Flavour of the week
It’s not an unusual schedule for a chef these days. The people who used to spend all their time sweating anonymously in the back of the restaurant are now genuine public figures. Ottolenghi believes that with the profile comes responsibility. “I think everybody has this responsibility, if you are in the public eye and people look up to you for whatever it is you are good at. Chefs, we use ingredients, we feed people, there are social obligations, and there are obligations to the environment. So definitely.”
And for Ottolenghi, born and raised in Jerusalem and now with a long-time friendship and business partnership with Sami Tamimi, an Arab-Palestinian also from Jerusalem (but the other bit), food is an important way to bring those troubled parties together. “I come from the Middle East and one of the things I always say is that the food culture there is very much a mash-up of Palestinian cooking and Jewish cooking from various cultural backgrounds – and it’s very important for me to highlight that,” he says. “Because there’s so much tension, so much animosity in that part of the world but food is the one thing everyone has in common.” Not just that everybody eats, but that in that part of the world everyone eats the same kind of thing. “Jews and Muslims have a very similar history. The origins are very, very similar. There’s no denying these affinities when it comes to food.”
The other good work Ottolenghi has taken on board is promoting the humble vegetable. Although he is not vegetarian, two of his cookbooks have been and he reckons even a meat-loving nation like Australia can be turned around.
“First of all, you produce great vegetables here. I have managed to sample quite a lot over the years! So the basics are already there. And vegetables are just so much more diverse in terms of what you can do with them.” A humble cabbage, for instance, can be eaten raw in coleslaw, flash-fried, roasted, braised, steamed. “Endless possibilities. And the results are so interesting and so different. You can’t say the same about meat.”
It’s also probably better for our health, and for the environment, to eat less meat and more veg. “Those are important,” says Ottolenghi, “but the flavours, that’s the first priority.”
We can expect vegetables to feature heavily in his MasterChef appearances. One is a taste test. There’s also a group challenge to create street food in the style of Malaysian, Indian or Mexican cuisine.
“So, Malaysian food I know a little bit about because I travelled in Malaysia for a while, and I also have friends from Malaysia,” Ottolenghi says. “I love the fact that it’s made from different cultural heritages – Malay, Chinese and Indian – and the results are superb.”
He’s never travelled to Mexico. The closest he’s got to “authentic” Mexican food is in California and other parts of the US. “So everything I know about it I know indirectly,” he says. “But I felt that I knew enough in order to judge if it was good. Mexican food is similar in my eyes to the food of the Middle East. The freshness, the salsa, the chilli, the lightness, the light use of dairy – just a little yoghurt or sour cream. The salad. And the flatbread.”
Ottolenghi has travelled extensively in the north of India, less in the south. “So again what I know about southern Indian cuisine is second-hand.” But absolute authenticity is not the point. “I set these challenges up really to get the contestants thinking a little bit and to try and understand the characteristics of the food of a certain place. It had to feel Mexican or Indian or Malaysian but most importantly it had to be delicious. First and foremost, that is always the purpose of food.”