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The big interview   |   Eating & drinking   |   Diversity

Veg legend

“It’s never been my mission to change people’s habits or to convert them, or anything like that; I’m not a preacher by nature. That’s just not the way I am. For me, it was always about how wonderful these ingredients are and how much you can do with them.”

It might sound strange from a man whose name has become synonymous with inspiring a whole new era of veg appreciation dubbed ‘The Ottlenghi Effect’. But open any of Yotam Ottolenghi’s books or Guardian food columns and his love of the food is what speaks first: opulent, glorious photography filling whole pages, opposites lists of rainbow vegetables dressed up as vessels for a mouth-watering array of herbs, spices and textures.

“When I arrived to the UK, which was more than 20 years ago, vegetables were not really getting the credit and treatment that they deserved, because they were not seen as important. And I think being able to put things out there that are really good, and delicious, and look sexy, is almost enough.”

It’s certainly enough for the legions of Ottolenghi fans who will be pleased to hear of the imminent arrival of new book Flavour, the third in the Plenty series and co-written with recipe writer Ixta Belfrage.

Both are currently en route to a book signing when we speak, five months into the coronavirus pandemic, and as Belfrage puts it: “a very interesting time to be launching a book.”

“Over lockdown everyone’s been cooking and seems to have become an amateur chef. So on the one hand, we’ve got that in our favour that people seem to be more interested in cooking, but on the other hand, people have lost their jobs, and it’s a very uncertain time.”

Yotam and Ixta
Kitchen partners: Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage worked together on Flavour.

A longstanding member of the Ottolenghi team and Test Kitchen, it’s Belfrage’s Brazilian heritage and travels through Mexico, Italy and Asia that are the inspiration behind this latest collection.

“For me it’s kind of the natural way to work where for each book there is someone in the collaboration with a very clear sense of identity and then conversations come out from that,” explains Ottolenghi, who sounds just as modest as this collaborative approach to food writing might suggest, and with a notable lack of ego often associated with celebrity chefs.

Belfrage herself didn’t go through the traditional routes of food stardom, cookery school or formal training – instead she recalls how her travels and childhood inspire her recipes today, such as the grandad of her best friend in Italy, who, as a child, she watched make “the best lasagne in the world” from scratch from their laundry room.

Her approach to recipes themselves is similarly unorthodox, and she even admits to not following them herself: “I’m in the business of writing recipes but I hate following them, I find it quite frustrating,” she laughs. “Growing up and having access to all this delicious food, I just sort of remember the flavours and try and recreate them, but I don’t write things down or get recipes from people.”

A recipe writer who doesn’t follow recipes might sound suspicious in any other setting, except Ottolenghi’s cooking is so flavour-centric and sensorial you can see how it works. This latest book is built not around the concept of ‘flavour’ as the title might suggest, says Belfrage. But as is usual with Ottolenghi, it began as a collection of favourite recipes, from which a theme is pulled. This time it was their colleague Tara Wigley who identified the ‘three Ps’ that would become the chapters: process, pairing, produce, as well as a little “extra curricular information”, adds Ottolenghi. 

“We wanted to give a little bit of inside information into how things work,” he explains. “When you eat something delicious that’s vegetable-based, you don’t necessarily know how it happened.

“We wanted to learn something more about the background of what goes on in the dishes and how it is you layer flavour, and how do you balance one thing against the other. All those things we were aware of, but we don’t normally tell, so that was part of the story of the book.”

Much has been said about the rise in scratch cooking during lockdown, the frantic rushes for flour and yeast, and expanding of culinary horizons. What’s less certain is whether any of this will change lifestyles permanently post-pandemic, if such a time ever arrives. But Ottolenghi, for one, believes some of it will last: “Before Covid, you had a choice. You could go and buy your food in a restaurant near where you work, or in a café for a sandwich or whatever. All these options disappeared from one day to the next and people decided that they were going to spend the time cooking,” he says.

“And I think that skill is something they will definitely keep because it’s a great thing to have, and in our busy lives many people didn’t manage it. But those who were forced to do it, at least what they tell me is this is something they really want to keep, because it’s a wonderful thing to have.”

Ottolenghi front cover Wicked Leeks
Ottolenghi spent lockdown homeschooling and cooking for his two sons. 

We discuss what skills each has learnt during these last few months: for Belfrage, it was hours of intricate dough-making and stretching for the perfect Biang Biang noodles; for Ottolenghi it has been an initiation into the world of homeschooling, along with his partner Karl, of their two young sons.

Lockdown cooking in the Ottolenghi household, as a result, has included “lots of children-focused food” and “every iteration of pasta in the world”. And it will be a relief to parents everywhere that even Ottolenghi has trouble getting greens into his kids.

“They do eat veg, but it’s not their first choice,” he says. “Their first choice is just carbs, like bread or pasta, preferably with nothing else. So I have tried to work around that. One day I made this one pot pasta with chicken, tomatoes and oregano, and then I just stuck it in the oven with the pasta cooking in the juices. And it developed this crust on the bottom, and that became lockdown favourite for the boys. I put some breadcrumbs to crisp up on top as well.”

Coronavirus and lockdown haven’t been the only thing shaping change in the food industry in recent months. The global spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the death of George Floyd, has shone the spotlight like never before on every area of society, and prompted often uncomfortable reflection by individuals and companies alike.

Belfrage, who shared her own thoughts on Instagram around how many traditional Brazilian dishes originated in the slavery era, reflects that people are now more aware of the offence caused by cultural appropriation, and lack of crediting, in recipes. She recalls social media outrage over someone’s ‘buttery flatbread’ that was essential a roti, and a ‘stew’ that made no mention of curry, and says:  “It’s been a very eye-opening time. I’ve had to do a lot of reflection, especially because I am a white woman with privilege in this industry.”

At the head of a food empire that includes three restaurants, six delis, a test kitchen and a publishing trail, Ottolenghi says Black Lives Matter has “changed his perspective”. While three immigrant founders ensure a founding multicultural ethos, and gender equality in his kitchens is “pretty much there”, he accepts there is “a gaping hole in that instance in that we don’t have a lot of black people in the more prominent positions”. “I’m thinking about it a lot and at the moment we are forming ways in the company where we will try and redress this balance,” he says. “It does bother me that we don’t have that level of representation yet.”

The company will no longer passively wait for applications from people of colour, he says, but seek out new avenues of more representative recruitment, and, for the world of food media, which has its own equal if not worse black and minority representation issues, he is planning to begin a mentoring scheme for new writers.

Yotam Ottolenghi
'The Ottolenghi Effect' has been credited with inspiring thousands in veg-centric cooking.

In the meantime, he has mentoring advice for anyone new to Ottolenghi’s world of cooking.

“If you flick through an Ottolenghi recipe book, whether it’s Flavour or another Plenty book, it’s really good to choose something that you feel vaguely familiar with,” he says. “If someone hasn’t cooked a lot, or doesn’t feel confident with this way of cooking, it’s much better to start somewhere you feel a little bit confident, and then next time you go for the challenge. So that’s just a psychological observation that I think really helps.

“And reading the recipes and familiarising yourself so you don’t reach the end and realise there’s a process or an ingredient that you don’t know exactly what to do or how it works. Just start modest and work with something that makes you feel happy and you’re familiar with. That’s normally my little tip.”

They discuss what the store-cupboard staples should be for any Ottolenghi-enthusiast and decide on rose harissa, soy sauce, miso and dried chillies, including the famous Aleppo chilli.

Spicy mushroom lasagne
Spicy mushroom lasagne features in the new Flavour book.

“I think another tip for the book is we have a couple of pages dedicated to ‘flavour bombs’ which are little sub-recipes from the book, things like sauces, salsas, butters and oils, so if you don’t have time to make a whole recipe, you can make two or three of those and transform any meal,” says Belfrage. “Just normal roast potatoes, or plain rice or plain noodles, if you add a few of those flavour bombs you can make something really special.”

It’s designed to be accessible and inspirational to all, but what do Ottolenghi chefs eat when they just can’t be bothered? Belfrage says “she likes fried chicken” and has an unusual taste for “bad quality milk chocolate”, while Ottolenghi admits to consuming “unhealthy amounts” of cheese and heavy Italian red wine after about 10 o’clock. “That’s basically what I had last night,” he recalls, “Pecorino Romano, my god that is just so good. I don’t feel guilty so much about what I’m having, but the quantities of it,” he says.

It all sounds very sophisticated and chef-esque until Belfrage volunteers his real food secret: tinned oysters.

“Ah yes, the tinned smoked oysters,” his voice lights up. “You do not know what you’re missing. Get a roasted potato, take a little mayonnaise inside, and take a smoked oyster with its oil and put that on top like a stuffed potato, with a spring onion over that. It’s just the best thing.”

And just like that, almost like a tour through an Ottolenghi book or meal, it’s a moment of complete absorption and sheer food joy.

Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage were interviewed for the autumn 2020 issue of Wicked Leeks magazine. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu.  

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