Melissa Blease discovers how acclaimed chef Yotam Ottolenghi is making supper time speedy and straightforward with his new cookbook Simple, ahead of his visit to Komedia, Bath in September
It’s not unreasonable to imagine Nigel Slater snuggling up on the sofa for a supper of scrambled eggs on toast, or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall frying a pork chop to eat with last night’s leftover mash, or Rick Stein making himself a fish finger buttie. But simple – or, for that matter, fast, or easy – aren’t words we generally associate with Yotam Ottolenghi: the Israeli-British chef, deli/restaurant owner and food writer responsible for super-descriptive, bestselling cookbooks including Ottolenghi (2008), Plenty (2010), and Jerusalem (2012).
Mograbieh, freekeh and labneh; za’atar, sumac and urfa chilli flakes: fluent ‘Ottolenghi’ is almost a different language altogether – a language that whispers exotica, and flavour, and sensuality; a language that yells difficult, and complicated, and sheer hard work. And yet… “I would sincerely urge anyone who thinks they need to go to Timbuktu to get ‘Ottolenghi-style’ ingredients when they’re using my recipes to think again!” says the man himself, ahead of a visit to Bath to promote his latest book, Simple (Penguin Random House, £25) on 25 September.
Simple started with 10 recipes that Yotam was asked to put together for the Guardian’s ‘simple’ edition. “I had so much fun with the recipes and was so liberated by the limits placed on them that the book started pretty naturally from that point. It’s all about the different ways in which cooking can be made simple, so that Ottolenghi food is something people think to make on a Monday night or easy weekend rather than just associate with ‘celebration’, or a dinner party.
“There are all sorts of different types of cook; some people love to throw something together at the last moment, while others like to get things made ahead to be stored in the fridge or freezer. So, Simple is broken down so that each letter in the word stands for all the different ways in which cooking can be made easy: S is ‘short on time’ (30 minutes or less), I is ‘ingredient’s led’ (10 or less), M is ‘make ahead’, P is ‘pantry led’, L is ‘lazy’ (tray bakes or dishes that can sit on the stove and simmer away) and E is ‘easier than you think’, such as pizza or ice cream, or dishes dishes that sound a bit cheffy like clafoutis. Each of the recipes in the book fit into at least one (and very often more than one) of those categories.”
In many ways, the premise isn’t an entirely new concept; Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and countless other superstar chefs have ridden the crest of the ‘simple, speedy supper’ wave long before Yotam caught the tide. But can an Ottolenghi recipe really be effortless? “Despite what people think, many of the recipes in my previous books only really rely on the kind of ingredients that most people who cook regularly have sitting in the store cupboard, and only take 20 minutes to put together, or can be prepared in advance and then just thrown in the oven when needed. My way of cooking is for every day – and more than any of my previous books, Simple really proves that point,” he says.
“It’s all about the different ways in which cooking can be made simple, so that Ottolenghi food is something people think to make on a Monday night or easy weekend rather than just associate with ‘celebration’, or a dinner party…”
Having served as a pastry chef at three London restaurants, Yotam founded his first eponymous delicatessen in Notting Hill, London, in 2002. The deli quickly gained a cult following for producing highly inventive dishes characterised by an abundance of vegetables, unorthodox flavour combinations and then-unfamiliar Middle Eastern ingredients such as Yotam’s enduringly beloved pomegranate molasses.
“16 years ago sounds like such a long time, but I love that the Ottolenghi as a team is still a teenager,” he says. “I love looking back at the ‘toddler’ stage photos, when my team and I were all so fresh-faced and young – and ignorant, really, in the most blissful way. But our development has continued to be exciting as we’ve grown up and matured: the opening of new restaurants, the launch of new books, the day-to-day of creating recipes for my Guardian column. Without wanting to sound too Pollyanna-ish, it’s all been pretty exciting, but I can’t quite imagine being anywhere close to the pack-your-bags-and-go-off-to-university stage yet. Long live sweet 16!”
And long live 16 years of recipes. Which, of all them across all his books, does Yotam keep returning to time after time?
“Wowzers, that’s a big pool to choose from,” he laughs. “It totally depends on the time of year. At the moment, heading out of summer, something like Chicken Marbella (from the Simple book) is great: a fuss-free tray bake and dinner party winner.
“In the summer months, I can’t get enough of freshly chopped tomato salads. Because of the kids (my husband Karl and I have two sons aged five and three), dinner parties have become brunch parties in our house in the past year or so; my courgette and ciabatta frittata is a brunch superstar, and I love braising eggs in all sorts of things – either a shakshuka base of red peppers and spices, or leeks with preserved lemon and za’atar; both dishes are absolute guaranteed ‘no-fail’ successes – and both are, of course, simple!”
Yotam credits his parents for his initial passion for cooking (“they book-end so much of what I aspire to do and they’re certainly responsible for my obsession with food”); cites British TV chef, author and Great British Bake Off 2015 winner Nadiya Hussain as his personal food hero right here, right now (“she’s such a cool woman, mother and food enthusiast; I’ve totally fallen for her and want to be like her when I grow up”); and has woven inspiration from the folk who inspire him in the writing of Simple.
“There are recipes here for everyone, from kids who want to make their own fridge cake, to those having supper for two on a Monday, to the meals planned for the weekend when you want to go all out and make a number of dishes,” he says. “This is a book that can be used for a Sunday night fridge raid or for a Christmas feast. I use it for both, and I genuinely love it, even though I put it together!
“Overall, I’m proud to be doing a job which makes me and lots of other people happy. I’m proud to watch my chefs grow and lead on new projects such as our new restaurant Rovi, for example. But perhaps proud is not quite the right word to use; I’m more humbled than proud.”
So what’s next for the humbled man that many home cooks look up to as the cook we all aspire to be? “My main aim is simply to carry on, really, and to find the balance that everyone involved in food and restaurants is trying to get – a point between moving on and keeping things fresh without spreading ourselves too thin and losing control over quality and consistency. That’s not a very sexy answer, I know, but it’s true.”
Who cares about sexy answers? Yotam has made simple positively salacious.
Yotam Ottolenghi and Simple co-author Tara Wigley will visit Komedia, Bath to talk about the new book on Tuesday 25 September, courtesy of Topping & Co. To book tickets, visit: toppingbooks.co.uk/yotam-ottolenghi