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29 September 2021

Yotam Ottolenghi Q&A: “I can tell you everything you need to know about vegetable preparation”

The chef on Stevie Wonder, why we shouldn’t ruminate, and returning to the era of the hunter-gatherers.

By New Statesman

Yotam Ottolenghi was born in Jerusalem in 1968 and was a pastry chef before opening his eponymous London delicatessen. He has been credited with “making the world love vegetables”.

What’s your earliest memory?

When I was three or four I climbed up on a bench and reached out to a birds’ nest. I fell and brought the nest down with me. I was severely told off by my nursery teacher.

Who are your heroes?

In childhood I looked up to my teachers. Every year, a different one, but I thought the world of them. In adulthood I admire Claudia Roden, who’s been a constant in my professional life for many years. She’s someone who writes very well-researched cookbooks about vast subjects.

What book last changed your thinking?

Empire Falls by Richard Russo. It’s a big thing to say that it changed my thinking, but it definitely put things in perspective, because the hero runs a restaurant, then he loses it, and there is a whole range of emotional reactions to it.

Which political figure do you look up to?

The late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. I never sided with his politics, but I thought he was brave to have broken down some barriers between Jews and Palestinians. He paid the ultimate price when he was assassinated in 1995.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Vegetable preparation. I can tell you everything you need to know, I assure you.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would love to go to the time of the hunter-gatherers. It seems to me, in a very romantic way, like a much less stressful time to have lived in, a completely unmodern world before all the trappings of civilisation, which I find so complicated to manoeuvre around.

What TV show could you not live without?

Better Things, a comedy made by Pamela Adlon, who also stars in it. It’s the story of an LA actor and her three daughters. She struggles through all kinds of challenges and I end up in tears of laughter when I watch it.

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Who would paint your portrait?

Lucian Freud. I want to see something that I don’t know about myself, and he’d be able to see into my soul. 

What’s your theme tune?

“Love’s In Need of Love Today” by Stevie Wonder. It’s a happy, wonderful song that I listen to again and again.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t know if anyone has ever given me this advice, but I would give it to myself: move on and don’t ruminate. I find it difficult to move on when I get stuck on something – a problem, a situation.

What’s currently bugging you?

Not knowing what the world will be like tomorrow. Things have shifted so much over the last few years. I feel anxious about the state of the world in the near future.

When were you happiest?

Last night when I was watching a show called Blown Away on Netflix with my two boys. It was so much fun to see people struggling with the incredibly difficult task of making different things out of glass.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A researcher of some description. I always love tackling a subject and learning as much as possible about it. I forget it all later, but I love reading and cramming, and putting things in order.

Are we all doomed?

Give us a bit of time to enjoy what we’ve got, but eventually, yes.

“Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love” is published by Ebury Press

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This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age