Yotam Ottolenghi's personal story is as rich and diverse as his world-famous food. He was born in Jerusalem, spent his childhood summers in Florence with his Italian grandparents and studied at Tel Aviv University. After completing a master's degree in comparative literature, and a stint in Amsterdam where he edited the Hebrew pages of a Dutch-Jewish publication, Yotam moved to the UK in the late '90s.
He planned to start a PhD but instead enrolled in a six-month course at the London-based French cookery school, Le Cordon Bleu. Needless to say, the PhD idea was left on the shelf. After graduating, Yotam worked as a pastry chef in various prestigious institutions, including the Kensington Place restaurant (Her Highness is, apparently, a fan). He met his current business partner Sami Tamimi when he became head pastry chef at Baker and Spice in Chelsea.
Yotam now calls London home, where he co-owns four delis - which catered the Queen's Jubilee party at the Royal Academy of Arts - and a formal restaurant, NOPI. He's authored four cookbooks and appeared in several TV shows in which he explores the food and flavours of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. His bold, wholesome and utterly delicious cooking style is known and loved by strict vegetarians, die-hard carnivores and everyone in between. He's even dedicated to softening tensions in his homeland, one hummus dip at a time.
Describe your food philosophy in three words.
I want to surprise, comfort and delight.
What made you decide that you wanted to be a chef, and in what ways has your heritage influenced the way you cook?
Going to cookery school was something I was going to do to scratch an itch before I got on with plan 'A'. I just never got around to looking back. My heritage book-ends everything I do in the kitchen. The way I grew up with food – food which was abundant, generous, big on natural flavour – informs everything I do in the kitchen.
In the cookbook Jerusalem, written by yourself and Sami Tamimi, you said, “Food, however, seems to break down those boundaries on occasion” and “To imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.” Tell us why you see food as a unifying force.
Sami and I don’t actually believe that hummus is going to solve the world’s deep and many problems! But there is something unifying about sitting down and sharing a meal with someone. Passing dishes, ripping off a chunk from the same bit of bread, sharing food: these things can be a great leveller.
MasterChef judge Matt Preston has said that your cookbooks are truly inspirational. What inspires you when putting together a cookbook?
I want to keep moving forward, for each book to be something different to those that have come before. Each book that I’ve done is so different from the last that there’s a lot of energy there from the beginning. Each book is a huge project for me: there are so many cookbooks on offer to the market. I want all of mine to be a combination of hugely sexy but utterly comforting.
What do you think of MasterChef Australia, and what made you decide that you wanted to be a part of this series?
I have always enjoyed the seriousness of the show. By that I mean, taking the contestants seriously and making sure it's about them and their personal development and not so much about an artificial sense of drama. I truly think that MasterChef Australia goes beyond entertainment: it is a show for people who have a real respect to food.
Can you give us a hint about what we can expect during your week on MasterChef Australia?
Vegetables, of course, because they are just brilliant, and lots of delicious things that aren't fussy at all.
What do you hope that the contestants take away after your week in the kitchen?
A sense that you can create a superb meal without being uber-technical, that simple presentation is often more effective than an elaborate one, and an understanding of how important it is to let the ingredients do the talking.
Most people have a favourite part of the show, for example the Pressure Test, Mystery Box, or Team Challenge. As a chef and judge, what element of the show do you enjoy the most?
My clear favourite is the Mystery Box. It strips away anything but a contestant's confidence with a set of ingredients and her or his ability to think on their feet.
Preparing a vegetarian feast for meat-lovers is a daunting task. Describe why you set this Team Challenge, and what you were hoping to see from the contestants.
I was hoping for there to be enough confidence to be able to leave the vegetables largely alone: not everything needs to be blitzed or pureed or julienned. A carrot is most beautiful, to me, when it still looks like a carrot.
What dish would you serve someone who says that they hate eating vegetables?
If it is a ‘meat over vegetables’ thing I would do something with aubergines: these have a lot of meaty body in them. Or grill them a cauliflower ‘steak’ and serve it with tonnato sauce [a creamy, tangy sauce made with anchovies, capers, and canned tuna] and a walnut salsa.
Is there anything - an ingredient, dish or style of cooking - that you haven’t yet eaten, but would like to?
So many! I haven't been to South America. I would love to get to know the foods of this part of the world properly.
If you could only own and use one cookbook, which one would it be and why?
It's not strictly a cookbook but The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit is the most useful tool in my kitchen.
Your friends are coming over in 30 minutes; what do you cook for them?
A simple pasta dish from things I have in the cupboard; gigli with chickpeas and za’atar, for example. Oil, onions, garlic, ground cumin, some hard herbs if they are around – rosemary, thyme, sage - and then tip in a can of chickpeas and some anchovies. Add stock, bring to the boil, and then mash together. Cook the pasta separately and then serve with some chopped herbs on top – parsley or mint or both – and then finish with a sprinkle of za’atar.
Tell us something your fans don’t know about you.
I have a stash of sweets [that] I should have grown out of by now, sitting in the glove compartment for when I drive.