LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Yotam Ottolenghi swapped the library for the kitchen when he ditched a promising academic career for the notoriously tough and low-paid world of London's restaurant scene.
The gamble appears to have paid off as the Israeli chef of Italian and German heritage now boasts four delis and a newly opened restaurant Nopi, whose name makes a play of its classy location just north of Picaddilly in London's West End.
The chef and author of two well-regarded cookbooks spoke to Reuters about why cooking suits his temperament better than studying and how he exploits the huge diversity of the British capital's population to create enticing fusion dishes.
Q: What is your earliest food memory?
A: When I was three or four there was a box that my mother kept chocolate in on a high shelf. I remember climbing up to get hold of it and get some goodies. The funny thing was that when she found out, my mum wasn't angry. When I was older my friends who came over were always surprised that I was allowed to help myself to sweets when I wanted. My parents both liked cooking and were always curious about food and this rubbed off on me.
Q: Before plunging into the world of cuisine you were a budding academic. Why did you swap the bibliographies for the chopping board?
A: In academia you always have to take your work home with you, it's hard to switch off from it and the pressure's always there. Working in a kitchen, when the shift is over, that's it. Cooking is also more physical and I think that suited my temperament better than the world of academia. Of course, now running the business the pressure's back on!
Q: What sets London apart as a dining destination?
A: London has so many different nationalities. In my kitchens 90 percent of the staff are from outside the UK. With this diversity there are so many different food traditions, and this provides a rich source of ideas for recipes. Q: You have a successful chain of four delis. What made you want to enter the high risk restaurant business?
A: We are happy with the way that the delis are running, there's not much more in terms of the way that they operate that we need to do to improve them. As a group, my creative team decided opening a restaurant would be an interesting challenge and a great way to engage with food in new ways.
Q: What's next? More restaurants?
A: I don't think we'll be opening more restaurants or delis. I don't want to run a big chain or turn it into a big business as this could take me too far from actually dealing with food. My next project is a third cookbook which I'll be writing with partner Sami (Tamimi). He's Palestinian and the book will explore the food of the region from both (Jewish and Arab) perspectives. The more I look into it, the more I see how much in common both food traditions have.
Recipe: Roasted aubergine with saffron yoghurt
To create the most impact, we recommend that you serve it from a communal plate brought to the dining table. It makes an exciting starter and doesn't need much else beside it. Serves four.
3 medium aubergines,
cut into slices 2cm thick, or into wedges
olive oil for brushing
2 tbsp toasted pine nuts
a handful of pomegranate seeds
20 basil leaves
coarse sea salt and black pepper
a small pinch of saffron strands
3 tbsp hot water
180g Greek yoghurt
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp olive oil
1) For the sauce, infuse the saffron in the hot water in a small bowl for 5 minutes. Pour the infusion into a bowl containing the yoghurt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and some salt. Whisk well to get a smooth, golden sauce. Taste and adjust the salt, if necessary, then chill. This sauce will keep well in the fridge for up to 3 days.
2) Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas Mark 7. Place the aubergine slices on a roasting tray, brush with plenty of olive oil on both sides and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-35 minutes, until the slices take on a beautiful light brown color. Let them cool down. The aubergines will keep in the fridge for 3 days; just let them come to room temperature before serving.
3) To serve, arrange the aubergine slices on a large plate, slightly overlapping. Drizzle the saffron yoghurt over them, sprinkle with the pine nuts and pomegranate seeds and lay the basil on top.
Extracted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ebury Press)
Editing by Paul Casciato