Kitchen Spy: Yotam Ottolenghi

Israeli-born chef, cookery writer and restaurant owner Yotam Ottolenghi.
Israeli-born chef, cookery writer and restaurant owner Yotam Ottolenghi. Photo: Chris Floyd

He's Yotam Ottolenghi, the international chef of the moment, known for his casual Mediterranean fare, eponymously named casual London eateries but most of all his bestselling books Ottolenghi, the Cookbook and vegetarian favourite, Plenty and the freshly minted Plenty More.

Failing that, you might have come across him on television, earlier this year, when SBS aired Mediterranean Feasts, featuring his culinary travels through Turkey, Tunisia, Israel and Morocco. Born to an Italian father and German mother the 45-year-old grew up in Jewish West Jerusalem. He opened his first cafe in London's Notting Hill in 2002, where he met now-business partner and collaborator Sami Tamimi, who also grew up but in Palestinian East Jerusalem, across the religious-political divide. The pair are now business partners in three cafes and a restaurant, NOPI, which opened in Soho in 2011. In 2012 they published a book together based on the flavours and stories of their different childhoods, called Jerusalem. Despite all the media attention this Pilates-loving family man's style tends to be relaxed and influenced by shared foods and bold Mediterranean flavours. At the heart of his success, though, is his test kitchen  under a railway arch in Camden, central London. Here you'll find him creating, testing and tweaking recipes for his eateries, books and various other media commitments.

"It's not a high-tech kitchen," he says of the space, which he usually shares with a handful of helper chefs. "It looks like a quite unremarkable home kitchen, which is what we want because we try to emulate the environment that people have in their homes when they cook."

The staples

I always have olive oil, lemons, Greek yogurt, garlic, tomatoes and pasta. Dark chocolate and a tin of smoked oysters are also always there, along with freshly cooked leftovers from the test kitchen. I am tasting all the time so I have to keep my sanity and eat quite simply. I tend to skip breakfast. But if I know we're not testing anything till lunchtime I normally have sushi. I know that sounds strange but there is a place around the corner that I stop at and get a box because it's something clean and not too rich to start the day with. But sometimes I skip it if I know that by 11 o'clock there'll be a lot of food to taste.

Secret vice

Sour skittles: the glove compartment of my car is not a place you'd let your kid have free reign.

Last night's dinner

Weekday suppers are test kitchen leftovers. It was mushroom day yesterday. On the weekends there is usually breakfast or brunch at home or at one of the restaurants and that is more the predictable: shakshuka, frittata, Middle Eastern poached or baked eggs or Mediterranean stuff.

I'm drinking

Red wine, white wine, orange wine (using the skin and flesh of white wine grapes for a complex taste and orange colour). I love it all, apart from rose or anything with bubbles in it, in which case I'll stick to the sparkling water. Or sherry, if there's a Manzanilla around.

My toolkit

If I had to choose I'd pack a garlic crush, a sharp knife, a vegetable peeler, a lemon squeezer, a Microplane and pestle and mortar. Is that greedy?

My inspiration

I'm thinking about recipes for the autumn, so it's mushrooms at the moment. Although, this week's revelation was a hot watermelon soup, so maybe there's never one theme.

Favourite

We've just done up our kitchen so, superficially, I'm pretty chuffed with the slot carved into the countertop to scrape scraps through directly into the rubbish bin. 

Most unforgettable meal

Summer, 2013. A breakfast of freshly made ricotta after rising at dawn to help milk the goats with Michelle, the shepherd, in Sardinia. Cheese as fresh, young and light as a dream.

Favourite Australian chefs

I like Karen Martini, Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander.

Recipe stalwart

I am eating all day, tasting a lot of food, so when I eat for leisure I usually keep it very simple. At night I will have a glass of wine with a bowl of pasta very simply dressed.

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