I try to avoid acting all fangirl-nervous when I meet famous people, but when I went to a book signing for Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, I just couldn't help it. I'm more than a little obsessed with Ottolenghi's work, especially Plenty, which always inspires me to get back to cooking vegetables.
And I'm not the only one—for awhile it seemed like everyone I talked to was cooking their way through the book, and Ottolenghi's other published works: Nick loves that brussels sprouts with tofu dish, Tracie's go-to weekend breakfast is the baked egg recipe with yogurt and greens. Jamie loves to serve Ottolenghi's pistachio shortbread and orange polenta cake for dessert, and Ben and Kenji can argue over whether the awesome eggplant recipe in Plenty is better than the awesome eggplant recipe in Jerusalem. Suffice it to say that Yotam Ottolenghi is one of our favorite cookbook authors.
Which made me curious...who are his favorite cookbook authors? Does Yotam Ottolenghi have go-to cookbooks, or cookbooks that inspire him? I had to ask.
What do you look for in a cookbook? What do you use cookbooks for? Do you cook from printed recipes, or use cookbooks as inspiration, bedside reading, etc?
Inspiration, ideas, interest: everything! Chefs and cooks put so such into their recipe books and that tends to bounce off the page. There is so much energy, so much keenness to share much-loved dishes. I also love the fact that, whilst a pretty clear format tends to be followed—recipe, great picture, a bit of a backstory—every book feels so completely unique and different from its bookshelf mates.
I don't cook from printed recipes. I'll have an idea in mind—from something I have eaten, something one of my chefs is doing, something I have read about—and then I'll have a big think and a great read around—in cookery books, magazines, online. It's a bit of a jigsaw puzzle: piecing together bits from here and there, bringing in something new which might or might not work and putting it together to make a slightly different picture from the one which inspired a dish in the first place.
What was the first cookbook what really inspired you?
Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food held my hand for a long time. Claudia is the real deal: an incredible researcher, the most lovely style of writing, wonderful recipes. And it's all about the food: it's history, evolution and the sheer delight in cooking, eating and sharing it. It's a pretty dense book and I guess, at the time, her combination of academia and cooking made me realize that it wasn't always going to be an either/or between the library and the kitchen. I was studying for my Masters at the time, unsure which direction I should go—academic or culinary—and it gave me the confidence to not worry so much about such black and white distinctions.
What older cookbooks do you consider essentials?
What newer cookbooks do you love and why?
What lesser-known cookbooks do you think more people should own?
Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt's The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey is a collection of recipes, stories, and histories which don't get told everyday. Ana Sortun's Spice is also doing something rather special.
Do you think the cookbook as a form is here to stay, given the rise of blogs and food television?
Yes, I think there is room for it all. Blogs and TV programmes can be great, as can e-books and all the apps that do clever things with recipes and food lists but I can't see the actual cookbook going anywhere soon. It's a totally different package, a totally different from. And it's much less of a liability to cook from in the kitchen than an iPad, if nothing else.