Travel Lens: Yotam Ottolenghi’s World

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Jerusalem-born, London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi likes to mix things up, both in and out of the kitchen. Before enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu, Ottolenghi earned a master’s degree in comparative literature and worked as an editor for Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

These days, the restaurateur, food writer, and cookbook author is known for combining flavors and traditions from his Middle Eastern upbringing with those from the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Asia to create his own brand of fusion forged from a well-stamped passport. 

And the tireless Ottolenghi doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. His latest cookbook, which features Middle Eastern and Asian-inspired recipes from his London brasserie, NOPI (a nod to the acronym for the North of Piccadilly neighborhood, where it’s located) is hot off the presses.

Here’s a look at the world through Yotam Ottolenghi’s unique lens (and appetite):

Christine Blau: How do your travels find their way into your cooking?

Yotam Ottolenghi: I love to explore markets and restaurants when I’m traveling to get a taste of what a city is offering.

My favorite thing, though, is when I’m lucky enough to be invited into someone’s home or a family-run kitchen and get a little master class on how to cook their local specialty.

I got to do this a fair bit [while] traveling through the Mediterranean and had some very special experiences. Rising at dawn in Sardinia to help milk a flock of goats before eating a shepherd’s breakfast of freshly made ricotta [comes to mind].

In your opinion, what’s the world’s most underrated destination?

Corsica. The mountain landscape is jaw-dropping—easily comparable to the Alps. Hiking the GR 20 route is definitely on my bucket list.

Which city has it all and why?

Istanbul. The food, the markets, the Bosporous—I just love it. I never grow tired of walking the city [and] soaking up all the beauty, energy, and wonderfully deliciously food.

Are there any edible souvenirs you’d recommend picking up while in Istanbul? 

I love the salty, white hard cheese beyaz peynir—it’s great in a dish of baked seafood and tomato sauce.

Turkish urfa biber chili flakes are also now a staple in my kitchen at home. They have a medium-low heat and a sweet-smoky flavor that makes them great to sprinkle over all sorts of salads, roasted vegetables, or oily fish.

What’s the most memorable dining experience you’ve had while traveling?

Squatting on a milking stool and slurping pho at a “pavement restaurant” in Hanoi.

When someone comes to visit you in London, where do you take them for a good meal out on the town?

I love to host at home, but it’s also great fun to eat out. I’ve had great evenings at both Lyle’s and Kitty Fisher’s recently.

What’s the biggest misconception about British cuisine?

Does anyone really still think it’s all about deep-fried food, fish-and-chips, or Sunday roasts?

There’s such a variety of food on offer [in the U.K.], particularly in the cities. One of the great joys of cooking in a country that is not as steeped in culinary traditions as other countries like France or Italy [is] that anything goes!

If you weren’t living in London, where would you want to call home?

San Francisco or Melbourne, two beautiful cities with a vibrant food scene and a multitude of cultures. I can imagine feeling very at home in either of these places.

What’s your go-to restaurant in these cities?

The tapas at Movida would be my top [recommendation] for Melbourne. [In San Francisco, it would be] Bar Tartine. I love their approach to food.

Is there a region that draws you back again and again?

The Greek islands. I love the food and being there feels timeless somehow.

Time-honored traditions are still being practiced and handed down from generation to generation: how to make roll dough, which is just the perfect consistency for flaky pastries, for example. You’ll meet person after person who is very good at one particular thing and who has honed their skill to perfection over the years [under the tutelage of] their parents, uncles, and aunts. I find the result humbling. And very delicious.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten in your travels?

Lamb’s brains from a street market restaurant in Marrakesh were certainly memorable. I’m not sure how often I’d eat them, but I was entranced by the way the lamb is cooked underground in a tandir oven.

You co-authored Jerusalem: A Cookbook with your frequent collaborator and business partner Sami Tamimi, who is Palestinian. How did that project change the way you think about your city of origin? 

I guess I have a better and deeper understanding of the cultural backgrounds of the different communities that make up this country. The way Jews from Aleppo, for example, conduct their Friday night dinner, or a Palestinian family prepares to break the fast during Ramadan.

[Researching for this book] opened my eyes to the massive variety and range of customs that are being practiced in such close proximity to one another.

Do you have any advice for travelers who are planning their first trip to this region?

Try hard to find locals [who will] invite you to their homes. It shouldn’t be too hard; both Palestinians and Israelis are incredibly generous hosts. They’ll feed you well and tell you all you need to know, and more, about the two countries—where to go, where to eat, what not to miss.

[Just don’t offer your] opinion about who invented hummus—unless you have a lot of time to debate the matter.

What’s on your plate right now?

NOPI: The Cookbook [is out on shelves], so I’m busy with that at the moment.

Is it your favorite cookbook to date?

It’s very different from my previous books, as the recipes [featured in it] originated at NOPI, not in [familial kitchens around the world.] It’s been a whole new challenge, but I absolutely love the outcome.

* This interview has been edited and condensed.

Christine Blau is an associate producer for National Geographic Travel. Find her on Twitter @Chris_Blau and Instagram @christineblau.

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