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food / travel

A Mouth-Watering Visit With Yotam Ottolenghi, London's Superstar Veggie Chef

Ottolenghi's famous London eateries offer a feast for the eyes and stomach. Though not a vegetarian himself, the Israeli-born entrepreneur has developed into a world-renowned master of meat-less cuisine.

Lentils with grilled aubergine, from Ottolenghi's
Lentils with grilled aubergine, from Ottolenghi's
Lorraine Haist

LONDON - Notting Hill is a gorgeous cliché. On an early summer morning in the London neighborhood, men look like Hugh Grant and women like Julia Roberts in the eponymous movie. White Victorian townhouses with lush front gardens gleam in the sun. "Yummy Mummies" wearing clothes the color of meringue are visiting the boutiques, which mainly sell young French designer fare for beautiful mothers and their beautiful children.

The whole vibe makes me feel like indulging in a delicious little snack. As I stroll past the boutique of handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, my attention is captivated by the window display of an entirely white shop with "Ottolenghi" discreetly lettered in red on the front. I suddenly get the feeling that my snack might become a whole lot bigger.

Framed by a decorative pattern of eggplants and limes, filling shelves and boards and bright porcelain dishes, is a tumble of elegant colorful sweet food -- raspberry, hazelnut and cinnamon kisses as big as birds' nests, apple and pistachio galettes, lemon mascarpone tart, dark chocolate cake, blackberry vanilla cupcakes: The display is so rich I don't know where to look first, much less what to eat.

It's behind this shop front and this sugary array of foods so reminiscent of brightly-colored produce at a Mediterranean street market that I will meet one of the biggest names on the international food scene: 42-year-old Yotam Ottolenghi, the pop star of vegetarian cooking. The Notting Hill branch is but one of four Ottolenghi eateries in London.

Prepared fresh daily

Inside, arranged on and around large stoneware surfaces, are mountains of prepared dishes: lentils with gorgonzola, red onions with herbs, baby potatoes with tomatoes, wild garlic, sorrel with smoked pepper, green beans with quinoa, shallots, tarragon, red basil (100 grams cost between 2 and 4 pounds). The sheer amount of what's on offer, which includes small vegetable cakes, sandwiches, quiches, sour dough bread, cookies, is so vast it's impossible to take it all in.

Any of the foods, prepared fresh daily, can be bought to go or eaten right there at a communal table -- filled at this hour mostly with women drawn both by the healthy, figure-friendly vegetable dishes and the irresistible sweets.

Here in front of me are the very things that have made Jerusalem-born-and-raised Ottolenghi a global name: the variety, the opulence of the presentation, the gaudy colors and lavish use of spices, and particularly this confidence with vegetables, this ability to tease extraordinary taste out of even the most unlikely looking tuber.

It's all about abundance, exuberance, being open to the new, linking the traditional and the contemporary. It's about inclusivity.

Ottolenghi's second best-selling cookbook, Plenty, published in 2010, is based on four years of his "New Vegetarian" columns written for the Guardian weekend magazine. The dishes in the book are not only wonderfully unexpected, they are the exact opposite of the dull, bland recipes in so many vegetarian cookbooks -- the Studio 54 counterpart to the church hall tea dance. Since Ottolenghi came on the scene, the taste and look of vegetarian food has, quite simply, never been so laid back, so extravagant, so unconventional.

Oven-baked eggplant with buttermilk sauce and pomegranate seeds makes a colorful starter that manages to look elegant and rustic at the same time. The green bean salad with sugar snap peas, coriander, mustard and black cumin seed would be as feasible to make during the winter as in the summertime. Brussels sprouts, served with tofu and a sweet-and-sour sauce, are sheer delight. Cauliflower, when baked with saffron, raisins and red onions, seems like a whole other vegetable. Garlic and lemon dominate in many dishes: they remind Ottolenghi of his sunny, southern homeland. Ottolenghi talks about creating "drama in the mouth" -- a fine image for his principle of always coming from a place of generosity and abundance.

However, on this morning in Notting Hill, he himself is sticking to black tea and a simple croissant. He doesn't look remotely like any of the cheffy stereotypes you can think of: much more like the Tel Aviv philosophy and literature student he once was. He's tall, slim, with dark brown eyes and a winning laugh; hard to believe he also has enemies.

The "new vegetarian" isn't a vegetarian

Ottolenghi says that many vegetarians "can't stand me" because he isn't a vegetarian. He eats both meat and fish, and will occasionally recommend accompanying one of his vegetable dishes with one or the other.

The chef entrepreneur feels that people limit themselves too much by thinking in "either/or" patterns: vegetarian or meat eater. He's anti categories. His approach also offers an appealing way to reduce consumption of meat, which he nevertheless enjoys.

Ottolenghi, the son of a chemistry professor of Italian descent and a mother with German roots (his great uncle was architectural historian Julius Posener), says that food and eating, played a big role in his family. His parents were both wonderful cooks, but they still weren't keen when he decided to break off his university education to pursue a culinary career. In 1997, he came to London, a city where multicultural cooks abound, and enrolled at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. He also worked as a pastry chef in various restaurants, and today calls that experience "extremely important."

Then in 1999, when he was employed at Baker & Spice, a small and exclusive chain of deli-cafés that Ottolenghi establishments share a number of similarities with, he met the man who would become his business partner: Sami Tamimi.

It was a stroke of luck. The superstitious might call it fate. Sami Tamimi, co-author of the first book, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, is the chef who oversees the kitchens at all four delis, the Ottolenghi brasserie called Nopi and its bakery in Camden. By chance he grew up just a few kilometers from his associate -- in the Arab, eastern part of Jerusalem. He is Palestinian.

A Jew and a Palestinian at the stove together: It's like some romantic reconciliation fantasy. They are both part of the same story, and their food is part of that common heritage, as is the vision they began implementing in 2002 in this very Notting Hill deli.

And very much a part of that vision is that "eating must also be a feast for the eyes," says Ottolenghi, who as a student was interested in the theory of aesthetics. Which is why he and his team are always looking for ways to make dishes look "even more spectacular" -- and why he never cuts vegetables into small pieces. In fact, he prefers to leave them as they are, grilling them with a bit of olive oil instead of cooking them to death in water.

His life philosophy centers around the idea of mindful enjoyment. It comes from a place of fullness instead of the droopy mindset of abstemiousness. The "new vegetarians" have it pretty good.

Read the original story in German

Photo - tristanf

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