How Ottolenghi is packing a fresh punch in Piccadilly

Victoria Prever meets an Israeli chef who is making an impact with his colourful cuisine in the West End


When Yotam Ottolenghi finishes his work in the kitchen, he gets into his car -and starts working all over again. What with his eponymous chain of eateries, plus his regular newspaper and magazine columns and television shows, even the time spent travelling must be productive. And now his workload has just got heavier with the opening of yet another London restaurant, called NOPI.

The Ottolenghi chain is a hybrid restaurant, deli, bakery and patisserie. His food has a distinctive style, copied by many. The signature look of his dishes is bright and colourful. Tastes are fresh and punchy and ingredients eclectic.

His background clearly influences his cooking. He grew up in Jerusalem tasting the mix of Israeli and Palestinian flavours, and at home, his German father and Italian mother - both keen foodies - cooked the food of their countries. Comfort food for him today is the Roman food his Italian Jewish grandmother cooked - gnocchi, meat loaf and semolina.

Unlike many contemporary chefs, he is recognised within the trade as a genuinely nice guy and enjoys meeting the legion of loyal foodie fans who battle for places at his monthly cooking lessons at Leith's School of Food and Wine. "It's really positive to hear their feedback," he says.

With so much going on, he now spends less time at the oven door, but he is still a regular presence in each of his restaurant kitchens "offering suggestions" and directing his staff. Half of his time is spent developing new recipes for menus and food columns. With 13 years in the kitchen under his apron, he continues to produce a stream of exciting recipes. Inspiration comes from his travels; he returns to Israel at least three times a year - "the restaurant scene there is thriving," he says - and holidays in countries where the food is interesting. He brainstorms regularly with his chefs, meeting monthly to share their recipe developments.

Having opened Ottolenghi nine years ago, he was keen for a new creative challenge. His new West End restaurant, NOPI (North of Picadilly) offers a different, all-day dining experience. Guests are encouraged to share small plates of food allowing them to sample more of the menu - "it's more fun. That's the way I like to eat", he says. Head chef, Ramael Scully, is Australian with an Asian background and brings the sharp flavours of the Far East to the table. Dishes like beef brisket croquettes with Asian slaw mix both styles.

Ottolenghi did not start off in the food industry. He first worked as a Haaretz journalist and academic but at 30 changed direction and enrolled at London's Cordon Bleu culinary school.

Jobs followed as a pastry chef at The Capital Hotel, Kensington Place, Launceston Place and Baker and Spice. It was at the last that he met Palestinian Israeli, Sami Tamimi with whom he opened the Ottolenghi chain. They remain business partners but Sami is not part of the NOPI venture.

With so much going on Ottolenghi has little downtime, but is a keen fan of Pilates, which allows him to totally switch off for an hour. It sounds as if he needs it.

Roasted aubergine with saffron yoghurt

This recipe from Ottolenghi The Cookbook (Ebury Press) is probably "my archetypal salad", says the chef, featuring robust contrasting flavours, vibrant colours, fresh herbs and nuts, all laid out generously to reveal all of the dish's elements. He adds: "To create the most impact, serve it from a communal plate brought out to the dining table. It makes an exciting starter."

Serves 4

Ingredients

● 3 medium aubergines, cut into slices 2cm thick, or into wedges
● Olive oil for brushing
● 2 tbsp toasted pine nuts
● Handful of pomegranate seeds
● 20 basil leaves
● Coarse sea salt and black pepper

For the saffron yoghurt sauce:
● Small pinch of saffron strands
● 3 tbsp hot water
● 180g Greek yoghurt
● 1 garlic clove, crushed
● 2 tbsp lemon juice
● 3 tbsp olive oil

Method

● To make the sauce, infuse the saffron in the hot water in a small bowl for 5 minutes.
● Pour the infusion into a bowl containing the yoghurt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and some salt.
● Whisk well to get a smooth, golden sauce.
● Taste and adjust the salt, if necessary, then chill. This sauce will keep well in the fridge for up to 3 days.
● Preheat the oven to 220°C/gas mark 7. Place the aubergine slices on a roasting tray, brush with plenty of olive oil on both sides and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20–35 minutes, until the slices take on a beautiful light brown colour. Let them cool. The aubergines will keep in the fridge for 3 days; just let them come to room temperature before serving.
● To serve, arrange the aubergine slices on a large plate, slightly overlapping. Drizzle the saffron yoghurt over them, sprinkle with the pine nuts and pomegranate seeds and lay the basil on top.

Last updated: 1:07pm, April 28 2011