Yotam Ottolenghi. Photo / Jonathan Lovekin

The Burger That Defined Yotam Ottolenghi

The acclaimed chef and author talks about the first meal he made for his husband, icebreakers, and the fast-food chain that became a symbol of his life

Death row dinners, dream dinner party guests, memorable meals — these are the question cliches to avoid when interviewing chefs. But sometimes they slip through, and sometimes they’re worth it. One of Yotam Ottolenghi’s most memorable meals was a burger — an American fast food chain burger.

“This is not a very Ottolenghi story,” he begins.

We are speaking on a rainy Friday night in New Zealand, a hot sunny day dawning in London, and Ottolenghi is rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he tells me the story of his first son’s birth.

“My eldest son Max is 9 years old, and he was born near Boston, Massachusetts. My husband Karl and I went to meet our surrogate for one of her checkups, and the doctor said, ‘You’re about to give birth, go grab your stuff and come to the hospital’. We had, like, an hour, and the only restaurant in the neighbourhood was a Wendy’s, so we went and had burgers at Wendy’s, and it’s this thing that has become stuck in my mind — the last meal we had was Wendy’s.”

Recently Wendy’s came to Camden, the London borough where Ottolenghi lives with his husband Karl Allen and their two young sons, and he sees it regularly, and thinks about being in Massachusetts, waiting for Max to arrive. “It’s funny, it’s just a fast-food burger chain, but for me it’s become a symbol of life before children.”

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It was early 2013 when Max was born, and I had recently been through my own emotional food experience, but this one was very Ottolenghi indeed.

Newly single, living alone and miserable, one night Ottolenghi’s documentary Jerusalem on a Plate came on TV. In it, the chef travels back to his home country and walks the city of his childhood, tasting the food from east and west Jerusalem, and talking with such emotion and passion, I booked a flight to Israel. For one divine week, I visited as many of the restaurants, markets and falafel stands he had recommended that I could find.

I ate vast Israeli breakfasts, icecream drizzled with tahini, shots of arak, and pitas stuffed with falafel and sour Israeli pickles. What could have been a tragic and heartbroken holiday (weeping alone in restaurants seemed so romantic at the time) became one of the best weeks of my life. Food and emotion, love and Ottolenghi — it’s all inseparable for me.

“[Your story] is very familiar because, for me, all the big events of my life are connected to food,” he says. “My childhood memories are food memories, I remember the things that are highly emotional and highly significant through food.”

Flavours of life

Ottolenghi’s food odyssey is well known. He studied literature at university while working as a journalist in Israel, before moving to France to become a pastry chef. In London, he met Jerusalem-born Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi and they opened their first deli, Ottolenghi, in Notting Hill, in 2002.

Today, with Tamimi and their business partners, there are four delis, plus the fine dining restaurant Nopi in Soho, and the vege-focused Rovi in Fitzrovia. He married his husband Karl in 2012, and their two sons were born by surrogate — Ottolenghi came out as a gay parent in an essay for the Guardian in 2013. His cookbooks sell in the millions, and he has changed the way we eat, the way we cook — and certainly the way we dinner-party.

The word Ottolenghi has become a kind of shorthand — a code for ingredients (hard to find), for recipes (complicated, with many dishes to wash), and for food served to guests (aesthetically pleasing, perhaps a little show-offish). The word is now more adjective than surname, so much so that the man himself can describe his own story as “not very Ottolenghi”.

Yotam and Ixta Belfrage, co author of Flavour. Photo / Jonathan Lovekin

These days he says he spends more time talking about food than actually cooking it. But when he does, that connection between food and emotion remains.

There’s one dish in particular, the meal he first made for his husband. And yes, there’s a magic (although not very hard-to-find) ingredient.

“I haven’t made it for a while, but he always talks about it. It’s this seafood pasta, a tomato coriander-based pasta sauce, and I throw in whatever seafood and fish that I can get my hands on. It’s a little bit spicy and rich with the seafood. And there’s one trick ingredient that always goes in there — a can of smoked oysters in oil, which people often turn their nose [up at]. But it’s just so delicious, this whole load of fresh seafood with a can of smoked oysters with the smoky oil, and he really loves that — it’s a winner.”

Aotearoa’s food story

Next January, Ottolenghi will be bringing his much-delayed Flavour of Life tour to New Zealand. On stage in Auckland then Wellington, he’ll discuss his career, the flavours that excite him, and food stories from his life.

“So much has happened in the world and in people’s lives over the last few years — life-changing things for me. So there’s just a lot to talk about. The way I cook in a world where food is not as easily obtained or as cheaply obtained as it used to be; pandemic cooking, and also the state of restaurants and what we had to go through as an industry that serves food. But also, easy nice things, like what I cooked during Covid, for my children, for myself, for my family. There’s a lot.”

Ottolenghi has been to New Zealand before. Ten years ago, he took a road trip from Auckland to Akaroa with his friend Peter Gordon, and together they ate paua at Logan Brown in Wellington, and whitebait fritters that Gordon cooked for him. He drove through Wairarapa’s pinot noir vineyards, ate local pies, and drank feijoa martinis.

“There was a moment in recent history in which everyone was trying to discover everybody else’s food,” he says. “But I feel now, despite being very global and food travelling so quickly, people are discovering home cooking, in every nation — not just Italians or Israelis or Palestinians, but other nations are discovering what’s so wonderful about their particular terroir or culinary heritage. Those things that are very deeply rooted in the culture and the geography of a place — I think are very strong and powerful.”

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One of the most remarkable things about Ottolenghi’s work — the restaurants, the test kitchen, the books — is how they bring people together, offering a platform to so many different cooks from different culinary traditions. He collaborated with Tamimi on Ottolenghi and Jerusalem, with Malaysian-Australian chef Helen Goh on Sweet, with Brazilian-Italian writer Ixta Belfrage on Flavour, and on Shelf Love with the Bahraini recipe developer Noor Murad. The Ottolenghi kitchen is an incredibly diverse space.

“When we become insular because of all kinds of pressures, we tend to forget that the most wonderful things, the most incredible human creations, come out of these collaborations that are cross-cultural. I see that every day. Working with different people is really powerful for creativity.”

At a time when the world feels increasingly divided, when conversation across political lines feels harder than ever, something is going right in the Ottolenghi kitchen.

“If there is a conflict or an awkwardness between people or nations, food is the first diffuser. It sounds trivial but it is powerful when you see it in action — people sitting together and having very little to talk about other than the weather and the food on the plate. Those are icebreakers, [saying] ‘Oh that’s delicious’. We all understand what it means if something is good and we all understand the joy that it gives us. I don’t think it resolves conflict, but food has an incredible power to allow people to see each other much better.”

Tickets to the Flavour of Life tour are on pre-sale July 19 and then general sale July 25 from Ottolenghi.com.au

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