Q&A with Cookbook Author and Chef Yotam Ottolenghi: "Know What You Stand For"

Dec 042012
 

Yotam Ottolenghi, co-author of Jerusalem, says food writers should specialize. (Photo by Keiko Oikawa)

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.)

 Posted by on December 4, 2012 at 10:57 am

  44 Responses to “Q&A with Cookbook Author and Chef Yotam Ottolenghi: "Know What You Stand For"”

  1. Lucky you – getting the chance to chat with Yotam!
    I am tragically addicted to all three of their books. The flavours are so fresh, the presentation is gorgeous and I have yet to find a dud recipe from them. Every time I make one of the Ottolenghi dishes for guests they all rave.
    Thanks for the chance to find out a little more about him.

    • Sadly, I did the interview by email, which I don’t particularly like, but he was gracious and answered some follow-on questions. What strikes me about their recipes is that they are routed in a own sense of identity yet modern and not bound by rules. You can tell an Ottolenghi recipe, which is a remarkable feat.

  2. I love Ottolenghi. He’s so famous and well-regarded, yet he seems to remain very modest and simple. And his column and cookbooks are fantastic! I’ve made countless of his recipes and they were all keepers, so much so that I find myself going back to his books again and again (especially Plenty) without getting bored. I can’t say that of many of the cookbooks I own! I guess his last answer has a lot to do with it: “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.” He sure has a unique style; every time I make one of his recipes, it ends up tasting and looking completely different from anything else I serve at home, and it’s always a great discovery.

    Sorry if I sound overly positive, but his cuisine is truly one of my favorite culinary revelations of the last few years. I hope to visit his restaurants in London someday soon. Thanks for allowing us to listen in on your conversation with him.

    • What a pleasure, Marie. I hope this interview gives you some insights into how he has come to have his own style.

  3. As I posted on FB, I’ve been cooking from Jerusalem: A Cookbook. I’m lucky because I came from a trip to Jordan and my suitcase was filled with zaatar and spices mixes. Frankly, his recipes would have benefited with some help from an experienced cookbook editor. The osso buco recipe with prunes and leeks is remarkable, but two pots are used when one is sufficient. Readers are never told to remove the bay leaves, star anise and cinnamon sticks before serving so no one chokes. Or, even better, to tie them in a piece of cheesecloth that can easily be removed from the pot. The recipe says to remove all the meat and marrow from the bones and add them to the sauce, while the murky photo shows the meat on the bones. (I left the meat on the bones for presentation.) Yotam, next time hire a cookbook editor to make your book the best it can be. It will still be your book, your recipes.

    • Hello Harriet! How wonderful to visit Jordan. Have you read the magnificent memoir The Language of Baklava?

      That is a long list of complaints for just one recipe, and, having edited cookbooks and worked on them myself, I do see your point about all of them. But how do you know that he did NOT have an experienced cookbook editor? Maybe someone was a little asleep at the wheel. Authors also have to check photos for accuracy.

  4. What a wonderful synchronicity, Diane, to read your informative interview this morning with Ottolenghi. I just published a post on my blog last night thanking him for his innovative recipe for Roasted Sweet Potatoes. He’s obviously the chef of the moment with good reason. I love the color and vibrancy and personality of his food.

    • Yes, I suppose a lot of us are posting about this book and the recipes. I hope his vegetable-forward approach takes off with other chefs. That’s one of my favorite things about the Ottolenghi dishes.

  5. Hi Dianne, Lovely post. I too am a fan of Ottolenghi. I have done several recipes from Jerusalem (my favourite of his books so far) and they have been wonderful. I think the advice to develop a clear niche is important if you want to develop some kind of authority or reputation in a particular cuisine. I suppose it only really matters if you want to go beyond a hobby blog.

    • I suppose that’s true, Nazima. If you have a hobby blog with no ambitions then it doesn’t matter. What I find, though, is that hard-working hobbyists want a following as pay-off for all the hours they spend on their posts. For those kinds of bloggers, this is good advice. I find that blogs that are just based on “I love food” can get overwhelming because the focus is too big.

  6. Morning Dianne,
    Thank you for opening up my world to this remarkable, talented chef. I’d traveled to Israel in 1991, and though I was not food blogging at the time, or even knew of such a world, I can still taste the flavors of the hummus stations that we’d encountered during our travels. They reminded me of ice cream stations here in the US. The food is indeed entwined with the culture. I’m looking forward to read and trying some of Chef Yotam’s recipes.
    Great advice, btw, about finding a niche voice and sticking with it.

    • Hummus is a complicated food in Israel, because of providence issues. Today in the US it’s a huge industry with multiple flavors that is sold and eaten everywhere. Who would have thought? I love that Ottolenghi has written this book with his business partner, a Palestinian, so that together they can navigate all the flavors and traditions.

      Re the niche, yes, it has worked well for the Ottolenghi restaurants and books. People who know the recipes can pick out the style.

  7. I saw this book at the bookstore and was struck by the attractive cover. It really drew me to open it and look inside. I am probably na’efve but I don’t understand what you mean by food ownership in Israel?

  8. Thanks for this Q&A, Dianne, count me among the many fans of YO’s wonderful cookbooks. I wanted to alert you and your readers to a recent profile of him in the latest food issue of The New Yorker. An in-depth account of the business of being Ottolenghi:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/12/03/121203fa_fact_kramer

  9. Thank you for this, Diane! My Cookbook Club recently cooked a dozen dishes from Plenty, and we were universally smitten with the novelty and ease of the recipes. I love that his success stems in part from cooking what he knows, and what he is passionate about. His advice is a good reminder for all food writers trying to find their voice.

    • Yes, he and Tamimi have built up their empire of restaurants by creating such distinctive food, and it has served them well as a differentiating factor. For them, the food came from their own background, which is different from some food writers who have to invent their own expertise.

  10. Thank you for this interesting interview, Diane! His first book Plenty is outstanding, and here is another one Jerusalem with incredible dishes. Sometimes I just open one of the book to enjoy beautiful photos and read a recipe or two. His food ans his philosophy behind cooking is a true Zen for me.

    • It is such a gorgeous book, isn’t it, Marina? From a photography standpoint, it must have been a pleasure, because typically cooked food is brown — not such a great color to look at over several pages. Cookbooks that celebrate vegetables have more intense color palate.

  11. I am really hoping this is a gift in my Hanukah stocking this month. I had the pleasure of travelling to Jerusalem last January after not having been there for thirty years. The food scene is exploding and exciting and this cookbook is just an example of that. 30 years ago the food was inedible and now you can’t get enough. Thank you for the great ,but too short, interview!

    • Hah! Your Hanukah stocking.

      Yes, I have heard that about Israel, that the food has only recently improved. I was there in 1973 and all I remember is the breakfasts, with their vegetables, fresh cheeses and soft bread.

      Re a short interview, it was so tempting to talk about the food, as a cook, rather than to stay on the issue of writing.

  12. Thank you Dianne for this beautiful and skillful interview. I think it could serve as a model for aspiring journalists.Your questions are probing, insightful, challenging, yet respectful. ( I can’t believe you did it all by email.) Shows the value of doing your homework and knowing your stuff to stimulate a deeper conversation with the author. I’ll bet he enjoyed answering your intelligent and engaging questions,

    • Oh thanks Anna, but probably he just wants to sell cookbooks and would rather talk about the luscious recipes. Doing so would reach a much wider audience than this blog.

  13. Perfect advice, the motto is to write what you know; authenticity speaks volumes. Fantastically succinct and sound advice from a man who knows what he’s talking about, in more ways than one – thanks for getting this to us Diane x

  14. I saw them giving a cooking demonstration in bath uk near where I live. As yotam said a Jew a Muslim cooking in a Christian church is quite something. Love of food is what unites us all. It was a great experience which I wrote about ihere http://provencecalling.com/yotam-ottolenghi-comes-to-bath/. Excuse the self promotion, but it was such a great experience that I wanted to share it!

    • I loved your interview questions and the gorgeous photos, Angela. I’m glad you shared it, also because it shows Tamimi, whom I did not interview, but who is just as big of a force behind the cookbook.

  15. Great interview, Dianne. What makes for their great success, I think, is that they so successfully appropriate authentic dishes and make them their own, modernizing each dish without making it complicated and without changing the fundamental qualities of the dish. Making their cuisine attractive and accessible. I do think that one can only be successful – long term, as they are – if one knows just who one is and what one stands for. That shows in everything they do. Thanks for this wonderful interview with an inspirational man.

    • That is a good summation of how they do it, Jamie. Their backgrounds and culinary histories have shaped them into who they are today. Thanks.

  16. Hi Dianne, I have the first two books and they are truly inspirational with their ingredients and flavours. The restaurant is on my list to do next time I am in London also. I often think about how my blog jumps around various cuisine and feel I should bring it more direction but it really does reflect that part of may character. I am someone who does wear many hats and gets bored easily with one direction :0)

  17. I am so excited – I just got “Jerusalem” and it is one of the most beautiful cook books I have ever seen. I can’t wait to try the recipes!
    I loved the interview and one thing really got me thinking, the importance of finding your voice and distinguish yourself. That is really important advice!
    Thank you for a great interview!

  18. I am just wild about this book. I’ve made many of the recipes and keep going back for more!

  19. Hi Dianne, two years ago, my daughter, who lives in London brought me for a Saturday morning walk which ended in Ottolenghi’s place in Islington. I just couldn’t believe what I saw, smelled, queued for, ordered and then savoured. As he says in his profile in the recent ‘New Yorker’ – he wants his food to ‘smile’ . And so it does. Your interview gets right to the joyful heart of his approach- having grown up in Jerusalem he doesn’t need to tiptoe around things like “housewife” like we would. I’ve been using “Plenty” for a while now and bought “Jerusalem” last week. Our family can’t get enough of Ottolenghi and his team. Many thanks.
    Happy Christmas to you and yours,
    Catherine

    • Lovely, Catherine. I have yet to eat in his restaurants. But at least there’s the cookbook to make dishes from, so far with excellent results.

  20. […] do so every year. In 2012 it was the cookbook Plenty, since I already had Jerusalem, and have been enjoying both ever […]

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