Award-Winning Cookbook Author & Chef Yotam Ottolenghi Visits Houston

Meg Booth, CEO of Performing Arts Houston; award-winning chef and cookbook author; and James Beard-Award winning chef Chris Shepherd.

On Monday, May 2, fans of chef and award-winning cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi gathered at the Wortham Center to hear him talk about food and cooking with James Beard award-winning chef Chris Shepherd, executive chef and owner of Underbelly Hospitality. Ottolenghi, who was born in Israel, owns seven well-regarded restaurants and delis in London that serve innovative, vegetable-forward Middle Eastern food. He is also the author of nine best-selling, award-winning cookbooks, including two James Beard-award winners, “Jerusalem” and “Nopi.” He may be best known for his first cookbook “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” and his popular “Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi.” He also hosted the award-winning television series, “Jerusalem on A Plate.”

The evening’s lively discussion, punctuated by the audience’s laughter and applause, touched on everything from eggplant to food’s power to bring people together. Hosted by Performing Arts Houston (formerly known as the Society for the Performing Arts) the event was originally scheduled for 2020 to promote the then-new, vegetable-focused cookbook “Flavor,” which was written by Ottolenghi and chef Ixta Belfrage, who worked with him first at his London restaurant NOPI and then at his test kitchen. But like so much during the pandemic, the event was postponed and rescheduled.

Eggplants. Photo by David Leftwich.

Since then, Ottolenghi published his ninth cookbook “Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love,” which was being sold by Brazos Bookstore at the event along with signed copies of “Flavor”, “Jerusalem” and Shepherd’s “Cook Like a Local.” In addition, a portion of the proceeds from the event were donated to Southern Smoke, Shepherd’s crisis-relief nonprofit that helps people in the hospitality industry.

At the Wortham, which was once the site of Houston’s largest farmers market, Ottolenghi began by discussing that growing up in Jerusalem he loved to eat — going to a fancy restaurant on his birthday, eating seafood in East Jerusalem — but not to cook. However, while attending Tel Aviv University where he received a bachelor’s and master’s in comparative literature, he was inspired to start cooking in part by the mountains of verdant, fragrant herbs and colorful vegetables found in Tel Aviv’s farmers markets. That love of produce continues to fuel Ottolenghi and was on display throughout the evening.

While asking his own thoughtful questions as well as those sent by ticket holders, Shepherd was clearly as excited as the audience to be listening to Ottolenghi. He along with everyone else laughed heartily when Ottolengi joked that while working on his dissertation on the philosophy of photography in 1997, he could only talk to two people about what he was studying. He realized he wanted to expand his universe and that he really enjoyed cooking for others. So, he studied pastry at London’s Le Cordon Bleu.

Soon after, he started working in restaurants where he learned he loved the physical and tactile nature of cooking. He also really enjoyed the camaraderie of working with others in the kitchen, which he said still motivates him 20+ years later. Ottolenghi continued to discuss his journey from pastry chef to deli owner to restaurateur to bestselling cookbook author.

It wasn’t a journey he took alone. His then-partner Naom Bar, who was then living in London with Ottolenghi and is still a business partner, helped him open his first deli/café in 2002, which was in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood. He said, “Now, I think, wow, that was quite brave. We were young and we didn’t have a lot of experience. I think for anyone who wants to open their own restaurant, it’s such a risk. We didn’t have our own money. So, we went to our friends and family. I felt bad having to ask them for the money to open. But it paid off and they are obviously very happy now.”

Yotam Ottolenghi's favorite kitchen gadget, a hinged citrus squeezer, and his cookbook "Flavor."
Yotam Ottolenghi’s favorite kitchen gadget, a hinged cirtrus squeezer, and his cookbook “Flavor.” Photo by David Leftwich.

He also partnered with Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian chef he had worked with at another restaurant. “We connected. We shared similar experiences growing up in Jerusalem,” said Ottolenghi. The two collaborated to create the signature style that characterized Ottolenghi’s eateries: “bold flavors and the big platters of food like those at the farmers markets.”

Though his establishments aren’t vegetarian, they became known for doing “innovative things with vegetables.” This led, in 2006, to British newspaper The Guardian asking him to write a column about vegetables called “The New Vegetarian.” That column led to the first book,  “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook,” which he and Tamimi wrote together. They also collaborated on “Jerusalem,” the duo’s exploration of the kinetic cuisines of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities of their shared hometown. (Tamimi, who helms the kitchens at all seven Ottolenghi establishments, just received a James Beard Foundation nomination for his first solo cookbook, “Falastin.”)

The conversation inevitably turned to the devastating effects of COVID-19. Ottolenghi said, “It was the first time we were getting close to not surviving … we couldn’t see how we were going to make salary. You felt so useless. It was soul-destroying. I felt it in my bones: you’re responsible for all these people.” But Ottolenghi is now hopeful that things are getting better and he did think that those stressful times lead to innovations such as more and better take out.

Ottolenghi was excited when Shepherd asked him about the cookbooks, saying they are “the things closest to my heart.” Though he still oversees his restaurants, much of his time is spent developing recipes in his test kitchen and writing cookbooks and columns. He said, “I really enjoy the process of making a cookbook.”

When working on his eponymous first cookbook with Tamimi, Ottolenghi said he learned two important things: to be in tune with the language of the ingredients and to create recipes that are “doable” for the homecook, and “that people want to cook.” Though many of the recipes in his first cookbook were based on recipes that already existed for the deli, they had to translate them with an understanding that restaurant cooking is different from home cooking. He explained that restaurants rely heavily on the mise en place created by an army of prep cooks — something the average home cook doesn’t have.

Throughout his career as a cookbook writer, Ottolenghi has adhered to this approach. Many people have asked him to include a croissant recipe in one of his books. “I wouldn’t do that process at home,” he joked. “At the restaurants, we have a laminator to do that. It would be a waste of pages. Maybe one out of a hundred people would cook them.”

"Flavor," Yotam Ottolenghi, 9th cookbook
“Flavor,” Yotam Ottolenghi, 9th cookbook. Photo by David Leftwich.

To keep the recipes fresh and innovative, Ottolenghi said he collaborates with other chefs, a process he enjoys. For “Flavor,” his co-author Belfrage, who’s first solo cookbook “Mezcla” will be published in September, was steeped in cuisines that he was less familiar with. He said, “She spent much of her childhood in Mexico because her grandfather lived there and in Italy, and those two places had an influence on the way she cooks. I’ve never been properly exposed to Mexican cooking, and she passionately brought her knowledge of ingredients like chiles and tortillas to the book.”

Ottolenghi enjoys these “mash-ups” of flavors and cuisines, because they lead to interesting and innovative dishes. “In ‘Flavor,’we have a recipe for Za’Atar Cacio E Pepe, which is suicidal, because the traditional [cacio e pepe] dish is so loved,” he said. “Some people may be upset, but food always travels. It is never static.”

As the evening progressed, Shepherd asked, “Is there an ingredient you always want to talk about?” Ottolenghi replied, “One ingredient that I love and that appears in every single book I’ve published is tahini. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s very important in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. In Japan, there’s sesame paste. It’s so versatile. It’s good in dressings. You can make a stew with a tahini crust. You can put it on toast with honey. For vegans, it can be an alternate ingredient for creaminess.” Shepherd added that tahini is the secret ingredient in chef ​​Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi’s ramen at Kata Robata.

Celery root grown by Goodthyme Farm.
Celery root grown by Goodthyme Farm. Photo by David Leftwich.

When Shepherd asked Ottolenghi what his favorite vegetable was, he replied, “It changes often, but at the moment I really like a vegetable that is little neglected: celery root, which is also called celeriac.” Though in the past he used it in slaw, now he likes to toss it whole with olive oil and salt and cook it in the oven for an hour or two. He suggested you can then cut it in wedges and serve it with lemon; mash it with potatoes for a light, flavorful variation on a classic; use it as a crust for a casserole; or mash it with butter beans.

The conversation went on to cover many more topics:

  • An idea for a future recipe inspired by this trip to America: fried chicken and biscuit sandwich that incorporates za’atar and preserved lemon
  • How to organize a cookbook: select 40 to 50 recipes you really want to include, let them tell you what the story is, then fill in the gaps.
  • The inspiration behind his newest cookbook, “Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love:” making humble, under-appreciated ingredients like canned chickpeas and frozen corn sexy when your pantry is limited by pandemic lockdowns.
  • A favorite meal after the flavor assault of testing many recipes: a bowl of steamed rice with cheese folded into it.
  • Guilty pleasure: instant noodles and dark chocolate, though not together; but he added that he “doesn’t do guilt…we need to break down the connection between food and guilt because it creates an unhealthy relationship with food.”
  • Top three food cities: Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur/Malaysia, Melbourne — the common thread, cities where many cuisines and cultures rub shoulders; according to Ottolenghi, “All the really good food cultures are mixes and mashups of other cultures.”
  • Favorite kitchen gadget other than knives: hinged citrus squeezer (Ottolenghi uses a lot of lemon juice).
  • Favorite cookbook author: Claudia Roden.
  • Cooking eggplant: don’t undercook them; slice them, toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper; put them on baking sheet and roast them for 30 minutes until they are browned and can easily be pierced with a fork, but the secret is humidity; put a pan of water in the oven to create some steam; or grill whole eggplant until the outside is well charred and the inside is steamed, but pierce them with a fork first so they don’t explode.

As the evening was winding down, Ottolenghi turned to more serious matters, “We are in a horrible moment in our history. There is so much tension, strife, and animosity; food can be our way around it.”

He explained that when he was doing a TV show on Jerusalem a few years ago, he went to a small bakery that was well-known for its Palestinian pastries. While there, he asked a Palestinian family why they came to this bakery. The mother said she had been coming here since she was a child. Ottolenghi broke with norms and asked her if he could come to her house to eat. He had never eaten in a Palestinian Israeli home before, and “it was kind of a big deal” as a Jewish Israeli. She wasn’t quite sure and said she’d get back to him. The next day he got a call. He could come to dinner.

“It was an incredible meal,” Ottolenghi said. “At first, I was quite nervous … but when I got there she took a half hour and explained everything that she cooked. She made this amazing feast. She poached chicken and lamb in two different pots. Then, in one pot she cooked bulgur wheat and in the other rice. She spread them out and put on yogurt, tahini, and fried nuts. They were these huge Palestinian celebration dishes. After she explained the food, we talked about everything … It was an incredible moment. I realized this is what food can do.”

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