Let's Eat

Why I'm celebrating 20 years of Ottolenghi

How this Jerusalem-born nice Jewish boy transformed Shabbat tables and supermarket shelves


I’ve been Team Yotam Ottolenghi ever since he and Sami Tamimi set up their tiny Ottolenghi café/deli in Notting Hill 20 years ago. Back in those days, before the cookbooks and the branded sumac, lLocals waited patiently in queues snaking out of the door while eyeing up the vegetable-packed salads; colourful pastries and side plate-sized meringues.

I’d cycle past on my way to Leith’s School of Food and Wine, where I was training to be a chef, stopping sometimes to drool over the totally new style of food in their window.

Helped by the fact that literary agent Felicity Rubenstein lived on their doorstep, it wasn’t long before us keen cooks got to try their recipes for ourselves. With her help, Yotam — who’d been on a path to a career in journalism before taking a detour to London culinary school to study patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu — was signed up to a recipe column for The Guardian.

But it wasn’t just novice chefs and local foodies who were hungry for the Ottolenghi style of food, and nine books later the Jerusalem-born chef has achieved a level of global fame unrivalled by most chefs. Well known enough — within his target audience at least — to be identified only by his surname.

The Middle Eastern-influenced, veg-heavy recipes created by him and his team created an effect had a ripple effect on supermarkets not unlike that of Delia Smith’s 1980s creations. Every book would send hordes rushing to buy ingredients previously unavailable in the UK.

The list of foods introduced by his recipes and dishes served is lengthy and grown with every new book — from the early days of preserved lemons, za’atar, sumac, tahini, rose water and pomegranate molasses to more recent black garlic, dried black limes and a range of different chilis, every book has ultimately resulted in something new hitting the shelves in many supermarkets, and most of them becoming cupboard staples.

Over the years, his recipes have changed our cooking habits, inspiring us to roast our cauliflower instead of serving them with nursery-style white cheese sauce; to char our green veggies and throw liberal quantities of fresh, chopped green herbs over salads, stews and dips.

Tahini has become an essential — not just to whizz up a batch of our own hummus from the recipe in Yotam and Sami’s Jerusalem cookbook — but also to mix it with lemon juice as our Israeli cousins do to drizzle over those charred or roasted veggies. Pomegranate molasses and silan joined honey jars in our syrups and sweeteners selection and, for a while, pomegranate seeds appeared on every Shabbat table — I had to ban their use in JC food photo shoots as the gorgeous pink pearls had become ubiquitous.

Having had a special interest in Friday night dinner menus for the last 12 years, I can see the impact of this food revolution. More for us Ashkenazim, who were delighted to embrace the colourful, spice-packed salads and dips that our Sephardi cousins have been enjoying for years.

Since he brought these new flavours to the fore, my family dip their Shabbat challah in spicy muhammara (red pepper dip) and creamy hummus as well as smearing it with chopped liver. And instead of a traditional roast bird, our chicken is more often jointed and smothered in spices. The recipes for chicken roasted with za’atar, sumac and red onion or hazelnuts, saffron and honey in the first Ottolenghi book both bear the splatters and stains of long service.

Whole Facebook groups have sprung up celebrating the joy of these recipes. The Yotam Ottolenghi-inspired Cooking Housewives has more than 46,000 members sharing their favourites, recommending which Ottolenghi restaurant to visit on trips to London and asking where to find ingredients less diverse areas.

It's not just home cooks who have been revolutionised — or Ottolenghi-fied, a verb now in coined by his team in the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen to connote adding flair and a slight twist to the familiar.

Many Israeli and English chefs have been through his kitchens, working in one of the five Ottolenghi restaurants or at one of his other high-end dining rooms — Rovi and Nopi. There are countless alumnae who have gone on to create their own spin on the unique flavour combinations and cooking style they learned. Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer, the husband-and-wife team behind Honey & Co both cooking at Ottolenghi branches — Sarit heading up the pastry team and Itamar – as Head Chef in a couple of the restaurants.

North-West London born and bred, Josh Katz, the chef behind Berber and Q and Carmel in Kensal Rise is another graduate, as is Eran Tibi, his former cooking partner at JW3’s (now defunct) restaurant Zest. The pair formed flavours at in Zest’s kosher kitchens that wowed mainstream critics Jay Rayner and Giles Coren – not normally patrons of kashrut-observant dining rooms.

JC food writers Amir Batito and Shiri Kraus (with two Middle Eastern-influenced restaurants in Camden — The Black Cow and soon-to-open Epicurus) have both worked in Ottolenghi restaurant kitchens. And the Ottolenghi-led opening of our eyes (and palates) to these flavours has in turn triggered an influx of Israeli chefs to London each with their own spin.

I taught with Yotam at a Leith’s cookery class, have interviewed him regularly over the years and can vouch for him also being a lovely person. No raging ego there. There’s also feeling of him being one of our own — a nice Jewish boy sharing Israeli and Middle Eastern favourites with the world — and of that we could not be prouder.

Here’s to many more years of Ottolenghi flavours.

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