Star chef Yotam Ottolenghi: ′A good story is priceless′ | Lifestyle | DW | 16.11.2017
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Star chef Yotam Ottolenghi: 'A good story is priceless'

Cult chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh share the recipes behind their restaurants' most popular desserts in "Sweet." DW met them while they were in Berlin to discuss what makes the success of the Ottolenghi signature.

British-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi is the co-owner of different cult restaurants in London, and the author of several best-selling cookbooks, including "Plenty" (2010) and "Jerusalem" (2012), co-written with Sami Tamimi. 

Helen Goh was a head pastry chef in Melbourne before she joined Ottolenghi in London, where she has been the lead product developer for the past 10 years.

Together they co-authored "Sweet," published in September. DW met them while they were in Berlin to promote the new cookbook.

DW: In the foreword to your new recipe book, "Sweet," the name Ottolenghi is turned into a verb, as you mention that Helen would work on "ottolenghizing" a certain dessert. What characterizes the "ottolenghization" of a recipe, whether savory or sweet?

Helen Goh: It's about having an element of surprise. No one wants to eat anything really challenging. We eat for pleasure, and the sense of comfort that we get from food. But it's also nice to have a very small element of surprise, so that it delights you as well as it comforts you.

Yotam Ottolenghi: Yeah, surprise is definitely important, and we want to really impress! That also comes through the presentation, the contrasting colors and the sense of generosity and abundance, so it feels like something you'd want to share and offer.

Goh: And if you have something that surprises, that's exciting, you become more conscious of it. For example, we have a brownie in the book — and you can eat so many different kinds of brownies — but the fact that you put something unusual in it [tahini and halva — Editor's note] helps people think about the brownie in a new way. It just adds consciousness to what you're eating. 

Read more: 10 German comfort foods for the winter

Speaking of consciousness, Yotam, you also introduce "Sweet" by addressing the fact that sugar is one of the top public enemies and yet you dare publish a recipe book of desserts; you eat meat despite holding the "New Vegetarian" column in the Guardian and being the author of successful vegetarian cookbooks. That shocked quite a few people at first. How important is it for you to promote a non-dogmatic attitude toward food?

What you're saying captures something about it. For me and Helen, it's never about converting or making a statement, it's about delivering what we feel strongly about; what we love to eat. When I took on writing a vegetarian column for the Guardian all those years ago, it was because I felt vegetables have a lot to offer, for vegetable eaters, for vegetarians, for meat eaters, for anyone. Where I come from, our diet was very vegetable-centric.

Market in Jerusalem (imago)

Ottolenghi was born and raised in Jerusalem

I think the same applies with this book. Helen and I have been working on coming up with delicious cakes for our customers for more than a decade and we wanted to share that with our readers. We simply love cakes! This is just about sharing cakes on particular occasions. Sugar is often a problem when it's hidden; these are recipes, you know exactly how many grams of sugar there are in them.

​​Your mother is German and you've spent time living in Berlin; how do you feel about German cuisine?

Ottolenghi: I actually grew up eating quite a lot of German food. My grandparents on my mom's side actually lived in Berlin and immigrated to Palestine before the war, with my mom as a child and her brother.

My grandmother used to cook a lot with potatoes, cabbage and pork. I have to say that I really love it. She used to make ox tongue — I love it, I don't know if that's still popular in Germany…

Read more: Tasty or disgusting? Sculptures of raw meat and other weird German foods

Buchvorstellung SWEET (Dorling Kindersley Verlag)

Coconut chocolate cake — without flour

Being a star chef requires a lot of multitasking, building a strong public image and being present on different platforms. But people might forget that your hard work started way before Instagram and your newspaper columns. What would you say to someone who'd come up and ask for advice on how to become a celebrity chef?  

Ottolenghi: Increasingly, all the stuff surrounding promotion is becoming more and more important — unfortunately. But integrity and really delicious food is still at the core of it for me.

But in our world, you also have to find your angle, and what makes it different from everybody else's cake, or steak — or whatever else you're making. And there's no formula for that; it needs to come from within. It's a personal journey. Whether you've got it or not, the general public will judge. 

People often ask me how to become a food writer, and I say: 'You eat!' That's the experience. You just need to go through this. There are no shortcuts. Of course, you can have a lot of followers on Instagram, but if you want people to cook your food, you need to cook a lot.

Read more: The #foodporn phenomenon

Before you started working in restaurants and opening your own, you completed a master's degree in philosophy and literature and were a newspaper section editor. Did that background help you in your work?

Ottolenghi: What helps now is that telling a good story is an important addition to a recipe. There are a lot of recipes everywhere in our world, but stories are what make the difference in the whole package. People love to feel that they're getting more than just dinner. They want to feel that they're sharing someone's experiences. And a good story is priceless.

Speaking of stories, "Jerusalem" was particularly popular in Germany, certainly for the story of hope it featured that Israelis and Palestinians were actually united through food. Do you believe that good food could contribute to a better, more peaceful world?

Ottolenghi: Yes, it could — I don't know if it does! There's a lot of potential: Everybody needs to eat. It's the one thing everyone has in common. Unfortunately, human beings often look at what divides them instead of what holds them together.

If there's goodwill, food will definitely help. Food is the ultimate barrier-breaker, even without a common language. But it's not going to solve problems if people don't have the goodwill to sit down and discuss and eat together.

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