"The dishes that are in the book have actually been cooked in the restaurant, in Nopi, for quite a few years," says Yotam Ottolenghi, co-author of the cookbook Nopi, which is based on his restaurant of the same name. "We had to take them and turn things that are already in existence and served in the restaurant into something that home cooks can actually make."
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Russ Parsons: One of the things I found interesting was that the book is very much a collaboration between you and the chef Ramael Scully. You're from a Middle Eastern background, and he's from a Malaysian background. They're very different cuisines, but both areas have served as crossroads for many cultures. How does that inform the food at Nopi?
Yotam Ottolenghi: Scully and I, we were both growing up eating different types of food. Both Malaysia and the Middle East -- or Israel, where I was growing up -- are places where quite a few cultures meet and combine. As a result, there isn't one clear tradition of cooking. There are lots of traditions that are competing. It's not like Italy or Lebanon, quite unified places where you have a very clear, single tradition that is a dominant one.
As a result of that, I think there is a certain freedom. Both Scully, as we call him, and myself have that freedom to create because we have grown up eating very mixed cuisines. I've grown up eating Middle Eastern, Jewish and European food. Scully was having Malaysian food, which is very much a mix of Indian, Malay and quite a bit of Chinese. All that comes into our foods, both his and mine.
RP: There have been so many bad versions of fusion cooking, but you guys seem to have found a way to make it work. What's the secret to doing fusion cooking and having it be respectful of the cultures but also having it be delicious?
YO: I've been thinking about it quite a lot. I don't think fusion is bad by definition, but bad versions of fusions mix things just for the sake of mixing. You go to a place and it says on the menu, "Japan meets Italy." Someone in some room in an office thought that would be an interesting combination.
It's never something that we think about in such a way. We constantly talk about food, eat and try things. Sometimes, on some occasions, we say, "Why don't we try to smoke the aubergine -- which is a typical technique in the Middle East -- and add it to something with slightly more Japanese flavors?"
It doesn't mean that we're trying very hard to combine the two cuisines. We're trying to take some of our experience and mix them in areas that we are exploring. We're very careful. Often things are quite traditional, but sometimes you can mix it. I think it's very important to be respectful and delicate when you do cross-cultural things. That's what we're trying to do the whole time.
RP: One of the things that you're really well known for with your books is that painstaking care that you take with the development of the recipes. Everything is so thoroughly tested, people just have great success when they cook the recipes. But that's different for when you're developing recipes for a home cook and for a restaurant cookbook. Was the process different for a restaurant cookbook?
YO: The books that I've published in the past were mostly conceived and thought through in a domestic kitchen, a home kitchen. I was often thinking, "How do home cooks cook? What would they want to cook?" That has always been the guiding force behind recipes that I've published.
This time it went in a slightly different direction. The dishes that are in the book have actually been cooked in the restaurant, in Nopi, for quite a few years. We had to take them and turn things that are already in existence and served in the restaurant into something that home cooks can actually make.
This was very important for me, to make it very doable for home cooks. I didn't want to make it into one of these restaurant cookbooks that everybody looks at with great admiration but never dares take into their kitchen. I wanted to turn it into something that people can actually use.
Scully and I spent almost two years taking recipes that are slightly complicated and simplifying them, standardizing them or doing things that would allow home cooks to do them. Often it was a real challenge. We had to lose a thing here or lose a thing there. Sometimes the garnish turned into the main thing because we wouldn't expect home cooks to cook a fish and three things that go alongside. We had to do a certain amount of sacrificing. But all in all, we tried to keep the flavors as they are in the restaurant and bring those through as much as we can.
RP: You draw a line in the book between simpler dishes and what you call your "epic recipes." You write about how some of those epic recipes, you've tamed them a little bit with some shortcuts or with a little bit of editing of the dish. How do you balance simplifying a complex restaurant recipe and still keep its essence so that it's recognizable?
YO: In the restaurant, we have the luxury of having a team of people working many hours in preparation for the service in order to put something on the plate which is complex, interesting, but occasionally also a little bit vain. I'm talking about the vanity of the chef. I take full responsibility for that. You want to have it look a little bit more special than what you would cook at home. There are certain elements that are there for the restaurant's sake but are not absolutely essential. Those are the elements that we have taken out or tamed a little bit.
If I give you an example, we have a recipe in the book for mackerel with a fresh salad of coconut and peanut. It ended up being something pretty simple: pan-fried fish and a beautiful, fresh salad using fresh coconut, peanuts, mint and all sorts of Asian flavors.
In the restaurant itself, we probably had another element. If I'm not mistaken, it had a Jerusalem artichoke mash on the bottom. That's not essential for the dish, but it's something we could've easily left out but still have all the key flavors. Little compromises like this one you can easily do and still feel that you kept the integrity of the dish.
RP: Were there recipes that simply could not be simplified into the cookbook? When that happened, or if that happened, was it a matter of technique, was it a matter of ingredient, or was it a matter of simply too many things on the plate?
YO: I'll give you the example that I use often. It's not a typical Nopi thing, but we serve it for breakfast. There's a good croissant that we make ourselves.
For me, it just didn't make sense to have a croissant recipe in this particular book. I've never published one before. I think to make a really good croissant, you need to work very, very hard for quite a few days to get it absolutely right. You can actually go and buy a pretty good croissant in top bakeries all around in many big cities, so why waste pages? It's great to do if you're a really keen baker, but I think 99 percent of the people are happy not to get that experience. I'd rather spend the pages on things that you can't buy or you can't get as good as that.
I have to give you another example. When we talk about epic recipes, there is a recipe for chicken pastilla. Pastilla is a North African and Moroccan dish that consists of shredded meat, normally pigeon or chicken, cooked in filo pastry with eggs, spinach, all sorts of wonderful things, pine nuts. It's a savory and sweet dish. It's something quite spectacular.
Ours is even more complex than the Moroccan original. We also added Spanish or Catalan spinach, which has sherry, brandy and currants in it. We've added quite a few things that make it even more complex. It's a recipe that if you want to make it, take a long afternoon and the morning after to make it. It's well worth it because you can't taste anything like it. But it's one of those recipes that you dive into and come back the next morning.
Not many recipes in the book are like that, but sometimes you want to do something like that, especially if you are a dedicated foodie. There are a few of those in the book. On the other hand, there are much simpler recipes that take a couple of hours and they're done, ready and very satisfying.
Ottolenghi's recipe: Lemon and Curry Leaf Rice (Photo: From Plenty More)
RP: In that process of simplifying for the cookbook, were there any examples of things that you found in that process that eventually made their way into the restaurant kitchen?
YO: Scully is a bit younger than me and slightly more technical. There is a recipe for a venison fillet with caramelized yogurt. In order to caramelize the yogurt, we strain it and then cook it in a bain marie or sous vide for many hours until the solids split from the liquid. The solids caramelize and turn a beautiful brown. But you need to really cook it, essentially steam it, at 85 degrees Centigrade for a good 12 hours.
We thought that would not be very practical for people at home. We took the yogurt, we put it in a little jar and we started steaming it. After about six hours, I told Scully, "This is just not going to work." I was just afraid that it was going to explode in the kitchen.
So what we did is we strained our yogurt as you do with labneh, with Lebanese or Palestinian cheese. We added some date syrup, some pomegranate syrup, and a few other bits and pieces. The final result was as good as the one that was cooking for 12 hours. We thought, "In this particular case, the long process doesn't really help, and a simpler version actually works just as well."
These things have happened a couple of times, but mostly we keep on cooking the way we do in the restaurant.
RP: But was Scully upset that he couldn't use a sous vide machine?
YO: It's very funny with chefs. I think we are a very proud lot. We tend to think that what we do is very special, and nobody else can do it as well as we do. But what I like about working with Scully is the fact that he could easily concede when something is not completely justified. He wasn't sticking to his guns in that case. He was quite happy to simplify the recipe.
RP: Every time I cook from your recipes, I'm discovering new ingredients. You go through these mad passions for different ingredients. With Nopi you're actually cooking with somebody else's palate, to a certain extent. Scully was very much a part of that. What did you fall in love with during the testing for the Nopi cookbook?
YO: Curry leaves. I had known curry leaves before, but Scully cooks with a lot of curry leaves. Part of his heritage is Indian. This is just a wonderful thing. There is a recipe in Plenty More that is a steamed rice with curry leaves and lemon juice. It's the simplest thing, but they are so wonderfully aromatic.
The same way we do in European cooking, start our dishes with some chopped onion, carrot and celery, often in Indian cooking and Southeast Asian you start with curry leaves, ginger, chili and maybe some mustard seeds. It's just the most wonderfully aromatic thing. Often now whenever I cook, I drop a few curry leaves into the pan when I just start cooking a stew or roasted vegetables. It just gives the most wonderful flavor.
Pandan leaves, another Southeast Asian ingredient used both for savory and sweet cooking, are the Asian equivalent of vanilla. They are wonderfully aromatic.
I use miso all the time. I never used to cook with miso.
It definitely opened my mind in many directions.
RP: With your cookbook, the appearance of the food has been so much a part of the appeal. The food is so evocative, but it's much more of a natural, flowing style of plating. Somebody once described it as either it looked like it fell from the sky or grew from the plate. How do you balance that aesthetic with the more rigorous approach that's expected in a high-end restaurant?
YO: This is something that I've actually learned over time. I don't let other people style my food. This is quite important for me. I have tried and failed miserably in the past. I need to put the food on the plate. For me, the art of putting food on the plate for the camera is not different from a restaurant. It needs to feel like it has not been played with. One of the things that I completely see through is if someone played with the food. I don't play with it.
We cook the food for the camera. We season it as we want it, we cook it al dente, all these elements that have nothing to do with appearance. But I think it's a psychological state of mind where you come to the dish and say, "I want it to look and taste exactly as it would if I were serving it to my family or friends now." That's the attitude that I bring with me when I shoot.
Obviously, it needs to look great. We take many takes, we change plates, we do all sorts of things that are, in a sense, a manipulation. But the bottom line is that it needs to taste and look as it would if I'd serve it to someone. If I've spent hours playing with it, pushing it, prodding it and making it into something which it's not, I think it's completely visible to someone who reads the book or looks at the book.
RP: In the Nopi book, even though the dishes are plated, there's not that obvious manipulation. It looks like a cook made it.
YO: We shoot everything in my test kitchen, which is a very unglamorous place in North London. Scully or myself cooked it, plus maybe another assistant. We put it on the plate, we bring it down to the photographer, then we sit and make sure it looks great. But there is very little manipulation going on. It's the food as it fell on the plate.
Often we take a second or a third take. I just find that the first time you put something on the plate, in the majority of cases, that's the thing you like the most. There's something about the natural positioning of something the first time. The most naive look at the dish is the one that is just the right way to plate it.
RP: It takes something away when you think about it too much.
YO: If you re-plate something, it just never looks quite as right as when you just put it there for the first time.
Russ Parsons was the food editor and columnist of the Los Angeles Times for more than 25 years. He is the author of the cookbooks How to Read a French Fry and How to Pick a Peach. He is a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, and has won awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the Association of Food Journalists and the James Beard Foundation.