The popular food writer and chef in conversation with Hadley Freeman at Cecil Sharp House
There can’t be many people in Primrose Hill who haven’t cooked an Ottolenghi recipe or attended a dinner party that featured one. So it was no surprise to find Cecil Sharp House full of foodies on an evening in late September, when chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi was in conversation with local journalist and author Hadley Freeman.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest books form the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen series, a collaborative effort where a group of people, headed by his colleague Noor Murad, gather to create tested and tasted recipes and share them with the world. In spite of having published a number of highly successful titles, Yotam is aware that cookbooks come and go, as do restaurants, but the most rewarding aspect for him is to know that people regularly cook one of his recipes and hand them down to family and friends.
Growing up in Israel, Yotam enjoyed food cooked by his his Italian father and German Jewish mother. When his school held diaspora food days, he took in pizza, which was always a great hit with his classmates. He believes that Israeli chefs can play around with food more, as nothing’s been set in stone. There are culinary references from Jews originating from various regions, as well as a heavy Palestinian influence. He loves how food functions in a social and historic context, and mentioned how Claudia Roden was a big influence on him as she tells the story of cultures through their dishes.
Hadley’s questions were broad in scope and covered food, politics (the event took place two weeks before the recent escalation of tensions in the region) and family.
The questions from the audience ranged from: where does he like to eat out (Scully’s in St James’s); favourite cookbooks from another author (Diana Henry and Nigella – who is homely but perceptive about the way we live); which regular recipe does he cook at home (rice and seafood pasta with tomato, coriander and caraway seeds); and the most random question of the evening: what he would order for his last meal if he were on Death Row! The answer: Kushari (spellings vary so it could also be Koshari/y), a carbohydrate-based comfort food made with lentils or legumes, served with yoghurt, cumin and fried onions.
When asked what he thought of English food, he was surprisingly enthusiastic: he regularly enjoys a traditional roast, with lots of gravy, adding that there were “No bells and whistles, so not very ‘Ottolenghi’”. He also revealed himself to be a big fan of Yorkshire puddings, which are about as far away from being ‘Ottolenghi’ as you can imagine!