It’s not often that I get to take a little time and attend a lecture; so I was extremely excited to find out that Yotam Ottolenghi was going to be interviewed at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on a Sunday at 3:00 PM. Having no responsibilities scheduled for that moment, I raced to order my ticket. The eticket suggested that we get there at 2:30. I arrived about 2:15 with Ottolenghi’s new book-PLENTY MORE – in hand for him to sign. What a crowd gathered and waited and waited to be allowed into the Nightingdale-Bamford School where the lecture was taking place. When the doors finally opened, like the running of the bulls in Spain, we all charged in to find seats either downstairs in the orchestra or on the balcony. I found myself dead center in the first row. As I am barely five feet tall- this was a good thing.
Jane Kramer took her seat first. Ms. Kramer is a journalist who wrote for the Village Voice before joining the New Yorker staff. Most of Ms. Kramer’s writing has covered aspects of European culture, politics and social history. She has won many awards including the Prix Europeen de L’Essai “Charles Veillon”, the American Book Award for non fiction for “The Last Cowboy” and the 1993 National Magazine Award for feature writing for her articles which later became a book- “Whose Art Is it?” I have chosen just a few of Ms. Kramer’s many accomplishments to point out that she is an intellectual who appears to have been seduced by Ottolenghi’s intellect and background in addition to his amazing recipes and ability to present them in both a literal and visual way. You can google Jane Kramer for more information about this incredible woman’s career. Back to Yotam Ottolenghi.
As Ottolenghi loped in, I was struck by his very tall, lanky body. He sort of bent over himself-all long legs, long arms, and long fingers. I wonder if he had his new kitchen outfitted with extra high counters like Julia Childs did. Ms. Kramer opened with the surprise statement that our Chef had begun as a philosophy student who had even written a thesis. Ottolenghi told us that he was the son of a German Mother (who ran the high schools in Israel through the Education Ministry) and an Italian Father (who was a chemistry professor). Growing up in Israel, he had the good fortune of not only being exposed to the intelligentsia but also to homemade pasta and pizza as well as middle eastern food. According to him the pizza made him “very cool in school”. Even as he was writing his thesis, Ottolenghi knew he wanted to become a chef. He tried the “Julia” method ie. going through Mastering the Art of French Cooking; but stopped when he came to the “brunoise” section. He didn’t enjoy the 1/16th inch dice. After that, at about 29 years old, he decided he needed some strong street cred so he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in London where he lasted about four months until he left. He learned how to make pastry and enjoyed the feel of the dough in his hands. At this moment, he realized that he had to write in order to become known. A position at the Guardian-an important London paper, was offered to him. He was to write a vegetarian column. Not being a vegetarian, Ottolenghi wrote a recipe for a vegetarian spread; but added as a post script that it would be terrific with lamb chops. A major uproar followed and afterwords, he made an effort to remain true to the veg philosophy-only making a few more bloopers. This is a particularly amusing story given that his last two books: PLENTY AND PLENTY MORE are completely vegetarian. PLENTY is organized by vegetables and PLENTY MORE is organized by cooking techniques. Ottolenghi’s first two books: JERUSALEM AND OTTOLENGHI are wonderful cookbooks that are not kosher. There are many recipes that you can prepare just as he instructs and many for which you have to make substitutions. Some can’t be made at all in a kosher kitchen.
At some point, Chef O had an epiphany that vegetables should not be relegated to “sides”. They should be treated with the same care and devotion we commonly give to meat or fish. And thus, he began to experiment with different preparations for vegetables which would elevate them. He spoke a lot about cauliflower which he felt was a misunderstood and under appreciated vegetable; and for which he has created many different preparations. He also mentioned his Tomato and Pomegranate Salad that he admits he never would have paired until he tasted the combination in Istanbul and began to recognize the affinity these two fruits had for each other. After Ottolenghi spoke for a while, Ms. Kramer began to read through the questions written on note cards by people in the audience.
One of the most interesting questions asked was if he preferred “local” or “organic” produce. Chef O demonstrated both his intellectual and culinary sides in the answer. After a few moments digressing into the unfortunate nature of politics that has entered even the food world-he answered: whichever has the best flavor. His palate makes the choice. For those of you who have looked at his books, you know that many recipes ask for 10-15 different spices, herbs etc., many of which are not generally on most people’s shelves. Ms. Kramer pointed out, that once you have bought them, you have them for awhile. Ottolenghi takes a different approach. He is visibly excited by discovering new ingredients and teaching people about them; but he also says-if you can’t find something-leave it out or substitute something else. He wants cooking to be stress-free. He wants you to enjoy the pleasure of cooking. He told a story of making couscous with a Berber woman with whom he could not communicate with words. She took his hand and showed him how to push and squeeze the dough to create and eventually eat the couscous. It was all communicated with body language and feelings.
Chef Yotam Ottolenghi is an interesting mix of a casual laid back Israeli and a Brit who wants things done his way- following the rules. Someone asked him if he was going to open up a restaurant in the USA and he said No. He admitted that he believed strongly in quality control and needed to taste everything before it reached the public. That doesn’t sound so “stress free” to me. On the other hand, Ms. Kramer told of a meal she had prepared with Chef O in London where the chicken was too pink and the rice too crunchy. They ate around the pink and chewed up the rice. She said the meal was delicious. No tantrums, no histrionics- the meal went on and everyone survived to cook another day. I thought this story was a good lesson for all of us. Another good lesson from Ottolenghi is that you don’t have to be able to cook every type of cuisine. He, himself, does not attempt to master all the cuisines of the world. He believes that every cook/chef has to find their comfort zone. Find a cuisine or cuisines that you love and concentrate on doing them well. As he said, he would rather be served something that his host has made at least five times than be a guinea pig for a new recipe.
At the end of the day, what gives this great intellectual chef the biggest smile- his son Max and the way he eats his peas, prefers green vegetables to red and white, and likes to separate all the different foods on his plate.
For more details, read Jane Kramer’s article:http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/12/03/the-philosopher-chef.