Originally published on food52.com
There are a few leading lights of the food world –figures that inspire and lead the way for new movements. Yotam Ottolenghi is one of them. After leaving his home city of Jerusalem in 1997, he moved to Amsterdam and completed his master’s thesis on a course from the Tel Aviv University named ‘The Genius Program’. After handing the work in, Ottolenghi decided to move to London, where he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. After that, he landed a job as pastry chef at Michelin-starred London restaurant The Capital. From there, he went on to head the pastry department of boutique deliBaker & Spice. It was here that he came upon Sami Tamimi – the man who went on to co-found the Ottolenghi restaurants and delicatessens, and with whom Ottolenghi would pen his most celebrated cookbooks.
Somewhere amongst rolling perfect pastry and deciding to launch Britain’s best take away deli, Ottolenghi became a star of the food scene. The first Ottolenghi deli opened its doors in 2002 in Notting Hill. The bright, bold, impossibly fresh food piled high on the countertops brought in hungry throngs of visitors from day one. For the first time, Londoners were lunching on spiced salads studded with nuts and pomegranates; peppery grains; zesty roasted vegetables topped with yogurt and mint leaves; homebaked bread and perfect pastries. A second branch opened in 2004 in Islington, followed by a third and a forth in Kensington and Belgravia.
Ottolenghi’s food celebrates vegetables, enlivened by the Middle Eastern flavours he grew up eating. His creativity with all things green (and orange, and purple, and red…) won him the attention of the public at a time when meat the centre of most menus. He began writing a weekly recipe column for the Guardian, demonstrating the endless possibilities of vegetarian cooking. In 2011, he took us on a food tour of his hometown in the BBC documentary Jerusalem on a Plate. Since then, he has appeared on countless TV shows, and toured the Mediterranean for Channel 4. His second cookbook, Plenty, won him a horde of awards, while he and Sami Tamimi’s love note to the tastes of their native town, Jerusalem, won Observer Food Monthly’s 2013 Best Cookbook award.
It seemed a natural step, then, for Ottolenghi to turn to fine dining as his next venture. In 2005, he met Ramael Scully when he came in for a trial shift at Ottolenghi Islington. After falling in love with his rich, complex food, Ottolenghi gave Scully (known only as ‘Ramael’ by his family when he is “in trouble”) the job. Scully’s colorful, decadent cooking is a product of his layered heritage. Born in Malaysia to a mother of Chinese and Indian descent and a Malay and Irish father, Scully moved to Sydney as a child. He attended culinary school there, and decided to pursue cooking. “I wanted to travel all over the world. So that’s when I decided to try cheffing.” He smiles. “When I first started out, my friends thought I was nuts. It wasn’t seen as a stable thing to do back then. Food has changed so much now. I think I started just at the right time!” Scully soon began creating recipes for the Islington branch, and in 2011, when Ottolenghi decided to branch out and launch a “grown-up” fine dining restaurant, he called upon Scully to head the kitchen. Four years on and NOPI is one of London’s most talked-about restaurants, and Ottolenghi and Scully’s recently released NOPI cookbook is a number one bestseller.
Visiting Ottolenghi’s Camden home and watching him work in the kitchen with Scully, their clashing cooking personalities are clear to see. “Each one of us has their own way of cooking, and we respect that.” Ottolenghi tells us, “But we’ve both evolved working together.” Through working side by side, Ottolenghi and Scully’s cooking techniques have collided, blurring the Middle Eastern and North African flavours that Ottolenghi has become synonymous with. “We’ve got very different backgrounds.” He explains, “Scully grew up in South East Asia and Australia. His influences are Indonesian, Chinese, Malay, Thai…While I grew up with Arabic and North African food influences. For me, it’s often the case that things are slightly more rustic. I use fewer processes, fewer ingredients. Scully is more of a modern cook, he uses new ingredients and techniques.” Both cooks grew up in families where food was the centre of things. “I grew up in a very foodie family.” Ottolenghi says, “We had proper meals as a family. We travelled a lot so our eyes were always being opened to new flavours. My mother was a very adventurous cook. Even in the 70s and the 80s she used to cook curries and use coconut and things, which for Israel at the time was quite unusual.” Scully’s own childhood was orchestrated around the table. “We used to have the feasts of feasts!” He tells us, “Eating with my aunties was such a huge part of my childhood. Each auntie would bring a different dish. There was always a competition over who could cook the hottest curry. It was always kind of crazy.”
Hungry and slightly star struck, we watch the two at work creating a favourite recipe from their book: halibut with a pine nut and pistachio crust, burnt butter and a rocket and watercress soup topped with bright pink radishes.
The two whirl around the kitchen, meticulously stirring, turning and slicing the food. “When it came to the book, our collaboration became more important than ever.” Ottolenghi tells us, “We had to turn restaurant recipes in to things you can actually cook at home. Which is more my territory than Scully’s. He is a real restaurant chef, while I always try and write recipes for home cooks. Certain processes of the dishes Scully developed had to be shortened and made more approachable for the home cook. We wanted all of the flavours but not all of the ingredients.”
It is precisely Ottolenghi and Scully’s differences in the kitchen that has made NOPI such a success. Ottolenghi has become enraptured by East Asian foods, rich with sambals and Asian spices, while Scully has learned to love subtlety as much as decadent flavours. Growing up with a clutch of Malaysian Aunties, Scully developed a taste for hot, generous portions. “There was always a lot of food growing up. Which is why even now I always make too much. My friends always come away from dinner at mine with doggie bags.” He laughs. “Initially Scully would write recipe and put ‘serves 25’” Ottolenghi tells us. Scully agrees, “Over the last five years I’ve learnt to take criticism in a whole different way.” He says, “Ottolenghi’s advice is always helpful!” “If I give Scully a recipe that I have written, I know that he’s going to complicate it. He cannot help himself.” Ottolenghi says, “It’s his nature. He takes my recipes and turns them into his! We both cook with each other’s flavours now. When people ask what cuisine we do at NOPI, and we just say ‘everything! But if something is traditional and good as it is, we tend not to mess around with it.” For both cooks, travel is a constant source of inspiration. “At NOPI, we love using great flavours, no matter where they come from.” Ottolenghi says, “When you travel you find all of these new flavours. If you take little steps and are careful about how you mix things up, you can often get it right.”
Ottolenghi’s house suits the sunlight. The bright, airy kitchen opens out into a dining area, where his beloved dining table sits surrounded by bright chairs and colourful artwork. “This table has been all over the world.” He tells us, “My architect friend sourced it in Israel and shipped it back here. It was a pain to get into the house. Can you imagine how you get a thing like that in this space?!” The giant table is carved from one piece of wood, and cries out to be surrounded by guests. “We have a lot of parties here.” He tells us. He shares the home with his partner Karl and their two sons - a two year old and an eight week old. Scully, who lives in Finsbury, is also partial to feeding friends at home. “I do a lot of dinner parties. And I’m Australian, so by dinner parties I mean barbecues. I’ll get home at 12.30 and put a piece of brisket on to cook all night.” We can only live in hope for an invitation to one of these soirees…
More than anything else, Ottolenghi’s admiration for Scully shines through in our afternoon with them. He introduces his friend by saying “This guy’s a genius!” Despite his own successes, Ottolenghi is in awe of Scully’s talent. It is Scully’s recipes that fill most of the NOPI cookbook, refined with Ottolenghi. “I always start with one basic element and then build upon it to make it my own. I think Yotam is the same in that way.” Scully tells us, “I have this theory that if you’re going to create a dish, you have to make it yours. You can’t just copy 90% of someone else’s recipe. I look for inspiration and try to make it as original as I can.” The cookbook was a bold change from Ottolenghi’s previous veg-centric books. I ask him if it felt like a risk. “It definitely felt different from the other books, yes.” He says, “Many of the recipes are slightly more challenging for a home cook. So there was an element of risk, but I knew that it would be loved by whoever took on the challenge.”
The smell of nutty burnt butter and baking fish fills the room, and the two begin plating up lunch. Their heads meet above the dishes, hovering over the food. They are accurate with their preparation, but never fussy. “We like food to look approachable. We definitely don’t use a ruler when we plate!” Ottolenghi says.
“I love to tell the story of a dish.” He remarks, “So for me, putting the food on the plate and styling it are as much a part of a it as anything else.” The fish is succulent, spilling with juices. The soup is refreshing and vividly green, while the nut crust adds crunch and an oaky depth of flavour. Scully and Ottolenghi step back and begin discussing the plans for the day. while we disappear into the plate. The food is perfection. Warm, comforting, rich and refreshing. But really, we didn’t expect anything less...