Diana Henry meets… Yotam Ottolenghi

Yotam Ottolenghi changed how we cook in the UK, broadened the scope of ingredients we buy and made vegetables the star of the plate. But Covid and lockdowns have brought challenges from which Ottolenghi is still recovering. In the latest of her interviews for delicious., Diana Henry meets the culinary pioneer…

Portrait photo by Jonathan Lovekin.

Diana Henry meets… Yotam Ottolenghi

Dressed in burgundy sneakers, jeans and a soft mustard sweater, Yotam appears from his office and I am, once again, struck by how handsome he is. I remember Claudia Winkleman’s behaviour when she presented him with a gong at the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards a few years ago. Suave and urbane, right down to his black patent shoes, Yotam approached the stage as Winkleman made a huge heart shape in the air and pretended to swoon.

Indeed, it’s easy to think Yotam has everything: looks, intelligence (his master’s thesis was on the philosophy of the photographic image), success – he’s bigger in the States than Nigella and Nigel, and has his name on a string of restaurants and books… He has a husband and children (two boys, Max, seven, and Flynn, five); he’s also the person who has made a difference to the way we eat, and at the most vital time. Governments can have all the summits they like, but Yotam Ottolenghi could actually make us give up beef in favour of aubergines – and not by preaching about it.

“Governments can have all the summits they like, but Yotam could make us give up beef in favour of aubergines — and not by preaching about it." — Diana

Tough times

But it has been a tough couple of years. “Covid and the various lockdowns were traumatic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve recovered,” he says. You can see the stress as he slumps forward, almost putting his head in his hands. “I’m so grateful that we survived; I mean I didn’t know whether we would. I didn’t and don’t take anything for granted. Everything we’re doing now – like developing the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen – is future-proofing. During Covid we had 300 employees and it was terrifying to think what could happen.”

Yotam claims he’s not good at business – there are other people in the company who look after that side of things – but he brings his vision to it all and is responsible for the test kitchen, or OTK as it’s referred to these days. He’s told me in the past that when he got his column in The Guardian, which was initially vegetarian, he didn’t think he could produce enough dishes on his own; he knew he would need help. This shows remarkable self-awareness. He understood his limitations but, instead of seeing them as a problem, he thought about how to work in a different way from other food writers. He has done it collaboratively, giving credit to whoever works alongside him.

This way of doing things has grown organically, and the OTK team have just moved to a huge new test kitchen in North London. Here they develop and test recipes for the restaurants, delis, books and Yotam’s columns for The Guardian and The New York Times. There was never any question that Yotam would pass this work off as his own. “Initially I was working by myself at home, testing recipes there, but it wasn’t sustainable. It was never supposed to be just me. My name went above the door, but it was always going to be a group of people, though it’s right that customers feel a single driving force.”

Test kitchen life

He comes into the test kitchen every day to taste, offer opinions and suggest improvements to dishes. “We don’t produce recipes by committee, though. It’s incredibly important that people take ownership of them – that produces the best results.” Shrewdly, he’s gradually mentioned the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen more and more, making it a place that intrigues, adding another arm to the Ottolenghi brand.

OTK’s first book, Shelf Love, by Yotam and Noor Murad, was published last autumn and the second one will be out this year. The test kitchen is the engine that feeds every part of the Ottolenghi empire. Looking 10 years ahead, Yotam wants it to be a ‘talent hub’, a place where great cooks want to work. He doesn’t reveal plans, but I can feel the excitement of other projects bubbling under, not of Yotam stepping down but perhaps stepping back to make room for other things. He has to keep ‘the long view’ in mind, though. I ask him what’s special about an Ottolenghi recipe. “I think a surprising combination or context. Maybe an unusual texture. There needs to be something different.” Perhaps it will get more and more difficult to be surprising. Perhaps the appeal of the unusual will burn itself out. It’s up to him to keep thinking about where the dishes go, about what ‘Ottolenghi’ means.

Shelf Love

“Initially I was working by myself at home, testing recipes there, but it wasn’t sustainable. It was never supposed to be just me." — Yotam

Family man

It’s surprising, given how popular he is in the US and Australia, that there aren’t Ottolenghi restaurants and delis all over the world. Ottolenghi LA. Can you imagine it? People who derive their sense of self from cooking what is hip, weeping over a shortage of black garlic in Hollywood. “We have discussed expanding to other countries so many times,” he says, “And then we go through all the practicalities and end up in the same place. It’s so complicated. And I’d be terrified about maintaining the same high standard everywhere. Anyway, I’m not so money-driven that I’d want to hop all over the world checking up on things.”

What he won’t put work ahead of are his children. Are they the most important thing? “Oh yes, yes, yes, yes! It’s impossible to say just how much.” He is beaming. “Now Max knows what a fortnight feels like and he says, ‘I don’t want you to go away, Daddy.’ I want to spend as much time with the boys as possible. I don’t work evenings or weekends any more.”

Family has always been important to Yotam. He was born in Jerusalem and is of Italian-Jewish and German-Jewish descent. Italian, German and Israeli influences were evident in the family kitchen. No wonder he came to love food. He followed his own path but his father, a professor of chemistry, didn’t want him to become a chef. It would have been easy to disappoint his parents. When his brother was killed by friendly fire in 1992 while he was doing his military service, it must have placed the most painful burden on Yotam’s shoulders. I think it has been this – the drive to be a good son, to make his parents proud of him – that has propelled him much more than money or fame.

“Legacy is a grand word. But I know I have had an effect. The recipes are making a difference… You stay in a person’s life and in their home if they use your recipes” — Yotam

Yotam is most proud of his books. He loves the visual and design aspect of every title just as much as he enjoys this aspect of the restaurants, but there’s more to it than sheer enthusiasm. I wonder if he thinks about his legacy. “That’s a grand word,” he says. “But I know I have had an effect. The recipes are making a difference. And you stay in a person’s life and in their home if they use your recipes.”

The man who made vegetables irresistible

I’m sceptical when employers talk of employees as ‘family’. It can be a way of hoodwinking people into thinking they’re special while not valuing them properly. Yotam talks about the ‘Ottolenghi family’ a lot, but I can’t find a single person who thinks it’s phoney. Most say how grateful they are that they were taken on, how much they have learnt from him, how generous he is. Employees and colleagues are fiercely loyal. This is another of the cornerstones of his success. He finds the best people and he looks after them.

He is also a relentless perfectionist. I can imagine how stressful Covid must have been for someone who is used to planning and being in control. When, years from now, historians weigh up who made a difference in our food culture at a time when it mattered, when we had to shift to plants and away from meat, Yotam Ottolenghi will be seen as a standard bearer, the man who taught so many to love vegetables simply by making them irresistible.

Straight after seeing Yotam, I meet up with Helen Goh, a long-time member of the Ottolenghi family and his co-author on Sweet. We’re sitting having deliciously bitter coffee and crumbly Greek cakes when she looks at the time. “Damn, I’ve got to go,” she panics. “I’ll be late for Yotam.” She’s expected at OTK for a meeting. As she grabs her bags and heads off, I call after her “I thought he was lovely to everyone in the family!” “Yes, but you have to do the work!” she shouts back.

 

Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love by Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad (Ebury Press £25) is out now.

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