They’re on a roll, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Without Food Network fairy dust or a single Stateside bistro, the London chefs have induced a fervor here for their kind of food — Mediterranean but not! — that is remarkable to behold.
In the past five years, more than half a million copies of their cookbooks (one by Ottolenghi, two co-authored) have been sold. The dishes are so vivid on the page, so imbued with color and crunch and inventive combinations that even a casual flip-through gets the stomach growling. More important, the recipes can be re-created by mere mortals.
“No foams. No drops of flavors. No swipes on the plate!” Ottolenghi says.
“The food is bold and colorful.Simple and complex at the same time,” Tamimi says.
There are intriguing entry points to their story that go far beyond the two restaurants (Ottolenghi, Nopi) and three delis they co-own with two other partners. Both born in Jerusalem in 1968, they met as chefs more than 2,000 miles away.
Ottolenghi, the worldly intellectual who as a young man left a postgraduate dissertation behind to attend Le Cordon Bleu and worked at enough restaurants to hone his calling, committed to the weekly column he writes for the Guardian.
Tamimi, an artist of verse and paint as well as plate, whose food pulled Ottolenghi into his orbit and whose journey to England seems much greater than the distance plotted on a map. Colleagues with complementary talents and quirks.
One who is comfortable with the juggernaut of journalist interviews and one who would rather let his craft do the talking. Jew and Arab, longtime friends.
“It’s such a good story, I was surprised that nobody talked about it before,” Ottolenghi says, referring to their role-model coexistence: a Middle East peace via the kitchen.
“I believe food brings people together . . . having lived in Israel among Arabs and Jews,” Tamimi said in an interview with the newspaper Haaretz this year. “But the present state of affairs is very sad.”
With September’s update of 2008’s “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press) in which cups, ounces and Farenheit conversions were added, the chefs have sandwiched book tours in between recipe testing for the next two cookbooks and overseeing the restaurants. During last week’s two-day stop in Washington, Ottolenghi and Tamimi had breakfast at NPR; did an interview for Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table”; were feted at a Zaytinya event hosted by José Andrés; spoke and signed books at a sold-out Sixth & I program with Jewish-cooking maven Joan Nathan; and visited the White House kitchens and garden.
“Slight post book tour blues. Highlight was def. White House visit with head chef Cristeta Comerford,” Ottolenghi tweeted with a photo after he returned home.
Another takeaway came by way of the “amazing” pickled and fried garlic cloves they had at Daikaya Izakaya, served with a dipping sauce of the fiery Korean condiment gochujang, Japanese miso, mirin, chopped kimchi and its juices. “When we go to restaurants, we are always on a scouting trip,” Ottolenghi says. “Most chefs are like that. Garlic as a bar snack — what a lovely idea.”
Daikaya chef Katsuya Fukushima enjoyed the compliment, relayed after the London chefs’ visit. It’s easy to see how “the Japanese mentality of something simplistic yet very deep,” as he explained the dish, would appeal to the Ottolenghi restaurant aesthetic as stated on its Web site: uncomplicated, unadulterated, emanating from genuine instincts.
They spent time in the Washington Post kitchen, as well, which provided its own memorable moments.
“When’s the last time we actually cooked side by side?” Ottolenghi wonders aloud as he dices a small red onion for a fruity salsa that will accompany tuna.
“Professionally, I can’t recall,” deadpans Tamimi. “But we were at your house, in the kitchen, three weeks ago.”
With his delivery, all that was missing was a rimshot. Onlookers could sense that the chefs’ banter would not progress beyond the gentlest wry commentary. The dapper Tamimi works neat, with a no-crumbs policy; the lanky Ottolenghi professes to being a lazy cook who doesn’t clean as he goes. Each had to consult the chosen recipes in “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” more than once. Ottolenghi the chef takes a bit longer to finish, tasting each ingredient on its own.
“It’s been more than five years since we tested them!” Ottolenghi admits. “We were testing and retesting.” For the tuna loin crusted with pistachios, he remembers trying a number of ways to get the coating to stick before hitting upon a method of chilling the seared tuna before applying a base coat of Dijon mustard. Mixing in lemon zest with the crushed nuts intensified their flavor — a consistent goal in the Ottolenghi style.
That kind of enhancement was behind the book’s unusual cucumber and poppy seed salad. “We struggled with the quality of English cucumbers. The small ones we had in the Middle East were not available [in England] till recently,” Tamimi says. “The poppy seeds give the cucumbers more flavor and texture . . . . But if you were wondering, it’s not a Palestinian thing to do.”
He assembles the cookbook’s fennel gratin with cherry tomatoes, grateful for bulbs on the small side. He recommends reserving the green stalks, chopped, for ragus. “I heard camels like the flavor of fennel,” the chef says. The casserole’s topping is the result of kitchen revenge: A batch of lemon zest prepped by savory master Tamimi “went missing” from the restaurant walk-in. The suspect was a pastry chef, so Tamimi appropriated a batch of crumble mix from that side of the refrigerator: flour, butter, sugar. He used it to top a vegetable gratin — and an unlikely restaurant hit was born.
Recipes completed, forks in. The chefs chew and nod, their eyebrows raised in approval. The dishes are Ottolenghi, all the way.