In 1996, Israeli-born London chef Yotam Ottolenghi signed on to be the vegetarian columnist for the Guardian. Not being a vegetarian, he worried that he might run out of ideas in short order. Travel, a constant search for unknown ingredients, and fellow chefs have helped helped him continuously invent new ways of approaching vegetables for his three eponymous London restaurants and his more upscale Asian-inflected Nopi.
His cookbooks — Ottolenghi, Plenty, and Jerusalem, all bestsellers — take the vegetable focus of his column and his restaurants, using meat sparingly. His latest book, Plenty More, shows readers what he's been been cooking for the past few years. While the book lacks the narrative of Jerusalem and is perhaps , diving into Plenty More is a bit like taking a walk through Ottolenghi's wildly creative mind. Here, he talks with Eater about how he develops his recipes, why he's drawn to the flavors of Persia and the Southeast Asia lately, and what's coming next. In his words: "I don't do breaks."
What was the idea behind this book? Why a follow up to Plenty as opposed to the Ottolenghi or Jerusalem?
It's been four years since I published Plenty. I thought it was time to share all sorts of new ideas that I've been cooking. I've been working with all of the chefs to really expand my repertoire. All of that is in the book. There are some new recipes that are just for the book, but most of the recipes have been published in the Guardian. So essentially I'm just taking all of the recipes I've been cooking over the last few years and putting them in one big volume.
What cuisines are really inspiring you these days?
I find I go more and more east to India and to Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Vietnam. It kind of makes sense to me in my context, with the abundances of chiles, of coriander, of yogurt, of nuts, of lentils, and rice. I mean these are all ingredients that are very natural to me and I love using. This is the kind of food that I gravitate toward quite easily.
But, there's always something interesting going on. I've never had an interest in Eastern European food but the other day we made Polish pierogies and all of a sudden I said "Oh my god this is cooking I really love." I mean it doesn't seem natural because it's as far removed as possible from the Middle East, but there's some wonderful stuff going on. So, it's hard to say. It changes every day. As I see it, I could do well with almost any cuisine I come across.
I like my recipes to always have some element of surprise.
In the book you write about how your travels influence your food, but I also noticed quite a few Persian recipes. How did that fascination come about?
Coming from the Middle East, foods that are from the near vicinity to where I grew up I always find the most fascinating. Turkish food, Lebanese food, North African food. They are kind of in the neighborhood as we say.
With Iranian food in particular, I've met quite a few Iranians people that have cooked for me and I complete fell in love with the whole way of dining...the intensity of the herbs. The Iranians use a lot of dill, and mint, and tarragon, these herbs that I love so much. And, a bunch of ingredients that I love to cook with like saffron and rice, pomegranate, and walnuts. They're all key ingredients to Iranian cuisine.
Unfortunately I can't travel there for political reasons, but I have met quite a few Iranians around the world who have shared their passion with me and their recipes, and some fantastic cookbooks.
You've told me that when you are working on a recipe, you like to make it your own. What's your process for developing recipes for a book like this one?
There isn't one way, there are a few ways for recipes to come about. One particular way of thinking that I have is, when I take an ingredient that I haven't used for a while, or that is coming into season, I stop to think by way of association.
If I bought a butternut squash the first thing that comes to mind often is the sweet spices: allspice and nutmeg, and cloves all go with the actual sweetness of pumpkins. But then I take it another step further. And I think, "Okay, so I'm using spices, maybe cumin would also work, maybe coriander seed, some of the less sweet and more aromatic earthy spices." And, from there, maybe I'm looking for a little bit of heat and I think of chilies or particular chilies, that work well with the flavors. I kind of work associatively until I reach something that resembles in my mind a coherent dish and then I think about the technique.
Other times, if I travel or if I read about a recipe that sounds fascinating, I'll try to make it as it is. I might not even change it that much. Maybe I'll play with it just a little.
I like my recipes to always [have] some elements of surprise, something that the people who made the food have not tasted before... like a sweet currant in a very savory dish. It's never a uniform experience.
For me as a home cook that is the signature of your recipes. There's always something unexpected, something that your palate's not anticipating.
I try to do that whenever I can with my recipes. I hope that they will contain some element of surprise or some kind of dissonance.
When you were starting the vegetarian column for the Guardian you said you were almost afraid of running out of ideas. Do you feel like you're constantly discovering new ingredients, or is it a matter of finding new ways to use ingredients?
It's everything. I am constantly discovering things. I try to make it a point to find new ingredients because I know people expect that of me by now. I'm constantly on the look out for new things, new combinations, new ingredients, and new ways of cooking old ingredients.
I put quite a lot of focus in this book on the techniques and the method of cooking vegetables because I am under the impression that people don't [pay] enough attention to this. That's why I decided to divide the book into chapters the way I did so the reader would understand that it makes a whole lot of difference if you choose to roast a brussels sprout, or to fry a brussels sprout, or you just chop it up and serve it raw in a salad. These are all things that you can do with a sprout, but they create very different results.
So that's essentially what it is: It's looking at ingredients, and at recipes in a new perspective. It's more and more difficult to find new ingredients because the world is getting smaller and smaller. So it's easier for me now to use all the ingredients that I know quite well and a new perspective or context.
All of your books have a sort of signature photography style. How did you decide on that? What are your thoughts on photographing the food for your books?
I'm heavily involved in this aspect of my books. Over the last three books from Plenty to Jerusalem to Plenty More I've been working Jonathan Lovekin. We've developed a very collaborative approach to the food photography.
We don't work with a food stylist. It's just the two of us. We just put the food on the plate. I have a very strong vision and Jonathan understands it and affects it in his way. For me, the food needs to look very natural. People have very different understandings of the word natural, but for me it means dealt with as little as possible. It needs really to feel completely as it is when it's cooked at home.
The book is organized by cooking technique as opposed to grouped by mains or starters. If readers want to put together a whole meal from the book, how do you suggest they do that?
Often in the introduction I mention what goes with what. So if they see something that they like more often than not there will be a little comment. I'm not a huge believer in the traditional division to the starter, the main course, dessert. I like the Middle Eastern mezze style of eating where you put quite a few things on the table, as long as they don't contradict each other. I'd recommend for people to find two, three or four things that they think are achievable and nice and just put them next to each other.
Do you have a few recipes in the book that are your favorites?
It's hard to choose but I think there are certain recipes that give a good understanding of my cooking in this book, like the basmati rice with curry leaf and lemon. It's a very simple dish to make; the rice is cooked in the oven so you can put it there and not think about it too much. It reflects quite a lot of what this book does. There's a lot of lemon juice, a lot of lemon skin, curry leaves, and cinnamon, and a few other aromatics to liven up what is essentially plain basmati rice. They really really lift this rice. It's very very special. It's full of aroma when you open the the foil.
I try to make it a point to find new ingredients because I know people expect that of me now.
On the other end of the spectrum, something much more complicated, I'm using an ingredient called kadaifi which is a pastry, it's a bit like shredded wheat. Tiny tiny noodle like shreds of phyllo pastry, it really looks like angel hair pasta or vermicelli. It's common in Arabic desserts like baklavas, but I used it in a different context. I take little nests of this pastry and fill them up with eggplant and cheese mix, and then make little nests and bake it in the oven. That's a real revelation for some people in terms of a new pastry that is very easy to work and doesn't involve any hard work with your rolling pin. It's very fantastic. It's a very unusual experience to eat it. It's slightly crunchy but completely delicious.
In the dessert section, I've used tahini and halvah, which are some of my favorite ingredients. One of the cakes that I like the most includes big chunks of halvah and cinnamon, and nuts. It's a very rich cake, but it's absolutely wonderful, and again it offers a lot of surprise. It's all very rich and melts in the mouth.
What's next for you? Restaurants? Cookbooks? Taking a break?
No, I don't do breaks. There is another restaurant coming, next year. It's another Ottolenghi, the team is working on it as we speak, it's in East London. It's going to be sit-down and a takeaway shop so that's exciting for us.
And, I'm already working on another cookery book, is going to be the book of Nopi my west end restaurant. The one that opened about three and a half years ago and that's been going really strong. There's going to be a lot of Asian flavors there and all sorts of fantastic chili pastes and aromatics, and all sorts of new ingredients cause I'm writing that book the head chef of the restaurant, Ramael Scully who's originally from Malaysia and he's full of new ideas. So that's going to be a whole era of ingredients and techniques that I haven't played with yet, but that's going to be fantastic.
When's that expected to come out?
In the next year and a half or so. I don't have an exact date but up to two years from today. Books take time. We've tried to get some of the work done already and it's going really well.
All photos by Paula Forbes