Born and raised in Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi was a brilliant student of comparative literature and philosophy on his way to Britain to pursue a PhD when he changed tracks and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu. The man can’t fail at anything — it seems, in fact, that everything he touches turns to gold. That’s how, now five delis and six cookbooks deep, he became known as the chef transforming London. His latest cookbook, Sweet, with collaborator Helen Goh, chronicles a luxurious world of dessert. Ottolenghi and Goh will be in Seattle October 5.
The Sukkot-themed lunchtime talk co-presented with Book Larder is sold out at the Stroum Jewish Community Center. For more info, visit sjcc.org.
What is one food culinary trend, or approach to eating, you’d like to see people take more seriously?
Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. Now, more than ever, it’s apparent how crucial eating more vegetables and being adventurous and creative with them is to our well-being and the world around us. But these actually have never been my considerations. For me, it’s the undiscovered deliciousness that makes veggies the most prized ingredient in my kitchen.
Is “food diplomacy” a real thing or just wishful thinking?
Difficult one. Food is a good way to start a conversation between adversaries — something that everyone can agree on, more or less — but it takes lots of good will and real respect to move on to more serious issues. Food won’t bring peace, but it will definitely be in the center of the party celebrating its arrival.
Why have you chosen to represent multiple traditions, peoples, cultures in your work, and what impact does that have on the people you reach?
It’s not really a choice I have made. The various cooks and chefs I meet and work with along the way bring with them their own cultures and food traditions. I get inspired by these interactions, and all this features in my food. That’s why I love miso almost as much as I love tahini and sometimes I even mix them together. Being exposed to anything beautiful and creative that’s part of another culture broadens your mind. I hope my readers feel that way.
Which chefs or bakers have inspired your attitude about food and cooking?
So many! Back in Israel, chefs like Eyal Shani and Haim Cohen. In the UK, Nigella Lawson’s cooking and baking is great inspiration. Many US food writers, like Deborah Madison, Dorie Greenspan, Rose Levy Beranbaum, and many others.
After publishing Jerusalem, the first of your books that was explicitly linked to your Israeli heritage, were you received differently by the food community and academic community?
Both communities were extremely positive about the book. What [Palestinian co-
author] Sami [Tamimi] and I tried to do is offer an account of our upbringing which is both personal — what we ate, how we were brought up, our family traditions — and more general: the different communities, their cultural and culinary histories, the whole impossible patchwork which is current-day Jerusalem. I believe this struck a chord with everyone.
What, in your opinion, is the worst ingredient to work with?
I found tofu challenging for a while, but once I was shown how to properly marinate it and infuse it with tons of flavor — ginger, garlic, chili, soy — and fry it to make it nice and crisp, I’ve seen the light. This taught me that any ingredient, really, can work for you as long as you keep an open mind.
What’s your go-to late-night snack?
Nothing too complex. A glass of red wine and chunk of good Parmesan. Some roasted almonds. I eat complicated food all day. At night, I need something simple.
Ready to bake? Check out three sweet recipes courtesy Ottolenghi and Goh.