It’s unusual for a famous chef and restaurateur to write his own cookbooks. So when Ten Speed Press sent me an copy of Yotam Ottolenghi‘s latest cookbook, Jerusalem, I was curious about his process (and intrigued by this stunning cookbook). I interviewed the chef about writing, collaborating and on establishing oneself as a food writer:
Q. You have a degree in a philosophy and a Masters in comparative literature. What were you planning to do with them?
A. I wasn’t sure, but a university teaching career seemed like a possibility at the time.
Q. But then you left to study cooking in London.
A. I didn’t get enough fulfillment from academic life. It felt a bit stale and was also stressful – papers to write, books to read.
Q. Why did you decide to write a column on vegetarian cooking in The Guardian in 2006? You had been the chef at Ottolenghi for four years by then.
A. That’s what The Guardian asked me to do. At first I wasn’t sure that this was a good idea; after all, I wasn’t a vegetarian. But as this was a great opportunity I decided to give a go.
Q. Had you ever written anything for publication before ? I read that you worked on the news desk at Ha’Aaretz as a copy editor.
A. No. I was working a copy editor but never published anything.
Q. Recently, your column became no longer vegetarian. Was that a relief, since you have never been exclusively vegetarian?
A. It wasn’t a relief. I enjoy writing vegetarian recipes and I still have a vegetarian recipe published every week. But it does open more possibilities for me. Finally, I can cook meatballs!
Q. It’s unusual for a restaurant chef to champion vegetables. It seems that luxury ingredients are meat or shellfish.
A. This is slowly changing. It is true that the prized ingredients in western kitchens are still meat or fish. Cooking with vegetables has always been perceived as inferior by most celebrated chefs. However, I can see that many starred chefs are taking on the challenge and creating complex dishes using noodles, lentils, root vegetables and tons of other ingredients that aren’t meat or fish.
Q. Let’s talk about Jerusalem. How did you and Palestinian co-author Sami Tamimi split up the tasks?
A. We divided the recipe testing between ourselves, each with recipes that he liked or came up with. I did the writing.
Q. You say in your acknowledgments that you had help with interviews, collecting recipes, and collating materials. I’m curious to know more about the “collecting recipes” part. Did you make the recipes that you got from others into your own creations, or did you feel the need to preserve their integrity? How do you feel about the subject of “authenticity?”
A. We changed and adapted most of the recipes. Authenticity is right when you are writing a book who’s main purpose is to document and chronicle a cuisine, like Claudia Roden’s books. Our purpose was mainly to get inspired by the city, to deliver its essence. So most of recipes are original, Ottolenghi-style dishes, and only some are authentic.
Q. Your cookbooks champion ingredients many Americans aren’t familiar with, such as kohlrabi, za’atar, rosewater, and Middle Eastern spice mixes. I suspect they haven’t eaten the type of food shown in your cookbook. How did you go about enticing them?
A. I think the pictures do a bit of that, the stories and descriptions do a bit more and then curiosity about a cuisine that is a little less exposed.
Q. I noticed that Jerusalem refers often to Palestinian “housewives.” In the US, that is an outdated term. Did you struggle with how to present a different culture to British and American audiences?
A. We present it as it is. Of course, things are also changing in Palestinian society but it is still a more traditional society, and was definitely so when we were growing up 20-30 years ago.
Q. I thought it was brave to approach the subject of food ownership in Irsael, particularly hummus. Why did you think it was necessary?
A. Well, you can’t avoid this or brush it under the carpet in Jerusalem. Food issues are in-extractable from politics and power struggles. This is a living place with many current conflicts; you want to deliver this to the reader.
Q. Who are your biggest influences as a cookbook author?
A. There are many. Claudia Roden and Alice Waters.
Q. What have you learned about writing cookbooks that you would like to pass on to other writers?
A. You need to know what you stand for, or find a voice. There are so many people writing about food that you must distinguish yourself; choose recipes and stories that are of a certain kind and stick to that. The worst thing you can do is write a recipe for sushi today and for tagliatelle tomorrow.
For more about Jerusalem, the co-authors, and to access recipes, watch this video and see this page:
(Disclosure: This post contains a link to an affiliate program, from which I could make a few cents if you buy something.)