“Australia is on a different scale,” says Yotam Ottolenghi, a chef who needs little introduction. A household name, cooking his recipes has almost become his own kitchen.
As I prepare for a tour that will take him away from the British winter to the great theaters and convention centers of Australia’s east coast, I ask if he finds this experience strange: going on stage and not in the kitchen? “I pinch myself all the time, I’m all blue,” he said with real puzzlement. “I don’t really do that kind of size in other parts of the world.” What about the public? “I get the rowdiest crowds, really, in Australia.”
His Flavor of Life tour is loosely linked to his book Flavor, co-written with Ixta Belfrage. Audiences will hear about the influences and experiences that made the chef indispensable to many home cooks, as well as insights into the restaurant business. It will certainly be tinted with our most recent global experience. Sign of the times, the original dates being so postponed, he published another book: Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love.
“I feel at home when I come to Australia,” he says from his home in London. “It’s weird, I never lived there, I didn’t spend a lot of time there, but it’s just that kind of feeling. I have a lot of Australian friends here in London, I think I understand the culture quite well.
There is an “immediacy” or recognition within its Australian audience, compared to the UK and the US. “[They are] most versed in the cuisines of the world, due to the nature of the immigration that has occurred in Australia, ”he says. Thanks to waves of migration from Lebanon, Greece and all over Asia, there is, he said, “an incredible understanding of food and how it works, and the potential for food to cross cultures.” Australian food magazines are, he says, “probably the best in the world” because you can see there is “an assumption that the reader knows a lot, knows a lot about different cuisines, and has cooked.”
We may be well versed and experienced, but that is arguably also due to food writers of her ilk, from Margaret Fulton to today’s chefs; those who have had a real and lasting influence on our food culture, pushing specialty ingredients into supermarket aisles and giving once-shy cooks the confidence to take culinary risks.
His attitude was never “to assume that someone has prior knowledge,” he says. “I’m not saying people don’t, I just don’t want to assume they do.” This means that “every recipe and every introduction to an ingredient, to a method, to cooking, that I have learned or experienced” must be accessible.
He wants to make sure that “people deepen their education” and have “a very good understanding of where they are headed and what results they can expect.” While he does not assume a high level of food literacy, he also did not reduce the ingredient lists; even when they would be hard to find. “I think there is a huge thirst to expand your knowledge.”
What it means to cook Ottolenghi has changed in recent years; it has become a larger church. “It goes from me to other authors that I present or work with,” he says. “I feel like I benefit from these collaborations.
Working with others means that “books aren’t that static… I probably would have stopped publishing cookbooks if I had to rely solely on my resources personally. I’m pretty open about it.
That’s the beauty of these recent books: they bring out people who have “incredible talents and a different personal story”, giving rise to different approaches to cooking.
The flavor with Ixta Belfrage draws on Mexican heat, ferments, and umami-rich ingredients, while her latest book, Shelf Love, with Bahraini-born chef Noor Murad is more hands-on work. Born out of confinement and the need for people to cook every meal, it’s about skill and using ingredients that have a long shelf life, “whether it’s spices or grains, jars or frozen products ”.
” No [Murad] really spearheaded this book, ”he says. “[She’s] incredibly creative and accomplished in the way she thinks… she sets the tone.
“I am here and I taste and I give my opinion,” he says. A few years ago he would send out a list of ideas at the start of each week, “but now I have taken a step back”. “It’s a lot more about their ideas and they take them from start to finish.
“I think now we’re in a pretty good position… we know what we’re looking for when we cook a new dish and publish a new book. “
There is no requirement for strict adherence to ingredients, for example. “This is a misconception. Substitutions have always been a part of his writing. “All those things that you could do to ‘get out of it’, I’ve always maintained… [Shelf Love] is all about it: swap the chickpeas for beans, use one grain, replace it with another, remove some items if you need to.
He is aware of what it means to some people to “cook Ottolenghi”. The idea that these are unusual and hard to find ingredients, long and complicated processes, supplemented by a lot of dishes. While this is absolutely true for some recipes, it is not for others, such as three ingredient recipes and baking trays. “You know, it’s all good,” he said.
Getting out of it was never more necessary than in confinement, when the effort and creativity of the kitchen was put into recycling the food of the days before. While it hasn’t changed the way he cooks, “it really changed the way I think about cooking and put it first.”
Donuts, pies and things that you could ‘just mix’ to meet the needs of the kids took center stage, ‘more nutritional stuff, but not really trying to move this agenda forward because the kids don’t. ‘don’t really appreciate these efforts’. He says his young sons, Max and Flynn, prefer her husband Karl’s comfort food, from British dishes to tacos and ramen. “But I’m not offended.”
He became more forgiving, lowering the level of expectation around what it means to put a meal on the table. “You know, a scrambled egg, bread and a salad for dinner are fine for me. “
But these long cooks are not something he gave up.
While we may have seen a race to the bottom in cooking times, with editors touting 60-, 30-, and 15-minute meals, that may be ignoring the restorative effect of slowing down and taking your time.
“There’s nothing wrong with the idea that you put in a lot of hard work and get something very special at the very end of the process.”