“It was really weird being at home so much because I usually spend a lot of time travelling and attending events, but like everything else in this pandemic there were positive aspects to this new world,” Yotam Ottolenghi the famous chef, foodie and restaurateur tells me.
“From a family point of view we’ve had so many special moments during the pandemic, a quality and quantity of time that has been really special and I’m very aware of that.”
Coming to Oxford Playhouse on Sunday with A Life In Flavour, his rescheduled tour, the Israeli-born British chef will discuss the tastes, ingredients, and flavours that excite him, and how he created a career from cooking.
He will also talk about his life in food: how his Middle-Eastern upbringing influenced his food, the journey that led to him becoming a chef, opening six delis and restaurants in London, and writing seven bestselling cookbooks.
But it will also be about his experiences in lockdown which led to his new cookbook Shelf Life, a double whammy if you like.
“Life slowed down, I got to spend more time with my family (he has two boys with his husband Karl Allen). It was less about the rat race so that was really positive, but there parts that were quite traumatic because we didn’t know when it would end – we are still not 100% sure even now….” Yotam tails off.
“I haven’t sat in front of an audience or cooked for them for a long time so it will be weird”
“But we are over the worst of it. It was just such an extreme time of emotions but that’s the world we live in.”
Lockdown put a lot into perspective for the revered Middle-Eastern chef. He couldn’t get hold of his favourite ingredients, his test kitchen was closed, his restaurants and cafes were shut, travel was impossible, his recipe chefs were furloughed.
So, he did what the rest of us had to do; opened his cupboards and made do with what he had.
The result is his new cookbook SHELF LOVE, published on September 30, to be followed by STOCK IT UP, a totally different approach to cooking for someone who’s made a career of introducing us to new flavours, countries and ingredients.
“Cooking doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect and it’s OK to change the recipe as you go along”
“It felt like we were on a bit of a mission,” Yotam agrees. “Lockdown was made up of so many different times but with everything shut it was pretty tough.
“It was really hard to get hold of the ingredients I wanted, so instead of being in the test kitchen experimenting and chatting and comparing notes, my team were at home digging into the cupboards to see what we could find, and it meant we were developing sustainable, delicious, nutritious meals and using really simple staple ingredients like rice and lentils and elevating them into delicious daily food.
“So that’s what this book is about – not needing to go out and buy lots of new things but use what is readily available. That’s why Shelf Life is such a good name for the book”
Which goes against everything Yotam is known for. He alone is responsible for so many new ingredients being readily available in supermarkets from sumac and z’aatar to pomegranate seeds and preserved lemons while introducing us to foodstuffs we’d never heard of, let alone cooked with.
“Yes but the paradox now is that the people who follow my recipes and buy my cookbooks have those interesting ingredients at home, and can now use them in lots of different ways.
“But the mission statement is to get people to relax about cooking and encourage people to play around with recipes, because there are always so many alternatives and deviations you can make. We just want people to feel comfortable.
“And with all the food shortages after Brexit it’s not a problem that’s going to go away, so it’s important that people give themselves some slack while being creative. Cooking doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect and its OK to change the recipe as you go along. But yes I have enjoyed the process.”
“From a family point of view we’ve had so many special moments during the pandemic, a quality and quantity of time that has been really special and I’m very aware of that”
So is he excited to be back on the road, meeting his fans? “I haven’t sat in front of an audience or cooked for them for a long time so it will be weird on some level,” he says with a smile, “but after a few times I won’t think about it. Besides everyone has had to adjust and do things differently so I’m looking forward to it, to being out there again talking to people.
“But it will also be harder. My sons have said to me ‘you’re not going to go away again are you?”
So has he now got a new perspective? “Yes a lot of positives have come out of the pandemic. This book wouldn’t have been published. I wouldn’t have stumbled on these new recipes and ways to cook. It changed my outlook certainly so I’m happy to have managed to take something positive out of this,” he concludes.
“Not that it’s all been rosy of course,” he laughs. “We’ve had to struggle with things like home schooling alongside everyone else, but I don’t think I’ll go away as much in the future.”
Yotam Ottolenghi: A Life in Flavour is at Oxford Playhouse on Sunday September 19. To book go to https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/yotam-ottolenghi-a-life-in-flavour or ring 01865 305305.
OTTOLENGHI TEST KITCHEN: Shelf Love by Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad will be published 30th September and available at all good bookshops.