Passion Points: Food/Wine
Interview with Yotam Ottolenghi
Like a handful of chopped capers to a plate of simply dressed greens, or a few drops of rosewater to a humble compote, a visit to one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s eponymous neighborhood delis can elevate the dreariest London afternoon. Merely gazing at the counter display’s tiered platters is transportive: there are tarts perfumed with date syrup and heather honey, focaccia dusted with Palestinian za’atar, and vibrant salads mingling figs, fava beans, pomegranate seeds and pistachios. The fragrant panorama is reminiscent of a greenmarket stall in Jerusalem (on whose hummus and fattoush Ottolenghi and his business partner, Sami Tamimi, both grew up).
The cuisine found at Ottolenghi or NOPI, however, is not categorically Middle Eastern. Ottolenghi draws from a rich spectrum of culinary traditions, cooking and writing about everything from scrambled eggs – boldly seasoned with cumin, caraway, ginger, turmeric and cardamom – to walnut cake baked with ripe apricots and fresh lavender flowers. Each new dish, regardless of its provenance, has a way of warming both the palate and the imagination. Perhaps this is one reason the former philosophy student who traded his Ph.D. for pastry in the late 1990s has become one of the UK’s most beloved chef-entrepreneurs. Mention his name to Guardian readers or bakery regulars, and they will eagerly profess that they are “obsessed with him.”
Ottolenghi spoke to Indagare about the pleasures of eating shakshuka in Jerusalem and chicken rice in Penang, and the art of making food that brings “a renewed perception of the everyday.”
When you first met Sami Tamimi at the London eatery Baker & Spice in 1999, you were riding your scooter around the city searching for bakeries that looked exciting. How has London’s culinary landscape evolved over the course of your career together?
The city just keeps getting more exciting. The past decade has seen an explosion in what is available and how it is offered to the food-lover, whether eating out or cooking at home. Ingredients that were once considered ‘exotic’ to the home cook are now a staple of most people’s kitchens – it’s easy to forget that sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar were once considered novel! The range offered by supermarkets and local shops opens up the entire world to the experimental cook. Restaurant-wise, London is intoxicatingly varied. There is so much going on: the passion behind the pop-ups, the artisan producers, the restaurants, bakeries, cafés and market stalls is incredible – urban beekeepers, the perfectionism and dedication of baristas and bakers, seaweed foragers. I’m not sure the culinary scene of 1999 would believe half of what is going on today. I love it!
Sami has said that your cooking aims both to surprise and to comfort. Is that a difficult balance to strike?
This balance is at the heart of our cooking: food that is both familiar and different. Our ingredients and techniques are not ‘fancy’ but our aim is to bring an element of drama to the plate. Vegetables will be kept close to their original state – aubergines simply sliced, brushed with olive oil and roasted in a hot oven; green beans quickly blanched, but then paired with something unexpected. Pickled cucumber, preserved lemon, a sharp walnut salsa, star-anise sugar, saffron-infused yogurt, syrup-softened barberries – little bursts of flavor that bring a renewed perception of the everyday. It’s the way we are inclined to cook, so it’s an exciting, rather than difficult, balance to strike.
After more than twenty years away from Jerusalem, you and Sami returned to your mutual hometown “to explore your culinary DNA.” What about the city most surprised you? Can you recommend any culinary ‘musts’ for first-time visitors?
The city hasn’t really changed that much since we were children there. Yes, it is more modern on the western side, and whole areas have been built up or paved over, but the food is pretty similar to what is used to be. There are a few restaurants that are modern and creative and interesting, but, all in all, things are quite similar.
So many of the city’s delights are to be found through exploring the back alleys, following the cooking smells and stopping in wherever you see a crowd. Never miss an opportunity to eat shakshuka – seeking out the roasted red pepper and baked eggs brunch is the first thing I do when I get to the city – or to contribute to the endless who-makes-the-finest-hummus-in-town debate. Restaurant-wise, Rachmo (5 Haeshkol Street, +972 2 623 4595) is a no-frills, great-local-buzz place to head. It’s just outside Machane Yehuda Market on Haeshkol Street. Kubbe soup is the specialty here. Choosing between the beetroot and onion, root vegetable and turmeric and Swiss chard and spinach is pretty tough, though, so factoring in a return visit is a must. A bit out of town but worth the trek is Majda (Ein Rafa, +972 2 579 7108), in the village of Ein Rafa up in the Judean hills. Stunning antipasti and Mediterranean meze are served from the ground floor of the home of husband-and-wife team Michal and Yaakov. It’s a haven away from the bustle of town.
Jerusalem so beautifully evokes the city through its cuisine. Where else in your travels have you experienced the vivid relationship between food and place?
Food and place are always connected. Whether it’s eating a bowl of mussels looking out at the sea or a cheese and ham baguette in the mountains in France – even slurping noodles on your sofa at home. If forced to be more specific, however, I felt a real bond between food and place during my travels in Malaysia, eating a bowl of Hainanese chicken rice from a stall in a hawker center in Penang. It was a simple dish of chicken poached with ginger and spring onion served with rice and various condiments, but the coming together of perfect cooking artistry, eating outdoors on the street and the bustle of the place felt incredibly vivid.
Where in the world would you like to eat next?
I’ve been traveling all summer – cooking and eating my way through the islands of Crete, Sardinia, Corsica and Mallorca for the follow-up series to my Mediterranean Feast – so, to be honest, I’m dreaming of a simple bowl of pasta at home with my family in London.
You are constantly coming up with new material for your weekly column in The Guardian. What are your most dependable sources of recipe-inspiration?
I get my inspiration from everywhere: something I have eaten in another restaurant – two months in Boston at the beginning of the year filled me with ideas – the ingredients coming into season; a dish created by one of our Ottolenghi or NOPI chefs, which I’ll adapt for the home cook; reading through cookery books and experimenting from there; trying out an ingredient that is new to me; shaking up old favorites. I’ll go through phases when one ingredient keeps appearing in my cooking – brown miso has recently been usurped by the fermented yogurt, kashk, as ‘the favored child’ – but there are certain common threads that keep my cooking style together. I guess it’s rather like writing novels: everyone has a certain narrative style, but different characters and stories come into view at different times.
You’ll be in New York this fall to participate in the New York City Wine & Food Festival. What do you plan to cook and discuss at the October 19th dinner you and Sami are hosting?
We will probably let our food do the talking. We will be serving some hors d’oeuvres like mini cauliflower and cumin fritters and little sweet potato galettes. Other hits from the book we will be dishing up are a seafood, fennel and sumac salad, aubergines with saffron yogurt and pomegranate seeds and a plum almond and cinnamon crumble based on Jerusalem.
Your stateside following is feverishly growing. Is there any chance you might be prevailed upon to open an outpost of Ottolenghi on this side of the Atlantic?
There are no plans at the moment to open in the US. I absolutely love America – I spent a year in San Francisco as a kid and have been hooked ever since – but at the moment we’re staying pretty focused on our London setup. Expanding and growing is a constant conversation among the Ottolenghi team, but for now, we’re a very close-knit family who are together constantly and like to move between our delis and restaurants on a near-daily basis. They feel like our children whom we are not yet ready to let set sail from the nest – overprotective parents perhaps! I visit America a lot, though, and feel very connected to the culinary scene, so the two sides of the Atlantic don’t feel too far removed to me. I can’t visit New York without stopping in at Momofuku ssäm and milk bar for a pork belly bun and cereal milk. Such fun.
What can you tell us about any future projects? Is there another (cook)book in the works?
We have two cookbooks underway. One is a vegetarian follow-up to Plenty, and the second is a NOPI restaurant recipe book, which I am working on with our head-chef there, Ramael Scully. Busy times!
Buy Ottolenghi’s beloved cookbooks here
Read about Indagare’s favorite London restaurants.
Q&A with Lee Schrager
The culinary elite storm midtown Manhattan during the New York City Wine & Food Festival, which hosts a weekend of events at storied institutions like the International Culinary Center and adored classics like Commerce. Founder and director of the festival and it’s South Beach equivalent, Lee Schrager spoke to Indagare about the 2013 celebration, food fads and his own eating habits. Read more about the festival and buy tickets here.
What is new to the festival this year that you’re most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to hosting our new and returning signature events at Piers 92 & 94 – our culinary compound. New events at Pier 94 include Jets + Chefs: The Ultimate Tailgate hosted by Joe Namath & Mario Batali and Ronzoni presents La Sagra Sunday Slices sponsored by Time Out New York hosted by Anne Burrell & Adam Richman. Also looking forward to seeing all of the incredible talent we have lined up for our Bank of America Dinner Series – including Matt Abergel coming in from Hong Kong, Alex Atala from Brazil, and Yotam Ottolenghi from the U.K.
Both cities are unique and premier culinary destinations – New York City in the fall is beautiful and many of the greatest chefs in the world call it home. Who wouldn’t want to be in Miami in February – with the sun, sand and ocean, and renowned talent.
What are your favorite spots in New York and Miami for big nights out? For quick breaks? For weekend brunches? For cocktails?
I really like SoHo House (in both cities) for a cocktail. There are so many great spots in both cities to dine, but some of my picks for New York City include Salumeria Rosi, Costata, and the Four Seasons Restaurant, and MC Kitchen, Mandolin and Buena Vista Deli in Miami.
You travel frequently and not just on the U.S.’s eastern coast. What have been your favorite recent discoveries, culinary or otherwise?
I recently returned from Italy where I was fortunate to experience the talents of the world’s greatest butcher at Dario Cecchini in Ronzano. A few months ago I enjoyed the incredible street food culture of Thailand.
What current food fads do you foresee sticking around for a while? Which do you hope to see retire?
It would be nice to see the cronut retire, but I think dessert/sweets trends in general will be around for a while.
Do you cook? If so, what would you say is your signature dish?
I’m a huge fan of Christopher Idone’s cookbooks – so anything from them. Also – Pat LaFrieda steaks on the grill, my mother’s matzo ball soup and Michelle Bernstein’s chocolate bread pudding.
What’s the best thing you’ve had to eat in the past week? To drink?
Any future plans to expand the Wine & Food Festival to a third city?
I think I have another city left in me – possibly on the West Coast.
Interview with Alain Ducasse
Monaco-based, New York-enamored Alain Ducasse has been delighting his soufflé, paté and millefeuille-addicted clientele at Midtown Manhattan institution Benoit since the bistro’s opening in 2008. Following in the footsteps of its Parisian namesake, Benoit is already a classic thanks in no small part to Ducasse and his culinary wisdom. His New York City musts? The venerable pastrami on rye at Katz’s Delicatessen and a sugary slice from Lloyd’s Carrot Cake.
The prodigiously acclaimed Ducasse, who first visited New York as a young chef in 1976, has been returning to the five boroughs for inspiration ever since. His latest coffee table-worthy tome, J’aime New York, is a lovingly curated personal tribute to the eateries, food festivals and farms that have stolen his heart, from multi-Michelin-starred laboratories of molecular gastronomy to hole-in-the-wall delis. It is a beautifully photographed resource both for visitors and New Yorkers determined to be travelers in their own city – a guidebook to New York’s delirium-inducing cuisine by one of its savviest and most affectionate connoisseurs.
Chef Ducasse spoke to Indagare about a few of his favorite ways to savor the city’s endless culinary diversity.
What is the first place you go to refuel upon arrival in NYC?
Zibetto (1385 6th Avenue, no phone) in Midtown. I love it not only for the quality of the expertly made Italian-style coffee, but also because of its tight quarters; you can stop in at any time of day for a solo espresso and not feel quite so alone.
Which New York neighborhoods do you find most compelling for food-lovers?
I am definitely intrigued by everything that’s happening with the restaurant scene in Brooklyn. With J’aime New York’s e-book, you can search based on location, so you might happen upon Roberta’s (261 Moore Street, 718-417-1118) in Bushwick, Totonno’s (1524 Neptune Avenue, 718-372-8606) in Coney Island, Four & Twenty Blackbirds (439 3rd Avenue, 718-499-2917) in Gowanus or Franny’s (348 Flatbush Avenue, 718-230-0221) in Park Slope, just to name a few.
Did you make any exciting discoveries while researching J’aime New York?
I always discover something exciting at the Brooklyn Flea’s Smorgasburg (www.smorgasburg.com), which features the city’s newest artisanal foods. Part of its appeal is that there are weekly newcomers. One week you might have a lobster roll, and maybe the next it’s homemade watermelon soda or preserves to take away.
Where in New York should Francophile epicures be eating right now?
Since the book was finished, there has been a resurgence of French bistros in New York, opened by young chef-entrepreneurs who trained in good French kitchens and are adapting what they know to bring a new accent to French bistro fare in the city. Calliope (84 East 4th Street, 212-260-8484) comes to mind, and of course there’s Lafayette (380 Lafayette Street, 212-533-3000).
What are some of your favorite NYC dining rituals?
Experimental Cocktail Club (191 Chrystie Street, www.experimentalcocktailclubny.com) for a drink before dinner at Carbone. The occasional brunch at Schiller’s Liquor Bar (131 Rivington Street, 212-260-4555) is also a must!
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