The celebrated chef and restaurant owner talks to Sudi Pigott about his revived taste for Asian cooking and how he juggles work with fatherhood
‘Are you Ottolenghi-ing tonight?’ I’ve been to countless dinner parties, where the answer is often a proud ‘yes’. Yotam’s dishes are so wholesome and vibrant that over time, he’s practically become a verb in entertaining one-upmanship circles. I predict ‘can you Nopi?’ becoming the new question at our kitchen tables.
I met with Yotam and Ramael Scully, head chef of Nopi, recently to discuss how amateur cooks can rise to the Nopi challenge with their new cookbook, which undoubtedly requires greater commitment in the kitchen.
As Yotam explains, ‘this is a restaurant cookbook featuring restaurant food. But we didn’t want it to be a coffee table book only about philosophy and lose the food element, so we’ve tried to modify recipes without losing Nopi’s essential core. I don’t want readers to get stressed about food and impressing others. That’s a waste of time, it has to still be enjoyable.’
Nopi is the more ‘grown-up’ Soho restaurant Yotam opened in 2011, unveiling a glamorous look of patina-laden brass lighting and striking art, with the famous loos where stunning floor-to-ceiling concertina mirrors can be found. Its dishes offer Asian and Middle Eastern influences in modernised combinations.
Nopi’s essence derives from Ramael’s unique and intricate background. He was born in Malaysia to a mother of Chinese and Indian heritage and a father with Malay and Irish blood, though went to Sydney as a child and ended up working in several of their top restaurants. Like Yotam with his Middle Eastern background, he thrives on bold and intense flavours; combining ingredients with virtuosity. Ramael tells me, ‘I like to think we’re rather irreverent.’
Yotam credits the chef for first introducing him to crucial ingredients including yuzu, galangal and gochujang (Korean chilli paste made from hot red peppers). ‘I started to enjoy laksas and tamarind broths, misos and peanut sauces and before I knew it, I was cooking them myself,’ he says.
He and Ramael both spend plenty of time exploring Chinatown on the hunt for fresh inspiration. Probably the most adventurous new discovery for Yotam right now is kashk, a fermented Iranian yoghurt mixed with grated parmesan that gives a real umami depth to sauces and stews. Meanwhile, Ramael waxes lyrical about koji – Japanese fermented rice that follows the same process as making sake.
For Yotam, keeping that excitement about individual ingredients is key. ‘I get enthused by food every day. Just last week, I roasted whole zucchini before peeling and mashing them as you would an eggplant to make baba ganoush and the smoky result – served drizzled with a blue cheese yogurt and chilli butter with pine nuts – was a revelation. It’s the renewed perception of an everyday ingredient like zucchini that excites me.’
He hasn’t forgotten the earlier, simpler days when he and his then business partner Sami Tamimi opened the first Ottolenghi on Ledbury Road in 2002. He recalls, ‘it was partly about the location, I loved that little street just off Westbourne Grove. It was only just beginning to become trendy, yet already cosmopolitan enough for customers to be adventurous. Most of all, the place was very elegant with its beautiful skylight.’ He admits that they have been tempted to move to a larger premises though would miss being part of the fabric of the street.
It was a similarly emotive response that first lured Yotam to the venue which became Nopi. He liked the Soho atmosphere and that it had previously been The Sugar Club several incarnations previously, where chef Peter Gordon started out. What makes it extra unusual as a restaurant is that downstairs diners are surrounded by what has to be one of biggest dry stores ever seen, filled with an extraordinary range of packages and pickles.
Being so close to Chinatown is of no small benefit for their constant recipe reccies. ‘I just can’t get enough of Soho,’ enthuses Yotam in his unmistakable throaty voice. His favourite escapes from the restaurant include the Nordic Bakery for coffee and cinnamon buns, Fernandez & Wells for sandwiches and the wonderful steamed buns at Bao.
Both Yotam and Ramael appear to have unreserved energy and are keen to get out and about demo-ing Nopi to a wider audience. Somewhat shyly, Yotam does admit to being slightly tired as he is a new father. He and his partner Karl have recently become the fathers for the second time with a US surrogate mother – a process far longer and more complex than any of their recipes. Their second son is presently only eight weeks old and a constant source of fascination to their two- and-a-half-year-old child Max. He laughs, ‘It’s all part of the exciting journey of discovery, which makes me happy every day.’
Nopi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, Ebury Press, £28, is out now