Yotam Ottolenghi’s testing times
The London master chef and his team develop new recipes at an unusual test kitchen in Camden
Yotam Ottolenghi, chef and restauranteur. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Chef Esme Howarth and Yotam Ottolenghi. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
‘There’s dinner. The question is, who’s going to get it?”
There are no immediate claims made on the glossy, burnished puff pastry pie, filled with chicken, green olives and preserved lemons. But only crumbs remain by the time I leave the small industrial unit, tucked in an archway underneath the railway line in Camden, north London, a couple of hours later.
It’s not surprising, really. After all, it’s an über pie created by Yotam Ottolenghi, who is here at his test kitchen, where recipes for his books and newspaper column are created and tested, to taste, tweak, and sign off on an “easy” spring cooking recipe booklet.
The pie has been cooked by recipe developer Esme Howarth, a key member of the Ottolenghi team. It’s Howarth’s third version of the pie, but her colleagues don’t spare her feelings when it is forensically examined; here it is all about honesty and getting it exactly right.
“The flavour’s really good, but it’s not my kind of pie” and “If I were going to buy a pie I would go for a fish pie, or a meat pie . . . a standard pie”, say Tara Wigley, Ottolenghi’s writing collaborator, and Sarah Joseph, who is also a recipe tester. “Really, why not?” the boss asks, sounding like he’s taking the comments a tiny bit personally. “That’s not a good thing to say,” he adds. “I would buy this in a second.”
The team gets to work on a spring greens soup with wild garlic pesto. They debate exactly how much pesto should be added, to the very gram. “Discuss and make again,” reads one of many annotations on the nearby recipe sheet.
Surprisingly, some of the leftover greens, still in their plastic bags, look a tiny bit past their prime, and the counter is dotted with supplies from a variety of high street supermarkets, rather than the high-end specialist purveyors and farmers’ markets you would expect.
“I buy in a crap supermarket deliberately,” Ottolenghi says, “because it’s quite important for me to see what happens when they [the recipes] are made with it. So, essentially, I know what the worst version will be, and from there I can tell the readers, look, if you can swap this tamarind paste that is available in every supermarket for a real one, then you will up your game. But I want to know that it’s not terrible if you do use the paste.”
And it is not just the ingredients that are basic. “This is why the kitchen is not a high-tech kitchen,” he says. “It’s a normal home kitchen. We can’t even have gas here; we’re not allowed because of the railway. The whole purpose of this place is to make sure recipes work for home cooks.”
Ah, yes, the railway. I’ve only just stopped jumping when the overhead rumble rolls in and the arched corrugated roof seems to shudder under the weight overhead. But the team don’t seem to notice it.
Wigley, a Ballymaloe Cookery School graduate who works with Ottolenghi on writing and research, is tapping away at a computer on the long work bench behind the prep area, a rug over her knees to ward off chills from the exposed stairwell. The recipe developers each have computers here. When not cooking, they update ingredient quantities and methods, much like recording a science experiment.
The four chat about an event the Ottolenghi catering team is preparing for Google; debate whether grilled sea bass with spicy avocado, mustard and spring onion salsa is “a bit boring”; and talk of a dinner they are catering for Al Gore – “very sustainable” according to Ottolenghi.
There’s an easy warmth and camaraderie between them, with inquiries as to how Max, the boss’s elder son, got on at his first interview for primary school that morning.
Three-year-old Max was joined last autumn by little brother Flynn – “a good Irish name” says Ottolenghi, who is raising the boys with his partner Karl Allen, who is from Co Down. He’s not sure if they will join him at Ballymaloe next week for Litfest, where he has several speaking and cooking engagements.
“If you want to do a lot of stuff and you’ve got the children, you’ve got less freedom obviously,” he says, sounding like a parent for whom a good night’s sleep – and the chance to sample some good Cork hospitality – might hold equal appeal.
He will, however, be joined at the Ballymaloe event by Ramael Scully, his co-author on NOPI: The Cookbook, and head chef at the Ottolenghi group restaurant of the same name. The pair plan to cook recipes from the book, which recently won a James Beard award in New York.
“We want to use what they grow; it’s a great time of year,” Ottolenghi says. “The recipes will be inspired by the book, but it will depend on what we find. So there might be baby carrots with mung beans and smoked labneh, which is one of our most popular salads, and farinatta, which is an Italian flat bread based on chickpea flour, like a French socca, but thinner.
“And we’re going to roast duck with hazelnut beer butter – there is no butter in it, but there is beer. It’s the only recipe in the book almost that doesn’t have butter.” Litfest title sponsor Kerrygold must love this.
“We’ve got burnt spring onion dip with curly kale, where we take spring onion and burn the hell out of them and get a lot of smokey flavour, and that is mixed with cream cheese. ”
He is looking forward to a return visit to Litfest, having taken part in 2014.
“It was kind of like having all my food heroes in one . . . not room, but field: Sandor Katz, Simon Hopkinson, René Redzepi. So it’s a very fertile ground for that time. It’s fertile all year round, but especially at that time.”