Even at 46 years old, Yotam Ottolenghi is boyish.
Standing an inch or two taller than my six-foot-one frame, the Israeli-born, London-based chef is all guileless smiles as he recounts to me a Russian children's story involving a giant turnip, which he often reads to his young son Max. Later, he gushes over the flavor of some fresh-picked ground cherries, in which he detects a note of hazelnut. He repeatedly uses words like "luscious" and "elegant," never stooping to curse.
Kitchen Confidential this is not.
It's a late October afternoon and I'm walking with Ottolenghi, a highly successful restaurateur and prolific cookbook author, through the MUNCHIES Garden with his head chef Ramael Scully, better known as just "Scully." We're tasting herbs and lettuces that they plan to use in a salad from their new book NOPI, a collection of recipes from their eponymous restaurant in London.
I ask Ottolenghi why he chose to open NOPI—which stands for "North of Picadilly" and which he has described as his "grown-up restaurant"—when his mini-chain of eateries was already so successful.
"The other Ottolenghis were mostly take-out, deli kinds of environments. We wanted to open a 'real' restaurant to actually focus on Scully's food, our food," he says. "It's a little more elegant than the other Ottolenghis, which are simple and straightforward."
The NOPI cookbook, too, is more complex and requires more finesse than his previous books. "It's a bit more cheffy," Ottolenghi admits. "I think people will definitely be able to cook from it, because the whole process that Scully and I went through was to adapt the recipes for home cooks. We took the restaurant recipes, maybe lost an element or simplified a process, but still kept the flavors."
When we come back inside from the garden, Ottolenghi remarks—with wonder more than disappointment—upon the inferiority of the cinnamon I brought for him to cook with. "Scully, can you believe this is what they call cinnamon in America?" he says, wrinkling his nose with a grin.
But subtle differences in spices are exactly the kind of things that this duo geek out over.
In the cookbook, Ottolenghi describes Scully as "a big man with a congenial smile, baffling cultural heritage, and distinctive shuffling gait." Indeed, Scully is a hodgepodge of nationalities and cultures: He was born in Malaysia to a Chinese-Indian mother and an Irish-Balinese father, but raised in Australia. That background in strong flavors is one of the things that made him attractive to Ottolenghi, who built his empire on the bold tastes of the Middle East.
Notably, the NOPI book contains many more animal protein-based recipes than Ottolenghi's previous books. But while Ottolenghi, Plenty, Plenty More, and Jerusalem are heavy on vegetables—some of them even omit meat entirely—they've never trod in health-food territory. For Ottolenghi and Scully both, flavor is of utmost importance.
One of Ottolenghi's favorite recipes in the NOPI book—perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background—is a variation on hummus. "It's not hummus—it's essentially celeriac or celery root, cooked and mixed with tahini. It's then spread out on a plate as you would a hummus. Then it gets a layer of almonds cooked with some spices, mixed with raw cauliflower, and then it's topped off with a quail's egg," he says. "It's a beautiful little number."
You could even call it cute—but don't say that to Scully.
"I'll come up with a new dish and Yotam will say, 'It looks really cute, Scully.' And I'm like, 'You can't say my food's cute!'" Scully laughs.
But Ottolenghi embraces the characterization. "He said to me, 'Chef, you're the first colleague that ever said my food is cute.'" There's that boyishness again.
This sportive rapport—barely adversarial, hinting at flirtatious—is on full display as the pair recall their initial culinary clash: how to incorporate Scully's Asian flavors into Ottolenghi's decidedly Middle Eastern repertoire.
"Yotam used to say to me, 'Only one Asian dish at a time,'" Scully recalls.
"We used to bargain quite a lot with each other," Ottolenghi adds with a smile.
"I started to teach him, too—using plums or rhubarb to make a relish for pork belly, using ingredients like star anise and ginger." Slowly but surely, Scully began to incorporate more and more Asian ingredients and flavors into his dishes. "Tofu was a breakthrough for Yotam," he says.
"I couldn't stand tofu," Ottolenghi admits. "We don't have it where I was growing up. Over [in the UK] it used to be served in terrible health shops, in terrible stews. People didn't know at the time that you really need to infuse it with a lot of flavor, you need to give it a skin by frying it. There's a lot of things you can and should do with tofu." He cites the brightly piquant black pepper tofu recipe in Plenty. "It took quite a few years to fall in love with tofu."
As they speak, the chefs prepare one of the recipes from the NOPI cookbook: a salad of black radish, endive, and apple, all thinly sliced and dressed with a no-frills vinaigrette. Simple ingredients, but bold flavors. As they chop and whisk, I ask them about the development of the book.
"It was a learning curve for me," says Scully. "For about six months, I had to learn how to shop in supermarkets to get the same ingredients, the same flavors that I get in the NOPI restaurant. It took two years, really shopping out there and learning what home cooks are all about. I had to learn how to measure salt."
While the book contains many entry-level recipes, such as the black radish salad, there are a number of centerpiece dishes, too. Their take on pastilla—a completely bonkers Moroccan pie that's traditionally made with almonds, meat, cinnamon, and sugar—is a weekend project itself.
"I didn't know much about pastilla, so I did some research and it's supposed to be sweet and savory. Originally it was made with pigeon," Scully says. "At the start, I was testing some recipes in my house, and I invited Yotam to come have a taste. Before he even turned up, I was like, 'I really stuffed this recipe up. Something's going wrong, it doesn't work. I think it's weird.' I put it together and he's like, 'It's spot-on! That's how it's supposed to taste.'"
Even then, though, the recipe proved to be a challenge in the kitchen. "When we did it in the restaurant, we found that pigeon was too hard to pick—you're doing a large production and picking the meat isn't easy for the young chefs," Scully adds. "So rabbit was one [variation]. We used chocolate, Spanish dried chilies, Mexican chilies, mixing it up. At that time we had a guy from Catalan in Spain, and he showed me how his father used to cook spinach with raisins soaked in rum and pine nuts. So we made one layer with the Catalan spinach and a little bit of smoky paprika, and it went really nicely with the rabbit, chocolate, and chilies."
It sounds a little bit Mexican, like a molé, I note.
"The chocolate is just a very effective way of introducing intense flavors," Ottolenghi counters. "Often when you do something that has molasses or black garlic or something along those lines, you add a little bit of cocoa or chocolate. It just rounds it out."
Scully tells me that because of the multicultural background of NOPI's kitchen staff, the restaurant's pantry has become a rich resource for new flavors and ideas such as this. "Yotam's got more toys to play with. I've got more toys to play with."
"People have always come to expect for me to introduce exotic ingredients. They kind of gave up on thinking that this would be in any way predictable," Ottolenghi says with a wink. "Imagine if we came up with something really simple, without any twists. It wouldn't go down very well, would it?"