Israeli-born Yotam Ottolenghi trained as a pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu. He owns four eponymous, casual restaurant/cafes in London that serve upside-down pear cakes and French bean salads from scratch. He writes a column for The Guardian on vegetarian cooking called "The New Vegetarian." He just opened a high-end brasserie in London's Soho neighborhood, serving a modern hybrid of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisines. Ottolenghi’s two cookbooks, Plenty and Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, have been bestsellers in the UK, where they are published by Ebury, and later this month, Chronicle will publish Plenty in the U.S. Already, the book--which is filled recipes for making eggplant, artichokes, fava beans, and other vegetables--has garnered much attention and even made it to the final round of Food52’s cookbook tournament, The Piglet, last year--quite a coup for a book that hadn’t even been published in America yet. Oh, and one more thing: Ottolenghi himself isn't a vegetarian.
“I’m not 100% sure how to explain it,” Ottolenghi says sheepishly, when asked about the enthusiasm for Plenty. “The book is attractive because it does nice and unusual things with vegetables that people weren’t used to until now. In a way, vegetarian food has suffered from a quite a lot of bad press for many years. There’s a sense that maybe mine’s a fresh approach to vegetables. That’s all I can think of.”
Plenty brims with recipes for cucumber salad with smashed garlic and ginger; castelluccio lentils with tomatoes and Gorgonzola; and broiled vegetable soup. An unjacketed hardcover, the book feels luxurious, but the recipes aren't complicated. The photographs, by Jonathan Lovekin, are rich and colorful. Although vegetarianism is on the rise, and books touting the diet have surged in popularity and quality, Plenty seems to take the genre even farther, elevating it with sumptuous pictures of, say, black pepper tofu that looks as crispy and flavorful as a good General Tso's chicken.
“There used to be a time--it isn’t so much the case now--that vegetarianism was some kind of religion, and either you belong or you don’t belong," Ottolenghi says. "Restaurants prided themselves on what they did with fish or meat, and there needed to be a solution found for vegetarians. But when you don’t think that way at all--when you’re happy to work with vegetables and not think, ‘What is missing, what’s lacking?’--the result is much more satisfying. It stands independently on its own feet, rather than thinking of itself as second best.”
Ottolenghi’s advice for people who are looking to eat more vegetables is simple. First, he says to grill vegetables; it’s a fast cooking process and helps vegetables retain their shape, color, and nutrients. Second, take steps to make the food look good. “Stereotypical vegetarian food looks gray and brown,” he says, so he thinks about the colors, garnish, and even the plate he’ll serve the food on before he starts cooking. Finally, look to world cuisines for ideas. “I’m a firm believer that the world should be your oyster when you’re cooking. People should open themselves to other cuisines—there are a lot of hidden secrets all over the world. In vast parts of the world people don’t eat meat.” Ottolenghi likes to take traditional recipes from places he’s traveled to--India, Malaysia--and cook them in his own way.
Ottolenghi may be an omnivore, but his ways with vegetables seem to have captivated readers in Britain and the U.S. He will be in New York in April for publicity; check upcoming issues of Cooking the Books for details.