Superstar Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi has been working for years to bridge the gap between vegetarians and the rest of us. He makes no secret about his own meat eating, but he made his culinary reputation in Britain by infusing veggie recipes with intense, Mediterranean-influenced flavors, served at his chain of British upscale delis.
Ottolenghi is visiting the Bay Area for a couple of days, promoting his near-universally praised cookbook Plenty, and SFoodie caught up with him for lunch yesterday. Over egg salad sandwiches at Il Cane Rosso and macarons from Miette (which the industrious Ottolenghi already blogged about!), we learned more about his love of the Bay Area, his veggie diplomacy, and his thoughts on Mission Chinese Food.
SFoodie: Have you spent much time in the Bay Area?
Yotam Ottolenghi: It has probably been nine years since I visited, but a lot of people don't know I used to live in Mill Valley in '77 and '78. I was only nine, but some of my strongest memories of food come from that time. Coming from Israel, where we didn't have much of that, I absolutely loved oysters, shrimp, fish ... I distinctly remember the taste of fried oysters at Fisherman's Wharf. Also, I had a teacher who would reward us for remembering our multiplication tables by driving us for big fluffy American ice cream. Never in my dreams did I imagine this could happen back home!
We heard you ate at Mission Chinese Food last night. How was it?
It was a great meal. I'm a chef who is known for using strong flavors, but I was just blown away by the amount of flavor they packed into each dish. Chile, ginger, Szechuan pepper: It puts me to shame! I really loved the tingly lamb noodle soup, with that strange feeling on the tongue, and the beautiful, slurpy texture. You can tell the food they prepare is very honest, made with love.
Did you introduce yourself to the chef?
No, I don't want to look like an idiot. I mean, what if I say who I am and they haven't heard of me? I usually like to eat anonymously. The other day I made reservations under my name at a London restaurant and I got free Champagne and all these other things. The food was awful, but I couldn't tell the chef! I prefer avoiding that kind of situation.
When you travel, do you pick up lessons from restaurants you visit?
Absolutely. A lot of times a good dish can be quite inspirational. For instance when I was traveling in Thailand, I had this dish of fried noodles and egg that was simple and beautifully done. I didn't actually re-create the dish but it sparked my imagination and I ended up making something inspired from it.
You are often seen as an ambassador of vegetarian food. Tell us more.
We live in an age where more and more people want to eat less meat, whether for health, ecological, or animal welfare reasons. The problem is that traditional "vegetarian cuisine" often consists of unappealing meat lookalikes, gray foods lacking in flavor. I come from the Middle East, where meat is not a typical part of every meal. Instead, so many amazing things are done with grains, chickpeas, lentils, and vegetables. My recipes try to show all the flavorful meals that can be achieved without meat products. Sometimes the vegetarian movement can feel a little exclusive, so I try to bridge those gaps and welcome meat-eaters in.
If you had to go completely vegetarian, what would be the hardest thing to lose?
Honestly, I don't think it would be that hard; I don't eat that much meat anyways. The hardest things would probably be umami items that make good flavoring agents for other dishes, like anchovies, smoky bacon, or fish oil.
At press time, there are still a few seats available for tonight's dinner at Camino Restaurant in Oakland, where the chefs will create dishes inspired by Ottolenghi's new cookbook. Call 510-547-5035 for reservations.