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Chef Chat: We Pick The Brains Of Ottolenghi And Tamimi

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi grab a quick breakfast with NPR's Madhulika Sikka. They stopped by NPR in October to talk food philosophy.
Morgan Walker/ NPR
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi grab a quick breakfast with NPR's Madhulika Sikka. They stopped by NPR in October to talk food philosophy.

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi own four wildly popular London restaurants and have authored runaway best-selling cookbooks for omnivores and vegetarians alike.

The two hail from the West and East sides of Jerusalem, respectively, and first crossed paths in London in the 1990s. In 2002 they opened Ottolenghi, a small deli that Tamimi says resembles a flower shop, bursting with the color of freshly made salads and desserts, rooted in and inspired by their native Middle East.

And unlike many other international chefs who have found fame in America — where their book Jerusalem was a surprise best-seller — Ottolenghi and Tamimi made it here without having appeared on a TV cooking show or otherwise succumbing to the personality-driven culture of today's celebrity chefs.

Instead, their success grew out of recipes that look like you or I could make them in our own kitchens. That's attracted a devoted fan base of both home cooks and professional chefs — some of whom have told us here at The Salt that they cook out of the duo's books in their own restaurants.

We here at NPR have been following these two chefs for some time, so when Ottolenghi and Tamimi passed through Washington, D.C., in October, we invited them to stop by for breakfast and a chat.

Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.

On their success in the U.S.:

TAMIMI: We're home-cook kind of recipes, and people relate to that. All the new chefs, with shows or without, come up with books that kind of reflect their kitchen like a Michelin star restaurant, and people don't want to basically cook from these books. They are nice to look at and have on your coffee table. We always have in mind the average person who basically wants to cook delicious food at home.

On the difference between adapting and fusion cooking:

OTTOLENGHI:Fusion food as a concept is kind of trying to quite consciously fuse things that are sometimes quite contradictory, sometimes quite far apart, to see if they'd work. I think we have a clear idea of who we are and what we are trying to achieve, so if we do borrow (and we do borrow quite often from Asian food) it comes in a very — I can't really put the finger on it — in a very measured way. We might have mirin in one of our salad dressings or we might have miso as a base for a marinade. We do lots of things with Asian herbs but always, we limit what we do. We limit how far we go in terms of mixing those things together. We don't see the world as our oyster in terms of ingredients. We kind of pick and choose so that it really works within our context. I think it's more of an intuition.

TAMIMI:I also find that fusion food normally, it's much more complicated than our food. Our food is kind of straightforward and simple. I mean, there's three ingredients and then we link them to different spices and herbs. The borrowing thing we always have in mind is that we have our flavors and we just want to enhance them.

On the five ingredients they can't do without in their home kitchens:

TAMIMI: olive oil, lemon garlic, tomatoes, (basmati) rice

OTTOLENGHI:olive oil, onion, full-fat yogurt, garlic and lemon

On an underrated ingredient:

OTTOLENGHI:Sesame for me is one of the most [underutilized] ingredients. You see it everywhere in all cultures now, but tahini is one of the most magical ingredients. It's one of those condiments that works so well in so many contexts. It can work well in desserts; it can work in savory food. It's a base for dressing. it's just one of the most wonderful things. Tahini, maybe that's the one that's going to make a big splash.

On the next big ingredient:

TAMIMI: Grape molasses. It's quite sweet — you can add vinegar to it to make a salad dressing and you can drizzle it on an ice cream.

OTTOLENGHI: It's the best thing over tahini, it's like our version of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Despite their success here ,Ottolenghi and Tamimi say they have no plans to bring their restaurants to the U.S. For now, those of us stateside will have to make do cooking for ourselves from the three cookbooks published so far. Their most recent is Ottolenghi:The Cookbook.

Madhulika Sikka is executive editor of NPR News.

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Madhulika Sikka is Executive Editor for NPR News, a role she joined in January 2013. As Executive Editor, Sikka oversees all desks and reporters, and helps set the agenda for the entire News division.