NEW YORK — Anyone who wants to argue that food cannot be art has clearly never cracked open a Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook.
Ottolenghi, the Jerusalem-born philosopher-chef, is based in London where he runs the high-end restaurants Nopi and Rovi — plus his string of Ottolenghi delis. He’s the author or co-author of seven large-format books bursting with stories, photographs and recipes, with an eighth, “Flavour,” on its way. He’s also the star (and co-producer) of the just-released documentary film “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles,” available via video-on-demand platforms such as Amazon and iTunes.
Directed by Laura Gabbert, the film is more of a tasty morsel than a rich repast, but that is by design. It follows an international group of pastry chefs handpicked by Ottolenghi as they create a “live arts” complement to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2018 exhibit “Visitors to Versailles.”
While the paintings and artifacts showed what guests encountered at the seat of French power in the 17th and 18th centuries, Ottolenghi’s “Avengers”-like team of creative cakemakers reinterpret stories from the past in edible form. It is gorgeous, it is engaging, and it is mouth-watering.
I had the good fortune to speak to Yotam Ottolenghi from my kitchen in Queens, New York, as he was in his test kitchen in London — the very one which gets highlighted in the film. As we chatted, I saw four or so people clanging mixing bowls in the background, plus a woman on a step stool taking photographs. Rarely am I plopped directly into a such a well-known creator’s secret laboratory. It was a thrill.
Our conversation below has been edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Wow, is that the test kitchen behind you?!?!
Yotam Ottolenghi: Yes. Today they are working on a modern version of fish and chips, plus there is some kind of shakshuka going on back there.
How are things going for you with the pandemic? You are in an interesting position: Your restaurants, obviously, need to be open to succeed, but your cookbooks are more vital than ever with everyone stuck home.
The restaurants are in a precarious position. We were shut down, now reopening, but not even half as busy. There’s a threat of another lockdown. It’s a difficult time for restaurants. There’s no other way to say it: It’s brought a lot of anxiety.
But on the other hand, the cookbooks are on the rise. Home cooking has taken on whole new dimension. It’s also sparked a lot of creativity with new recipes. It’s keeping me busy, but there will be a lot of changes, there’s no question about it.
How soon after receiving the invitation to work on this exhibit did you realize you’d want to also make a film?
I’ve been doing events at The Met Museum since 2016, and as soon as I saw they were doing “Versailles” I knew it would be perfect. It immediately conjured ideas, which is half the job. The event was happening whether there were cameras or not, and the film came together late in the day. We had maybe two or three weeks to get it all in place.
The film is quite pleasing and uplifting, and almost impossible to dislike. But I must ask you, when you were wearing your film producer’s hat, did ever wish “Oh, if this turns into a disaster, or uncovers some controversy, I’ll have something big on my hands!”
It’s true, we don’t have too much of that. Perhaps if we got the cameras in to the chefs earlier we could see more of the jeopardy. But we’ve got enough. And, frankly, I like this tone. It suits my personality. I’m not eager to find controversy. I love that it is all about the doing. It’s a journey of discovery. The ticking clock adds some pressure, but it wasn’t the point. It’s to present something delicious and wonderful.
Well, you’ve always avoided the phenomenon of cooking competition shows.
Yeah, I just don’t find that attractive. I do not watch these shows. Well, maybe I look at some of the more benign versions like “The Great British Bake Off,” but I don’t find competitions appealing. I know there’s an audience, but it’s not for me. I love the discovery. I love The Met, and whenever I work with them I find new things — history, sociology, anthropology. That context of food is much more interesting than a silly competition.
I gotta say, as a New Yorker who really loves to “call in sick” some days and just wander The Met for hours and hours, your film was really striking for me… to see that footage after being away for six months.
The movie does feel like from a different era. It’s almost as if we’re as removed from it as the exhibit was from Versailles.
I love that you are included in “Live Arts at the Met,” because when someone says “food is art” there are some who say “yes, of course it is,” and there are others who say “what are you talking about, my sandwich is art? Gimme a break!” Do you consider this film is a righteous piece of ammunition in this argument?
Food is art, but a very different type of art. When you juxtapose these cakes and the statues at Petrie Hall, our very temporary statues of sugar are consumed in 30 minutes, even if the chefs spent three days erecting them. Meanwhile the other statues have been in the human space for 500 years, 800 years.
But there’s something about that short life that makes it a certain type of art. I do think you can create a kind of hierarchy. There’s something about a work meant to last forever that gives it a better chance to become immortalized, while something meant to eat does not.
Nevertheless, there’s great creativity and artistic expression in what these pastry chefs have put together. Not that every plating you get in a restaurant is is a piece of art! Even if it was very delicious and you want more of it. I think we need to decide on a case by case basis.
Now that you’ve conquered Versailles, where would you want to go next?
Before the pandemic there were plans for something on the British Empire, 400 years of the East India Company, covering the exchange in ideas and innovation. They had a wonderful collection of centuries of tea pots. The story of tea was one I was eager to tell. Had we not gone into lockdown, that would have been it. We may have to wait.
I’ve come across interviews where, say, classical artists will admit some love for pop music. Do you have a soft spot for any ephemeral junk food?
Well, in a way, I celebrate all the things I loved as a kid. I don’t think I’ve grown out of it. In fact it has been a source of inspiration. My book “Jerusalem” is something of an ode to that.
What does it actually mean: junk food? Some things are really simple to make and are absolutely delicious
I’m not embarrassed by a bowl of instant noodles in a cup, if it’s a really good Korean brand. I’m happy to have it.
What does it actually mean: junk food? Some things are really simple to make and are absolutely delicious. Junk food to me something that has a lot of “e numbers” (food additives) — things you don’t recognize. That’s junk. But everything else is fine.
Eating well as a lifestyle choice is interesting, because unlike other pleasures, it also serves a basic biological function. If you are having a busy day, or if the kids are driving you crazy, suddenly you turn around and realize you must eat immediately or you are going to pass out. But for someone like you, are there times when you are like, “Ugh, I can’t believe I just ate this disgusting sandwich! If anyone saw me, they’d throw my books away!”
Absolutely. And much more than you’d think! I’ve got two young kids, and they sometimes cannot wait to eat. Like, for us, if there’s nothing good right now, you can have something good in an hour. A kid won’t do that. So often we are in front of a supermarket eating a white bread egg sandwich. I am thrown into this situation often.
But I don’t suffer from guilt about this. The other 80 percent of the time my husband and I will spend time making something good for them. Also, I don’t want the kids to become too precious. I don’t want them to ever think, “Oh, I can’t have this off-the-shelf because it is inferior.” Sure, there are better things, but, like I say, if we’re in front of the supermarket right now, there’s the white bread egg sandwich, why shouldn’t I have this?
You live in Britain and the tabloids are brutal. One day a photographer will see you and your whole empire will come crumbling down.
I will have to run this risk!
British food: Prior to people like yourself coming to the UK, Britain was not particularly heralded for its national cuisine. Are there any myths you can dispel about this?
Part of it is just simply historical. Post-World War II rationing and a country trying to reconstruct. Food was not a top priority. But there have always been amazing British desserts.
The “Bake Off” show really celebrates how home baking is strong here. Many people still make good sponges, biscuits, and cookies. I’m often shocked when I come to the US and the only options are ready-made mixes. You don’t see that here. Here it’s the raw ingredients: flour, sugar, vanilla, eggs. They make trifles and vessels, all these beautiful desserts in a cup or a bowl. These are British inventions, and sometimes superior to the French. The French may take a really long time constructing something while forgetting that it also needs to taste good. The Brits may throw a lot of things together that may not look the part, but it will be delicious.
While on national cuisine, I’m always surprised by Israel’s tolerance — not just tolerance, but sometimes preference — for instant coffee.
Also in Scandinavia. I went to Sweden and I was surprised everybody was drinking instant coffee. I don’t know why. It’s weird. I don’t drink instant coffee, but I don’t think it’s horrific. I am happy to tolerate all these things, but yeah, I grew up drinking a lot of instant coffee, but I am happy I don’t have to anymore.
Do you have any relationship advice on how to tell a loved one that maybe something they cooked wasn’t any good?
Like anything, you want to encourage and not discourage someone from doing what they’re doing. So start with what’s good about it. Then offer a comment of “maybe you can use a little less of this for later.” It’s a good lesson for life in general. If you want to win someone over, you want to first let them know that you are on their side.
Your new book “Flavour” is out in Britain, soon to be released in the United States, and it’s all vegetarian, right?
Not strictly vegetarian, but it’s all about vegetables. The last four or five years in my test kitchen have been all about vegetable-focused dishes. It’s about how you create, layer and intensify flavor with vegetables. Two of my books, “Plenty” and “Plenty More,” are vegetable-focused already, but this one has quite a lot of insights on how to inject your vegetables with flavor. For people who have not had a good celery root or cauliflower, this is where they should come.
There’s a lot out there on “how to make your vegetables taste like meat” but this isn’t that.
No, no, absolutely not the point. The point is to make them taste good, not like something else.
Have you played around with Impossible Burgers yet?
No, and I’m not standing first in line to try. I’m not saying I don’t think it’s a good idea to produce these things, but for me it’s either vegetables, which I think offer you almost everything you need, or meat in small doses. Trying to create meats for every meal, but not the real thing, does not really appeal to me.
There have been a lot of plant-based meat substitutes and I’ve tried many, and I will say that the Impossible Burger is the one that, if I were blindfolded, I maybe wouldn’t know what it was.
Yes, but if you had it without all the dressing would you be able to tell?
That I don’t know.
I mean, everything tastes like nothing if you add ketchup to it. You can eat a shoelace.