I must admit to not having come across Mr Ottolenghi’s work before. He is a chef, restaurateur, author and Guardian food columnist, so admirably placed to inform us about the current thinking on food. He is especially qualified to be the subject of this interview about the Universal Language of Food having family originating from Isreal. Italy, Scotland, Ireland and possibly other countries which he didn’t mention.
The format of this session was a one-to-one interview by Matt White, Food Broadcaster, someone else with whom I am not familiar but I doubt he has ever heard of me either. As an aside, when I tried to google him for background information, he mainly works in Manchester so that is why I might have subconsciously avoided him, the first thing which pops up is a load of links to paint! I will gloss over that last part and get to the point.
Mr White gave us an overview as to what would be discussed and a fine introduction to Mr Ottolenghi, who took his place on the stage.
Matt White was a very good interviewer asking questions which brought out the credentials of the guest and also his thoughts on the current food scene, which is, after all, why we were there, but in an informal and informative way rather than a cross examination. The mix of fact and opinion was a perfect way to handle subjects ranging from the localisation of food to its globalisation and the way in which social media has altered our perception of what we eat, how we eat it and how it is now more important that it looks good than tastes good.
Yotam Ottolenghi explained how he enjoys creating dishes at his test kitchen in Camden where he and his team experiment with ingredients from all over the globe to come up with new tastes. He juxtaposed this with his domestic situation where he has to cater for his young children. Here is a tip which I found useful and will be utilising next week. His kids love rice so, to keep it interesting, he cooks it in flavoured water, adding perhaps star anise or a herb or two, one of those ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ moments. Actually you probably already have thought of it and I now have lost any shred of credibility I may previously have had.
He pointed out the commonalities in food around the world which makes it easier to combine tastes from different areas, whilst also acknowledging the importance that traditional dishes have played in the development of cultures.
The two men were obviously passionate about taste and the development of the industry whilst also being aware as to the effect TikTok and Instagram are playing in its promotion. Mr Ottolenghi said that some restaurants now install specific types of lighting over the tables to make sure that it is perfect for taking photographs of their food.
As a writer of several best selling books on food, he acknowledged that there is a need to make the end product look good although he sometimes uses pictures that his photographer has taken during the preparation as they can be far more appetising than the finished article. He told the story of one of the best dishes he had ever tasted which took ages to cook but when it was plated up it was totally brown and looked gross, no matter how they arranged it.
This was another superb event in the Leeds International Festival of Ideas which runs until Sunday, 25th September at Howard Assembly Room. For information on the remaining events please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/event-tag/har/ and, for the full programme https://leedsinternationalfestival.com/programme/
You will definitely find food for thought.
Feature image from Howard Assembly Room, photographs by Stan Graham