Food Biz

The "Panda-Eyed" Chef GQ Credits with Sexier Veg

August  3, 2016

We produce plenty of Ottolenghi fan fiction on this site, so it doesn't come as a surprise that other people have cued in as well.

Michael Paterniti's GQ article "How Chef Yotam Ottolenghi Reset the Table" will sing the praises of the London chef to a whole new audience—and it's even more gushing than anything we've published yet. Think descriptions as strange as, "He was handsome, with panda eyes, and he wrote cookbooks. His name was Yotam Ottolenghi" and "When I arrived [...], he stood blinking, six feet three in an untucked pink shirt and brown laceless wingtips, wearing stylish glasses, looking half professor and half dancer, erect, graceful."

And all of this is to prove the point that Ottolenghi is the man who's, quite frankly, made vegetables sexy again (again? perhaps for the first time) on a large scale: five London delis and restaurants, a weekly column in the Guardian, and 3 million cookbooks sold. To Ottolenghi, Paterniti attributes a "Vegi-ssance, "a renaissance of 'the veg' in our daily diet, fired by smoky paprika and braised fennel, by Urfa chile flakes and orange bitters, these combinations and techniques that helped reframe what a vegetable can look and taste like." I agree, but also promise to never use the term "Vegi-ssance" unironically.

While we know a lot about good ole Y.O. and kind of consider this our area of expertise, we were delighted to catch an inside look through Paterniti's eyes.

Here's what we were surprised/delighted/amused to learn:

1) Expect cauliflower "rice" in his (and our!) future. (Be hopeful for a new name.)

In the hands of Ottolenghi, grated cauliflower rice (some dub it couscous), which has long been used as a grain-free grain substitute, will be celebrated for what it is, rather than what it's not.

Yotam noticed that everyone seemed to be eating cauliflower in a cous cous style, grated raw and mixed through with plenty of fresh herbs as you would a tabbouleh, with a generous squeeze of lemon, a pinch of ground allspice and some pomegranate seeds or pistachio nuts sprinkled on top like jewels. The result was such a revelation—so simple, so special—that the grater and the cauliflower were finally but delightfully introduced in the test kitchen.

Ladies and gentlemen: The next zoodle!

2) He wants to make us uncomfortable—if only to make us more comfortable.

If you don't like a certain vegetable, it's because you haven't eaten it in the right preparation, in the right dish. (Translation: There's hope for you yet.)

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> What I want to make sure of is that I constantly challenge people's comfort zones. If you don't like Brussels sprouts, you actually haven't had a proper Brussels sprout, or it hasn't been presented to you in the right context or from the right perspective.

But really, I'm ready for Ottolenghi to fess up: Are there any vegetables he doesn't like and never will? (And let it be known: Even he cannot help me to love fennel.)

3) His first food priority is flavor and taste, not health, wellness, or politics.

In a world of misinformation and information saturation, it's refreshing to read that Ottolenghi believes that eating is primarily "a hedonistic pleasure”. The "obsession with food politics," he says, is really a way for people to get to know food, but also a tangent or a sidetrack.

My feeling is that you need to begin by immersing yourself in food in an unmediated way, just eat something delicious and love it. I think discussion about food and politics becomes a substitute to eating, and that's a tradition that I really don't like.

But what then is his stand on food politics? On GMOs and organic farming and "healthiness"? And should it matter to us?

4) He's not into dining out at old-school or old-school-style restaurants.

So don't make a reservation for two at La Grenouille.

I find the rigidness of dining in old-school restaurants or new restaurants playing by old-school rules kind of tedious. I find the interaction between the waiters and the diners to be very stuffy, and I can't stand certain rituals, like when the waiter parrots every single ingredient in your dish, like a puppet, and everybody glazes over.

5) Many of his recipes begin as "field notes."

Which is justification, if you're feeling uninspired in the kitchen, to book a plane ticket (or at least take the afternoon off and wander the market).

When recipes start as ideas—from a chef in one of his restaurants, for example—they're then translated (typically by Esme Howarth, who's been "at his right hand for the past three years" and other test kitchen staff) into a recipe that's workshopped by Ottolenghi. Once the recipe is workshopped and approved by the whole group, it's sent to someone with no back-knowledge of the experimentation, to see if it will really work for a context-less home cook.

Paterniti's article aims to prove that it is Ottolenghi who has, for the first time on this level, given us legitimate reason to get excited about and inspired by cooking vegetables—that he's provided a viewfinder through which to see vegetables as delicious (and, the language in this article makes clear, sensuous) in their own right.

We Americans, Paterniti laments, have lost our way, and "Even the West Coast-fresh movement, trumpeting a diet full of the glories of local produce, has, until recently, seemed more a product of yuppie affordability than everyday habit."

Yet the dish Ottolenghi dish that Paterniti chooses to make—"Quail with Burnt Miso Butterscotch and Pomegranate and Walnut Salsa"—seems a little beyond "everyday habit" (and geared way more towards yuppies than average home cooks).

Is there really room for Ottolenghi in the every day? Can other vegetable-forward cooks drum up the same excitement? Or will it take Guy Fieri's vegetarian cookbook to really bring vegetable-foward food to the masses?

Only time will tell.

Are you tired of hearing about Ottolenghi? Or will that day never come? Tell us!

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1 Comment

Cinnamin August 17, 2016
What's the point you're trying to make...that publications shouldn't gush about him? If you've ever read a CN publication like Vogue or GQ, gushing and being overly descriptive is their style. And I don't think writing about a chef should be the exclusive duty of food publications and websites. You wrote about your constipation at summer camp and now seem to be some sort of F52 media critic as well, with this article and the other one you wrote, food media failing in teaching us how to eat. So calm down. There's nothing bizarre about the GQ article. They wanted to describe his face along with his food. Big deal. If you can dedicate an entire article to your bowel movement from summer camp, I think it's ok for GQ to describe YO as graceful.