Most Canadians may not recognize the names Yotam Ottolenghi And Sami Tamimi...but they soon will.
They're also behind a very successful mini empire of restaurants in London, including Nopi and the Ottolenghi group of delis.
But their personal story is even more compelling. They were born in the same year in 1968, grew up in the same divided city, Jerusalem — Ottoloenghi from the Jewish Western side and Tamimi from the Arab East.
As secular, gay adults, they both moved on to Tel Aviv at around the same time, even going to the same restaurants, but still never met until they'd both moved to London. It wasn't love, but it an almost instant friendship and 13-year long business relationship that has brought both growing fame (and presumably a small fortune) with the over-the-top effusive praise and cult-following of their cookbooks.
We sat down with the chefs at the Chatelaine Kitchen in Toronto during the North American launch of their original book, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, about "Jerusalem fever," wild eating adventures and their love of poutine.
What do you make of the Jerusalem craze and Middle Eastern food now coming into fashion?
Tamimi: It was meant to happen. We started the whole thing with introducing people to the Middle Eastern flavours and ingredients and now there’s this big wave, which is really good because we always said that the Middle East food had a bad reputation of grubs and greasy kebabs and stuff that you basically eat after you’ve been out drinking.
Ottolenghi: The funny thing is there’s always been good books about Middle Eastern food and I guess you could also find it in some restaurants but the impression that most people had was like Sami says, it was very flat...
Tamimi: Cheap falafel…
Ottolenghi: Or a very bad version or a very superficial version of the food, but people thought it was only that. It’s actually a very rich food culture and you find lots of ingredients that never make it to the kebab shop, so it was meant to happen. I think we were cut lucky to come at a time when there was an openness to a new cuisine. There is great enthusiasm all over the world for different kinds of ethnic cuisines, so we were quite lucky to cook with those ingredients at this time.
But I don’t think our food is necessarily Middle Eastern. Jerusalem is because that’s the focus of the book. But Ottolenghi has got a lot of Middle Eastern flavours but none of the recipes are really traditional. We don’t have a hummus or a falafel or anything; it’s more like the food that we make which is kind of modern and uses quite a bit of those flavours but is not necessarily Middle Eastern, it’s more generally Mediterranean in a way.
Interview continues below slideshow:
What does "Canadian" food mean to you?
Ottolenghi: I have to say maple syrup, right? I also had the most amazing Canadian thing when I was in Boston. It’s amazing, it’s so delicious. I think it’s considered trashy but it’s so good. It’s like these chips with the gravy and the cheese? I thought it was stunning.
What is one of the first things you crave to eat when you return to your hometown, whether it’s London or Jerusalem?
Ottolenghi: I would pick Jerusalem (as home). I miss kubbe, I love kubbe, fried kubbe, which you can get in some places but it’s not really good outside the Middle East — with the bulgur wheat on the outside and meat in the middle, and pine nuts.
Tamimi: London is home for me.
Ottolenghi: What do you crave?
Tamimi: Good question actually.
Ottolenghi: Maybe I can answer for you?
Ottolenghi: Maybe Yorkshire pudding at Sunday lunch.
Tamimi: Sunday roast maybe.
What’s your favorite food to make for yourself at home after a boozy night out?
Tamimi: We don’t really have that but my favourite thing to eat when I’m alone is a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon.
Ottolenghi: For me, it’s a sandwich with my mom’s mayonnaise. She makes the best mayonnaise and we have it in the fridge always because I always bring it when I go back home, with some pastrami or some pulled meat.
What's your favourite poison?
Ottolenghi: I love vodka, just neat. Very good Russian vodka. I can drink a lot and I don’t get drunk...it just goes amazingly well with nice, heavy food, and you can drink a lot.
Tamimi: German Riesling, this is my favourite at the moment.
If you could prepare only one last meal, what would it be?
Ottolenghi: For myself? I would never cook on my deathbed.
Tamimi: I would probably do okra with lamb and rice.
Ottolenghi: That’s nice. Can I eat it after you die?
Tamimi: It’s my dream, my last meal!
Ottolenghi: I’d like to have pasta with sage, butter and lemon.
What is the wildest thing you’ve done in a kitchen, culinary or otherwise?
Tamimi: In Tokyo, we were sitting at a bar, we were eating and we were served a live baby fish in a shotglass with yuzu.
Ottolenghi: Was it delicious?
Tamimi: It tasted like sea.
Ottolenghi: I don’t think I’ve done anything weird or crazy.
Tamimi: You didn’t eat monkeys’ bums?
Ottolenghi: No, monkeys’ bums, no...if I’ve eaten daring things, one of the things that I found quite troubling was when I ate sheeps’ brains in Morocco a few years ago, but straight off the skull. They just cut the thing open and you spoon out the brain. That was pretty wonderful and quite disgusting at the same time.
What is the best restaurant that no one’s ever heard of?
Tamimi: I discovered this place called Duck Soup in London. They serve kind of modern English — very, very, very, very simple and it’s a stunning place.
Ottolenghi: Trangalan is a great restaurant. It’s in Stoke Newington in London. It’s a Spanish restaurant and they serve basically a very limited menu of Spanish dishes, Galician. Tapas or small dishes mainly and the chef is just really, really good with balancing the flavours. It was quite stunning.
What would you be doing if you couldn’t be a chef?
Ottolenghi: I would have probably been a news journalist. I am in a way, I write about food, but I’m really a news freak.
Tamimi: A painter.
Ottolenghi: He paints really well...You can still be a painter. He’s very good at it, he’s creative.
What is your favourite cheap food thrill?
Tamimi: Hot dogs.
Ottolenghi: Really good popcorn with lots of butter.
What is the most memorable food city in the world?
Tamimi: I would say Hanoi.
Ottolenghi: I would say Tokyo, although Hanoi is very close. Hanoi is amazing, I agree with Sami. It’s kind of got the best street food in the world.
Tamimi: It’s very clean flavour. Lots of herbs that we like; it’s spicy, black-peppery and every day they go to the market and buy things and cook them. They don’t keep things for the next day.
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