THE successful Israel-born chef, known for his weekly columns in The Guardian, speaks to EDWIN GILSON before a talk and baking showcase in Brighton.

FIVE episodes into the current series of The Great British Bake Off and, once more, the country is in the grip of baking mania. While the television phenomenon has earned its place in the cultural consciousness, though, esteemed cook Yotam Ottolenghi has a different idea about how would-be master chefs should sculpt their craft. Spend more time in the kitchen.

“I always think we should all be in the kitchen more and watching television less,” says the 48 year-old, whose recent desert cookbook, Sweet, co-written with Helen Goh, forms the basis of his appearance in Brighton. He adds that cooking shows aren’t necessarily detrimental to culinary development, but it’s the hours spent slaving over the stove that make the difference. “Cookery programmes don’t keep people away from the kitchen but they don’t put them there, either,” he adds.

Ottolenghi is in a good place to give advice about cooking. Thousands of readers swear by his recipes in The Guardian (he jokes that he has to tone down his “impossibly long ingredient lists” for the column) and his line of London delis are perpetually in demand. He has scooped a number of prestigious food awards for his unique mix of Middle Eastern stylings with contemporary European twists.

It could have all been so different, though. Born in Jerusalem, Ottolenghi excelled academically (having also worked on a daily newspaper in the city) and moved to London to undertake a PhD. But then he enrolled in cookery school and the rest is history. At times the going was slow, however. As Ottolenghi writes in the introduction to Sweet, his first job in a professional kitchen was whisking egg whites. Wasn’t it frustratingly limited?

“There was an element of frustration and excitement at the same time,” he says. “In cooking you want to work quickly but you actually need a Zen-like attitude. Giving yourself time to learn properly is very important.”

He adds that this is especially true with baking. “Other forms of cooking can be quite functional – you have to cook for sustenance. But with baking, you need to have time. It’s meditative, you just go with the flow.” Ottolenghi himself seems to radiate a Zen-like attitude but he admits the pressures of working in high-class restaurants affected him in the past.

“I didn’t last very long in Michelin star restaurants, so I’m probably not a good example,” he says. “I realised it’s not good for my mental health to have to work crazy hours. I made a conscious choice to work in a less stressful environment. I often say to young chefs, if you don’t like where you’re working, don’t work there. We’re quite lucky these days that there are a lot of different restaurants. You can form your own way and not stick to someone else’s agenda.”

Ottolenghi has two sons with his partner Karl Ottolenghi-Allen. When asked if he would encourage them to follow in his foodie footsteps, he jokes that “the worst idea with children sometimes is to tell them what to do. I’ll wait until they’re 21 and then we can have a proper conversation”. I realise it would be remiss of me not to put Ottolenghi on the spot and ask him his favourite Brighton restaurant.

“To be honest I haven’t been there for quite a while,” he says. “But I’m going out after my event and am open to recommendations.”

Yotam Ottolenghi: Sweet
Regency Suite, Hilton Brighton Metropole, October 23, 7pm. For more information and tickets visit or call 01273 775432