How to create a cookbook with Yotam Ottolenghi

The renowned chef and Shelf Love co-author Noor Murad talk us through their new publication, which aims to channel the inspirational chaos of the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen.

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It might be a surprise to hear that Yotam Ottolenghi “wasn’t the kind of kid who gravitated towards the kitchen”. He was of course interested in food, but not much more than the eating of it and the unique kind of treat it provides as a child, rather than ever stepping behind the counter himself. As you may have guessed, this soon changed. In the 1970s, noticing his growing interest in food, Yotam’s parents gave him his very own cookbook. A fully illustrated title for children to head into the kitchen with, inside were simple recipes – “desiccated coconut held together by icing sugar and egg, or a very simple French toast” – but nevertheless they offered a sense of ownership. “It’s such a big thing as a child to be able to master something,” Yotam adds. “It’s the first cookbook I encountered. I think it’s the ultimate cookbook.”

There are legions of Ottolenghi fans who are likely to now say the same about Yotam’s very own releases. In fact, Ottolenghi is a name always mentioned with anticipated excitement. Perhaps it’s upon finding out you’re heading to one of the group’s many restaurants for a celebratory dinner, or the certain pride you hear in someone’s voice when they reveal a recipe they’ve made is actually “an Ottolenghi”.

But despite the eponymous title, Ottolenghi today is a fully collaborative affair. Much of Yotam’s work, from delis to restaurants and his own cookbooks, grow from his talented (and trusted) colleagues developing the creative ideas that bear his name. “I am often asked how I carry on creating new recipes for home cooks after more than a decade of publishing cookbooks. The answer is that I don’t. What I did create (with many others) is an environment that I am tremendously proud of: the test kitchen that sits under a railway arch in Camden, north London, and the Ottolenghi restaurants, including Nopi and Rovi,” Yotam himself wrote in his 2020 release, Flavour. “These are the places where new dishes are shaped and it’s the people who work in them that come up with the ideas that find themselves, in print, on people’s kitchen counters.”

The Ottolenghi Test Kitchen (affectionately abbreviated to OTK) has been operating now for the best part of a decade. Yet, despite being the source of culinary legend, it purposefully avoids fuss or fanfare. Its team utilises everyday tools and processes to mirror the setup of its audience, creating recipes pored over in the Guardian and New York Times, or products picked up at Ottolenghi delis. Often the team works in silos but will jump between each other’s counters to taste and offer feedback. The day is broken up by stopping for coffee rather than lunch, with Yotam likening their lack of appetite to the same experienced when preparing a dinner party; “by the time everyone has arrived,” he says, “the last thing you want to do is eat.”

The OTK team are recipe developers hired by Yotam for their clear sense of “culinary identity” – the spark necessary to make a recipe “special, rather than just solid”. Leading them is Noor Murad, a Bahraini chef who “has this in abundance” and heads up an environment that catapults single ingredients into fully-fledged (and often viral) dishes. Yotam’s head pops in and out as a constant presence, yet somehow doesn’t hover, “giving us the space to see through a recipe, without having someone on you all the time,” as Noor describes. Constantly fluctuating between states of creation and careful concentration, OTK for Yotam is the “greater and active heart of the company”.

There isn’t necessarily a procedure to how a recipe is developed at OTK. But as Yotam’s “been doing this for a million years, and Noor’s been doing it for half a million years,” the pair can pinpoint certain routes their creative thinking tends to follow. Historically, Yotam’s dishes have been sparked by life experiences. His trips are often categorised through memories of dishes and a want “to recreate something that I’d had, say, in North Africa or island hopping in the Mediterranean,” offers a starting point. For Noor, memory also plays a large part in a recipe’s initial idea, but it’s always a conversation that encourages a dish to be created. “As we all come from different backgrounds it’s a very diverse team and everyone brings stuff from childhood or places they’ve travelled,” she describes. “So when you come to the kitchen with an idea it’s almost like, ‘ooh, have you tried it this way?’ or ‘maybe you should do it this way?’. That’s when you need your team around you. Really, it’s a lot of bouncing ideas off each other to get to that point.”

“You write down your memories or dreams and with recipes, it’s kind of the same.”

Yotam Ottolenghi

But no matter if it’s a batch of cookies or a whole roasted cauliflower, Ottolenghi recipes are always recorded the same way – with pen and paper. As with anything valuable, it’s useful to have a physical copy, “even if it is just blanks and question marks, so you have something to go off and write notes as you go along,” describes Noor. Then at a testing stage it becomes a blueprint to refer to “because if you’re going to talk to someone about the recipe it’s useful for them to look at it and say: ‘I see you added five spices but I don’t taste any cardamom, so either get rid of it or up it’.” The act of literally writing up a recipe step-by-step in turn aids the creative process. “Actually, the writing is really crucial to keep it fresh,” notes Yotam. “You write down your memories or dreams and with recipes, it’s kind of the same.”

For ease, these recipe notes are then transferred over to “our lovely Google docs” before being funnelled down various Ottolenghi avenues. One of course is cookbooks, which the OTK team has been paying particular attention to for the past 18 months. The idea of an OTK recipe book, an extension of their collaborative thinking, has always been an intention but “lockdown and the pandemic propelled that,” says Noor. The result is Shelf Love, the first in a long line of cookbooks to be released by the OTK team, inspired by home cooks, for home cooks.

“Unstable ground had us grabbing for what was true and familiar and, to no surprise, all steps led us to our kitchens.”

Ottolenghi Test Kitchen

Despite the pandemic offering the inspiration for Shelf Love, Noor and Yotam remain adamant that “it’s not a lockdown book.” Instead, the book takes food-related learnings from the pandemic – a need to be resourceful and a disdain for the amount of washing up – to create “shelf ingredient heavy” recipes that are accessible. Panic buying-induced shortages aside, the pandemic has altered our relationship with cooking. With little to look forward to and anxiety at an all-time high, the meals we prepared and then devoured became a crutch to lean on. Standing at the kitchen counter carefully following the steps noted in an Ottolenghi recipe offered an opportunity to feel in control for a few hours. The OTK team held our hand, albeit through instructions of crushing garlic, crumbling feta and finely chopping parsley.

In Yotam’s household, baking became a focus; a way to occupy his two young children (the youngest, Flynn, “is a master in breaking eggs”). After all, “baking is the most transformative thing in food, right?” he adds. “It takes one set of things and, like magic, it turns into something completely different. I think kids really love that.” The repertoire of meals in the Ottolenghi household also expanded, simply “because we had to cook so many”. But, like the rest of us, they mostly looked for ease. Open Yotam’s freezer and you’ll find stacks of soups “as Karl, my husband, and I do a lot of bulk cooking, lots of one-pot things that are easy to put together,” says Yotam. “The pandemic made those comfort home cooking recipes a bit more prevalent in our lives.” Aside from building the recipes for us to recreate at home, Noor also looked for comfort. “I was craving so much comfort during all of last year. For me, it’s always a lot of chickpeas.”

“It’s one thing to open a cookbook and plan your meals, but most people are often responding to what they have in their cupboard. We wanted to create a book that provided.”

Noor Murad

The way in which our relationship with food developed during the pandemic presented exactly the premise for the first OTK cookbook. As Shelf Love’s introduction notes: “Unstable ground had us grabbing for what was true and familiar and, to no surprise, all steps led us to our kitchens.” Through a series of Instagram cook-a-longs, the team “soon realised that any recipe – any food, any dish – can be made unequivocally ‘Ottolenghi’ with the right know-how, the right willingness to work with what you have.” As Noor adds: “It’s one thing to open a cookbook and plan your meals, but most people are often responding to what they have in their cupboard. We wanted to create a book that provided.”

Finding the unique premise of an Ottolenghi cookbook is a process “that requires quite a lot of thinking and intellectual work,” Yotam describes. Attitudes towards cooking, or the combination of certain recipes, needs to be distilled into a digestible tagline, so the reader knows exactly what to grab from their bookshelf when hungry. The beloved Ottolenghi cookbook Simple was created solely from the idea that “simple” cooking means “different things to different people,” in turn providing a possible structure. In contrast, Shelf Love utilises the geography of a kitchen to divide a book; starting with the crowded shelf in the back of a pantry to the veg box on the counter, one-dish meals to reduce cleaning time, through to raiding the fridge and freezer. “As someone who has been doing this for quite a few years now, I find there is a moment where a collection of recipes just starts to make sense,” continues Yotam. “Somehow, you walk in the dark for quite a while with a recipe book. I find that now it’s my job to tell my co-authors to relax. That it will come, it will present itself, everything will make sense.”

As the first OTK cookbook rather than a co-authored Ottolenghi release, Shelf Love also offers a departure in design from Yotam’s back catalogue, but also cookbooks in general. As designed objects, recipe books are actually quite impractical. Large format, hardback tomes, in smaller kitchens they tend to take up the majority of space on a counter, their thick spines snapping back on themselves as you juggle between reading, chopping and stirring. Oddly, even despite the mess cooking creates, they tend to be white and often clothbound.

However, thanks to the creative direction of “incredible designer,” Caz Hildebrand, Shelf Love is suitably bendy and amazingly wipeable. To mirror the “this for that” attitude it advocates for, each recipe is presented with helpful footnotes. If you can’t find chaat masala for the chaat masala chickpea and polenta chips, rest assured a mild curry powder will work just as well. Perhaps you don’t have the time to charr the spring onions required for the savoury oat porridge with ginger-garlic crumbs, but fresh herbs will do the trick. If you’re feeling adventurous, Noor’s writing encourages a reader to take their own pen and alter her recipes if they like, via each recipe’s “Make it your own” section with purposefully left blank spaces. “We embraced that notion of a family notebook with this format,” adds Yotam. “We want to teach something that is a good life hack, that will stay with you beyond a particular recipe.”

This departure is deepened in the photographic direction chosen. Traditionally, Ottolenghi books have tended to work with renowned food photographer Jonathan Lovekin, yet Shelf Love swaps his beautifully muted approach for the vibrancy of Elena Heatherwick’s lens. Photographically, Shelf Love’s pages needed to transport a viewer into the busyness, the messiness of the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen – an area perfect for Elena for “the way she works with a space, the room and the light,” describes Yotam. There is just one photograph featured where the OTK team aren’t actually genuinely beaming, but it is while they’re carefully making Ixta’s biang biang noodles. The photographic direction also nods to the fact that many of these recipes developed on Instagram live streams featuring self-shot step-by-step photographs. “It’s not overly styled,” adds Noor, “anyone can make these dishes.”

“It’s not overly styled, anyone can make these dishes.”

Noor Murad

Binding it all together is Shelf Love’s cover, another genius move from Caz to catch any possible Ottlolenghi-convert’s eye. While Simple “was all about that lemon,” Plenty saw a silhouetted aubergine nestled amongst its vegetable shelf pals and Flavour saw an onion take centre stage. Shelf Love however chooses bold colours, you could argue to represent OTK’s bold team.

The cover and name of a cookbook is often the hardest decision for any author, especially, Noor and Yotam explain, if it’s a recipe book. It’s a mammoth task that slightly lives aside from the work Noor has put into the book for instance, and was a great moment of achievement in being her first release. Nevertheless, “I think even if you have great recipes and a great concept, putting it into a package that works visually can be quite challenging,” she justifies.“It’s like when you name your child!” Yotam chimes in laughing. “I feel the same about the cover and the title, just any of those decisions feel so big. There’s a moment where there’s no going back.”

As a title, Shelf Love entirely encapsulates the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen. It takes something we all have, an omnipresent cluttered kitchen shelf, and with care, love even, creates something new, comforting, and of course delicious. It is, perhaps, the ultimate cookbook.

Questions submitted to Noor and Yotam from the It’s Nice That team:

It’s Nice That: What is the best scent to walk in the house to after a really shit day?

YO: Frying onion. Haha! I think that it’s for me. If I smell the onion frying, I know that there is something good coming.

NM: For me, it is cinnamon, something like a sweet spice. I always smell like fried onion after a day in the test kitchen so I don’t want to go home and smell it! I’m like… it’s following me.

INT: What would you recommend cooking on a first date?

YO: Oh! I know, Celebration Rice. It’s just a celebration! I think it’s impressive, it’s a bit of work but it’s not extremely difficult. It’s got chicken and lamb and seeds and it just looks wonderful, and it’s a wonderful thing to sit around on a first date.

NM: It’s easy to eat too! It’s not like salad or spaghetti where you have to cover your mouth constantly. And also miso bananas.

YO: Yep, that should be the dessert.

INT: What do you think is the ultimate after school snack?

NM: Road Trip cookies. They are these oatmeal cookies in the dessert chapter and they’re really good. We took a road trip once and Verena, being Verena, was like you guys hungry and we thought we'd stop at Little Chef or whatever and she’s like no and has this box of cookies and she’d woken up at 5am to bake them. They smell so good! That's a great snack.

What do you always buy from the corner shop?

NM: Chewy mints. Not mentos, the blue ones that are chewy.

YO: I do love KitKats. Whenever I go to the corner shop I get KitKats. Not the chunky ones, they are terrible. The four finger ones. I find a KitKat and a cup of coffee the biggest treat. So satisfying.

INT: What’s the one thing you really hate doing in the kitchen?

YO: There’s a lot of things I hate doing in the kitchen, I have to say. The whole notion of cleaning up is never attractive to me.

NM: For me, it’s when the garlic gets stuck in the garlic crusher holes and you can't get it out and you have to use your finger and navigate it and are like, great, now I smell of garlic.

YO: That’s always so annoying. I always find that the tea scum which clings to the side of tea cups. To wash that off is so much work? It even comes out the dishwasher with it still on. It’s really annoying! They should find a solution to this problem.

INT: When you finish work and you’re heading home and you think, I had a really great day at work today, what’s the sort of thing that would have happened?

YO: For me, a miserable day is a day when I feel like this whole thing is not working very well. People weren’t getting on, maybe. A good day is when I feel there is chemistry. I love being with my team in the test kitchen or the restaurant and, I don’t know what it is, but I think I am a bit of a people pleaser, so I love to feel that everybody gets on. A good day is when I leave and feel that everybody was so happy, the food was delicious and I can feel like, job done. I am happy.

NM: For me, it's when I have a to-do list and I can tick off at least three things – that makes me very happy. Another is if I get home and I am not too full. That is like I’ve conquered the day, I didn’t eat too much.

YO: That’s so true.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.

lb@itsnicethat.com

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