markets in Jerusalem, and the abundance have left a strong mark on me," he says. Yet it is not tasty Levantine cuisine that forged Ottolenghi's success: it is his knack of combining elements from simple recipes into fresh, unusual, and mouth-wateringly delicious dishes along with his generous use of spices and his singular eye for display. His recipe for eggplants, braised in the oven until the complete aromatic flavor has been released and topped off with spicy buttermilk sauce and pomegranate seeds to create a gustatory and visual explosion, has attained cult status. With his talent to enhance ordinary vegetable dishes, Ottolenghi revolutionized vegetarian cuisine. Ottolenghi-style seasonal vegetables, legumes, grains, fruits, and cheeses have such an intense, multi-layered, and seductive flavor that even sworn carnivores succumb on the spot. His cuisine was the complete antithesis of how vegetarian cuisine had presented itself till then: bland, steamed vegetables, overcooked pasta dishes, and amateurish attempts to imitate meat dishes by using tofu.

We chose the name Ottolenghi because it has a mysterious ring and sounds somehow different. Nobody really knows where to place it.

Ottolenghi's success came about with his new, zestful take on vegetarianism – and under the auspices of The Guardian's food editor. With the newspaper’s offices a stone's throw away from the venue in Islington, the editor became an enthusiastic regular guest at Ottolenghi’s. In 2006, he invited Ottolenghi to take on the column 'The New Vegetarian' in the newspaper. "Initially I wanted to refuse, because I'm not a vegetarian," he tells us. Just as well that he changed his mind: The column met with great resonance and created a veritable army of enthusiastic Ottolenghi followers who celebrate him as the superstar of vegetable cuisine. His cookbook 'Plenty,' a collection of The Guardian columns, became a worldwide bestseller. His other cookbooks 'Ottolenghi' and 'Jerusalem' are equally successful, and his food show on channel 4 continues to add to his popularity. "The media loved us from day one. The first article about Ottolenghi appeared in VOGUE," he tells us. "The right people liked our cuisine. That gave us an enormous boost."

The borders between the foodshop Ottolenghi and the brand Ottolenghi are blurred.

Ottolenghi abruptly ended his academic career with a brief note that he sent to his parents together with his thesis. In it he informed them that he intended to start a new life and had enrolled himself in the food institution 'Le Cordon Bleu' in London. This was toward the end of the 1990s – an era in which French gourmet temples and exclusive Italian restaurants worked with exactly defined cooking techniques. In London, only Indian restaurants and the food scene's enfant terrible, Marco Pierre White, provided alternatives. "A lot has happened in London's kitchens since then. Cooking has become much more daring and creative." A circumstance to which Ottolenghi contributed in no small measure. In actual fact, though, his first attempts as a professional cook were far from promising. Ottolenghi – the name comes from his father's Italian side of the family – proved to be pretty hopeless at working in normal restaurant kitchens. "Brutally hard work," he recalls, and he soon quit his first job as a pastry chef at The Capital. He didn't last long at Launceston Place and several other restaurants, either. It was only when he was hired by the exclusive bakery 'Baker & Spice' that he found his culinary home and a fellow conspirator: Sami Tamimi, his business partner today. Also from Jerusalem – yet from the other, the Palestinian, side. "We share a common cooking language. We prepare uncomplicated dishes from the best, most colorful and aromatic ingredients fresh from the market: simple, yet generous and glamorous as well."

We have no strategy and no 5-year-plan. But we are careful to stick to our core values.

In 2002, Ottolenghi rented a small shop in Notting Hill. True to the slogan "If you can't buy it, make it yourself," he established the first Ottolenghi deli there. He wanted to create "a beautiful foodshop with fresh dishes prepared on a daily basis. Something that didn't exist in London at the time." Sami Tamimi liked the idea of building up a mutual food business. Today, Tamimi is in charge of the kitchens in the Ottolenghi stores, while Yotam Ottolenghi is mainly occupied with cooking up new recipes in his test kitchen in the Camden district for the cookbooks and the food columns. He is also the spokesperson for Ottolenghi. The business is run by him, Tamimi, and two other partners. Since they opened for business in Notting Hill, Ottolenghi's towering dishes, redolent of summer and the Levante, have been transporting the generally blasé Londoners into exuberant rapture. The deli’s white paper bags with the minimalist red logo have become a trendy it-item, and Ottolenghi a sort of insider's tip, despite everyone having heard of him. For any self-respecting hobby cook in this world, at least one Ottolenghi cookbook is a must-have for the kitchen shelf. And so it is not surprising that numerous collaboration proposals are buzzing around this honeypot. To date, Ottolenghi hasn't accepted any. He has, however, built up an online shop for homemade Ottolenghi products such as spice mixes, chutneys, and cookies. "The integrity of our brand is extremely important to us. Each new project has to correspond with our core values. Otherwise we won't take it on board."

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