London's 'philospher chef' to make Masterchef debut
THE New Yorker branded him the philosopher chef, but perhaps Yotam Ottolenghi could be called the accidental chef.
The Israeli-born, London-based chef - the son of a chemistry professor and a high school principal - could very well have become an academic or a journalist.
With masters degrees in comparative literature and philosophy and time spent in the newsrooms of daily papers and magazines, Yotam was about to start his PhD when he enrolled in a six-month course at London's Le Cordon Bleu cookery school.
"I started working in kitchens and I found it very refreshing," he tells Weekend.
"It was liberating because I felt my mind was set free. Before it was always working and I felt exhausted at the end of the day. In a sense when you're a cook and you do manual labour you're almost freed not to think. I was like 'Oh my God, I don't need to think so much, I can just do'. At that point in my life it really suited me after spending five years at university."
Yotam then stumbled into pastry and eventually got a job as head pastry chef at the London boutique bakery Baker and Spice, where he met his business partner Sami Tamimi and Australian chef Dan Lepard.
"I happened to get my first position in a kitchen in the pastry kitchen," he says.
"The chef said go help the pastry chef and I really enjoyed it; it was almost random. Then when I moved on to the next restaurant one thing led to another and I did pastries. For someone who is quite analytical it works quite well. It relies less on intuition because you can follow a formula."
In 2002 Yotam opened his first deli in Notting Hill with Tamimi and Noam Bar, selling sweet and savoury food.
Several more delis followed, as well as the formal restaurant Nopi in Soho. Yotam has also published five best-selling cookbooks - a sixth called Sweets will come out in October, and starred in four TV documentaries.
Blending the flavours of his native Israel with other Middle Eastern cuisines with a Western twist, he describes his food as noisy and dramatic.
His signature dishes include butternut squash salad with red onion, tahini and za'atar, roasted eggplant with turmeric yogurt and pomegranate seeds, and char-grilled broccoli with chilli and fried garlic and meringues.
But for the record he's not a vegetarian, just a vegie champion.
He doesn't mind the philosopher chef nickname, but you won't hear him use it to describe himself.
"It implies a certain thoughtfulness that goes into my cooking, which is true," he says.
"But I think it's true about a lot of chefs these days. Things that are done with thought rather than just by impulse. I'm proud of thinking about what I'm cooking, but also cooking by impulse is fine.
"Maybe I can talk about my food more than other chefs can, but it's not an indicator of how good my food is."
Yotam's sudden change of tack echoes what many MasterChef contestants hope to do - turn their passion for food into a new career.
After years of discussions with MasterChef's producers, and co-host Matt Preston admitting to being a "total fan boy", the 48-year-old Yotam makes his debut on the series tomorrow.
"This MasterChef I consider the big MasterChef; it's the one people watch abroad," he says.
"It comes with a lot of integrity; it's less of a food competition and more about nurturing talent... even if somebody cooks something bad it's a step in the right direction."
Yotam week will be themed around the Middle Eastern flavours he is renowned for, and his love of cooking with vegetables.
"I wanted to show them that they can cook the food that I love," he says.
"I've got my love for spices, herbs and vegetables, and simplicity and colour."
But parents will be reassured to know that even an award-winning chef, who spent four years writing a newspaper column about why vegetables shouldn't play second fiddle to meat, can't always convince his toddlers to eat their greens.
Yotam has two boys, Max, 4, and Flynn, 1, with his husband Karl Ottolenghi-Allen.
"My advice comes from the field of psychology and not the culinary arts. I say don't fight a losing battle," he says.
"What I mean by that is I think a lot of kids want to eat things that are familiar, and there are a lot of theories around that, so you need to go with the flow because kids always win. You're not going to force it down their throats.
"What I do with my boys is I pare down my food. I like things to be intense and flavoursome, but kids don't like that. I put broccoli on the plate but it's not char-grilled. If they don't eat it then I don't let it get to me. The moment you let it get to you that's when the battle starts. If you treat the vegetable with respect, dress it nicely with olive oil and cheese, then I think they'll come around eventually. It's the anxiety that feeds into their clever minds."