Q&A with Yotam Ottolenghi


The following is an exclusive email Q&A between chef-author Yotam Ottolenghi and the Palo Alto Weekly. It has been edited for length.

I understand your first kitchen job was pastry chef.

My first job out of cookery school was as a pastry chef in a restaurant in London called The Capital. That was around 1997, so I would have been just under 30.

After several cookbooks focused on savory dishes, why branch out into desserts and baking?

Baking and desserts is where I started off and, apart from in my vegetarian book "Plenty," all my cookbooks have been a mix of both savory and sweet food. "Sweet," though, was many years in the making and (is) the book so many of my readers and customers have been asking for. I'm excited about the particular timing of "Sweet." It feels like everyone deserves a little bit of homemade comfort and delight at the moment with so much unsweetness going on in the world.

Many readers appreciated "Jerusalem" for its crossover nature, given your co-author and the style of cooking. Is that same style and philosophy present in "Sweet"?

Absolutely. I love collaborating on books with those I've work closely with for years. It happened with Ramael Scully on the "Nopi" book and Sami Tamimi with the first Ottolenghi book and "Jerusalem." Now, again, with Helen, who (has) been part of the Ottolenghi team for years -- we both bring our own ideas, ingredients and styles of cooking to the kitchen. It keeps the testing, tasting and developing process dynamic and fresh, having someone very close to both challenge and complement what you're doing. I'm really lucky, though: We (whether it's me and Helen or Sami or Scully) bring our own various energies and ideas to the table but we've all been working together for a long time so there's a shared language, understanding and in the case of Helen and I, a shared sweet tooth!

What will your next cookbook be about?

The next book is an "Ottolenghi simple" book. It's been a thrilling challenge to see how all the abundance, freshness and surprise I like to have in my food can be kept at the same time as having recipes which are super quick to make, for example, or start with what you have in your cupboard.

Have you considered opening a restaurant or deli in the United States? Why or why not?

We're always considering lots of things. There's the temptation to keep things close to home -- I love to taste and test everything in my restaurants and delis regularly -- but, of course, we always want to keep moving forward (and) look into options.

What was the recipe development process like for "Sweet"? How many iterations did you go through for any particular recipe, for example?

Some of the recipes were developed from cakes and cookies, etc. we have been making in the bakery for our shops for years so these were tested in the test kitchen however many times it was needed to get them perfect for the home cook -- three, four or five times, maybe. Then there were all the recipes developed specifically for "Sweet," which generally started life in Helen or my head and were then taken to a certain point-of-readiness by Helen in her home kitchen. We'd then have these great big testing and tasting meetings on a Wednesday afternoon where things would be assessed and tweaked and either put forward for the test kitchen or shelved at this stage.

Things which moved forward would then be tested in-house to make sure they worked and were perfect for the home cook. After all that they are all then tested by a "blind" tester out-of-house, who followed them in their home kitchen to make sure it all works perfectly for someone doing it for the first time. ... We want our recipes to work and make people happy and be as they should be. There is no point, otherwise, in just having a book full of pretty pictures. This is a baking book for home cooks.

If you could only eat one dessert for the rest of your life, what would it be?

For the rest of my life, everyday? A chunk of halva with my coffee or a square of chocolate would see me through, I think. These are combined in the halva and tahini brownies so maybe I'd have to opt for this.

What's the best sweet thing you ate this year?

Honestly, after all the testing for the book? Probably a handful of sweet cherry tomatoes eaten off the vine in the summer. Or a pistachio panettone I sampled to stock in our webstore for Christmas.

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