An Interview: Yotam Ottolenghi

As part of Good Food Month, highly respected chef, Yotam Ottolenghi was in town. Promoting his new book, and attending a series of events, Iron Chef Shellie was lucky enough to score a quick interview with the main man.

You’ve been in Australia for a little bit now, you’ve been non-stop, have you had a chance to actually relax and discover any cool hot spots?
Yesterday I went to a few nice places: I went to Supernormal, and had a beautiful… what did I have there that really blew me away? They had pork rolls that were really delicious and then I went to a cute place called Nora, it’s completely new. They do these really funky tarts. I had a pumpkin one, with a black crust, they make using charcoal. You need to go, they are really lovely and they mill their own flour in the back, that was a little find. And where else, I went to Pei Modern last night, it’s not a find, but I had a great food, it was delicious. The asparagus with smoked eggs, oh it was to die for.

Heston’s bringing Fat Duck to Melbourne, would you follow in his footsteps and bring Ottolenghi or Nopi to Melbourne or Sydney?
I don’t know, maybe. I’ve changed my tune over the last week.
I started off by saying no way it’s never going to happen and now, at day six or seven, I’m thinking maybe, it’s quite nice here, so we’ll see. So far I’ve been saying no, it’s too difficult, it’s too complicated, it’s not for me.

But there’s a maybe there, so we will win you over in a bit.
At the moment, I’m slightly less extreme no, but we are still not sure about it.

Millions of people look up to you, have your cookbooks and are inspired by you, is there is a chef or cook that you admire and look up to?
There’s a lot. Cooks like my father and my mum, both are great cooks. I’m inspired by people I meet when travelling, home cooks, and Sami my business partner, I think he’s a genius. We co-wrote books together, and he’s been a huge inspiration for me. He throws a meal like nobody else does, he cooks much better than I do.

Australians love meat and you’re known as the king of vegetables. A lot of men especially don’t consider a meal completely without a protein or a meat. Do you have any words of wisdom to try and change this attitude in Australia?
I don’t like to try and change attitudes, that’s not my mission. I like to present the food as it is, and if people choose to adopt it.

Not everyone can cook like you! Is there any tips that you can give people?
Not everybody can cook like me, but they can cook really well, if they are given good ideas with what to do with vegetables. I think we are limited in our imagination, but once you open yourself up to the world, there’s tonnes of stuff you can do. I really think that even the butch Australian man can be kind of swayed a little bit if you present them vegetables.

What’s the sexiest vegetable to you?
At the moment, (because tomorrow I’ll have a different answer), cauliflower.

What do you think the key to your success has been? Is there any one person or a certain action?
I think I’ve been very lucky to have talented people around me. Although ‘Ottolenghi ‘is famous, I am the face and there is a lot of creative stuff that is not mine. Sami’s influence for one. Scully, the head chef, who is actually here in the kitchen, he is amazing. We are co-writing a book together and he is actually from Sydney. I also have an friend called Helen, she’s an amazing baker, she also produces a lot of our recipes, so it’s a collaboration.

Who was your greatest inspiration when it came to food?
I have been inspired a lot by the cooks of California; Alice Waters, Debra Madison; all these people who are vegetable focused but they also have this integrity with the vegetable, unlike some French cooks. You know, the kind of cook who shi* out out of their food!
Sorry, excuse my language! Those are the people that inspire me.

What would your ultimate feast involve?
My ultimate feast… would involve lots and lots of things. I like a lot on the table, like a huge mezze selection, that would be a feast. Not one thing that’s for sure, or two, or three.

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