Spike Lee was the mentor of Kyle Bell in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2020 - 2022. Photo by Arnaud Montagard / Rolex
Yotam Ottolenghi
Photo by Frank Bauer

Yotam Ottolenghi: “I am more of a conductor”

Short Profile

Name: Yotam Assaf Ottolenghi
DOB: 14 December 1968
Place of birth: Jerusalem, Israel
Occupation: Chef, cookbook author

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is out now.

Mr. Ottolenghi, how do you feel about being the reason most of my friends suddenly have spices like cumin and sumac in their kitchens?

(Laughs) I am very happy to work within Middle Eastern cuisine. I feel connected to cuisines that have that intensity and places that are sunny, where vegetables really ripen to a huge degree! I feel very fortunate that I live in a world where there is kind of openness through books, through social media, through all those other mediums where you can learn about other cuisines, like for example South Asian or Mexican, and borrow and play with them.

Your books Plenty and Jerusalem have really helped shine a light on Middle Eastern cooking, which has a deep history that most Westerners aren’t familiar with.

It hasn’t had its day in the sun, you’re right. It hasn’t had that kind of exposure in Northern European and North American food cultures. There is a deep understanding I think of what it means to cook Italian or Spanish or even North African to a certain degree… But Arabic cooking, cooking the food of Palestine and Israel and Syria and Egypt, that has not been exposed enough in Western cooking. And actually, one of the things that Sami Tamimi, who co-wrote the books with me, and I did quite well was translate those cuisines in a way that was palatable to the Northern or Western palate.

“My ability to present food that is from various parts of the world and has got different influences, it’s not really me, it’s about the people who work with me.”

How did you go about that?

We’ve added flourishes, more color, we’ve kind of modernized it a bit so it was a little bit more accessible to Western cooks. I think Plenty struck a chord because there was a promise that was delivered: that you could really do exciting things with vegetables and that people maybe have not experienced before. With Jerusalem, we had this incredible explosion of people cooking because they loved the fact that they could cook vegetables and they loved the Middle Eastern ingredients.

But Middle Eastern cooking is not the only style of cuisine you do, right?

While a few of my books were very much about my background and where I came from, it’s now much more about the test kitchens, more of a collective effort. These are not my own private recipes, these are ones that are created by a team of two or three people. So my ability to present food that is from various parts of the world and has got different influences, it’s not really me, it’s about the people who work with me. With Flavor, a book I published with Ixta Belfrage, it has a lot of Mexican cooking in it but it’s not something that comes naturally to me; I haven’t even visited Mexico. But she spent much of her childhood there. I was very happy to add that to the repertoire because it worked very well in the context of what we do — Mexican cuisine has a lot of affinity with the food of the Middle East.

You mentioned your test kitchen, which is itself quite famous on social media. How often are you cooking in it these days?

This is something I’m open about: these days, I cook really not that much. I mean, I cook at home and during the pandemic, I cooked more and tested more recipes. But these days in the test kitchen, there is so many people developing the recipes and cooking together, and those collaborations have become really crucial to keeping things fresh. I think if it was just me, I don’t think I would have been able to produce nine cookbooks that are very different to each other, each with their own message and set of ideas.

What does your day-to-day look like, if you’re not spending so much time cooking?

Mostly now I do things that are remote from the actual cooking: I am involved in the conversation, the tasting, the brainstorming, the conceptualizing. I write my books and columns. But I am a little bit more removed from the actual cooking — and I am fine with this because I feel that, in a way, it’s progression. I am a bit more of a conductor in some ways. It means I can find projects like the documentary Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles that I feel very passionate about, it gives me time to get involved in those. So I am much less hands on than I used to be and that’s okay, I can live with that.

“I think there are artistic elements in the creation of a meal, but for me, art is timeless, whereas food is consumed and disappears.”

Cakes of Versailles is set at the MET in New York. How was it to work with such an esteemed institution?

We actually have a history of working together! The live art department of the MET often does events that are in parallel to exhibitions but not part of the exhibition — they show it as a live exhibition. I’ve participated before when they did their Jerusalem exhibit, I created a food-based event that mirrors the exhibition. So when the Versailles exhibition came up, I saw that this was a food-worthy exhibition, not only because of its connection to Marie Antoinette, but because of decadence. I asked the contributors that I was working with, the top pastry chefs from around the world, to come up with their own interpretation of Versailles.

Does that setting bring cooking more into the realm of art?

I don’t feel that food and art are the same. I think there are artistic elements in the creation of a meal, but for me, art is timeless, whereas food is consumed and disappears. It’s so much connected to sustenance. I have slightly maybe a little bit more old-fashioned approach to art and I feel that it needs to be eternal and more stable than food. So, I would like to keep them both separate. But that is not to say that I don’t think that there is a lot of incredibly creative things that are happening in the creation of food, both historically and now! I think it’s a very creative activity. But I wouldn’t like to mix it up with art.

So you’ve never felt like an artist yourself?

Cooking is a craft. To me, maybe it’s not very informative or illuminating to focus on food as an art. What I do is basically to satisfy a need, and that is to feed people. It’s not a very lofty activity. It can give a lot of pleasure, but it’s a different kind of pleasure, it’s very tactile, it’s not something that is removed from reality, and that is for me what makes it different. I love what I do, but I still don’t feel like an artist!