TO complement this season’s York Food and Drink Festival, here was the Food and Think fiesta, more talk than fork.
Jerusalem, Simple and Flavour cookery book writer Yotam Ottolenghi, London restaurateur and delicatessen doyen and Middle Eastern recipe magician for the Guardian, would be in the hot seat rather than serving up hot action on the hob this evening. Unlike the comedy-infused combination of cooking and conversation in The Hairy Bikers’ live shows, for example.
Instead, legs as elongated as his Ottolenghi surname as he took to his chair, Israeli-born chef Yotam settled elegantly into answering a series of home-cooking and London-in-lockdown questions from Observer journalist and Yotam enthusiast Rachel Cooke with charm, warmth and a studious disposition, yet one flavoured with amusement and observant humour.
Hosted by Penguin Books, with signed copies of Ottolenghi Flavour to be collected in the foyer afterwards in a ticket and book deal, the Cooke and the cook show was more than a plug for that “flavour-forward, vegetable-based” book, and thankfully there was no such “flavour-forward” jargon in raconteur Ottolenghi’s responses.
He was quick to dispel the myth he was a vegetarian, or indeed vegan, for all his famed love of preserved lemons, although how he elevates fruit and vegetables is key to his cooking, along with his love of less-appreciated ingredients such as the tang of sumac.
He recalled his Jerusalem upbringing as the son of a chemistry professor and high school principal, enjoying shopping in food markets and tending to his mother’s herb garden, and later his literature studies, before heading to Europe, first Amsterdam and then London, ostensibly to study further, but the call of the kitchen took over.
Inevitably, the discussion turned to the pandemic, when everything stopped for tea and every other meal chez Ottolenghi. The downside of lockdown for Yotam was all the “terrifying” uncertainty brought on by the requirement to shut his restaurants and the decision to do likewise with his delis, but the upside was time spent in the kitchen at home, reaching, like so many, to the back of the store cupboard to feed his young sons, Max and Flynn.
He kept the dishes simple, with his children as his tasting panel. Fellow members of his Ottolenghi Test Kitchen “superteam” did likewise, and the collective results are now in print, published on September 30, as Shelf Love.
He poured out his enthusiasm for hummus as you should have it, as a meal in itself with pitta and chickpeas, rather than that magnolia of supermarket tubs. This is what his audience of pans people came for: the inside knowledge on how to improve and how to improvise dishes, how to make the most of long-neglected polenta and wholegrain rice. From back of the cupboard to back of the net.
Ottolenghi’s 75 minutes of culinary chat concluded with a Q and A, where we discovered his favourite herb and spice – coriander and cumin respectively – and we vowed to take his advice to always add freshly chopped tomatoes to the tinned variety.
Yotam and York had come together for one night, a dinner date of sorts, but you should not expect the flowering of a beautiful relationship. Ever the controlling perfectionist, he likes to be within an hour’s reach of all his restaurants, ruling out expansion beyond London, he said.
You will just have to reach for his books instead on an ever-expanding shelf.