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Monday, October 27, 2014

Falling Into the Cult of Ottolenghi in San Francisco

Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2014 at 11:37 AM

click to enlarge Yoav Eilat has known Yotam Ottolenghi since high school. Here he waits to get his book signed with Alix Wall.
  • Yoav Eilat has known Yotam Ottolenghi since high school. Here he waits to get his book signed with Alix Wall.
Walking towards the San Francisco Jewish Community Center Friday night to hear Yotam Ottolenghi, I fell into a pack of people all clutching copies of Jerusalem, Plenty or the latest one to come out, Plenty More. I couldn’t help but feel like one of the masses, going to meet their cult leader or guru.

And in the packed-to-capacity Kanbar Hall, we listened to Peter Stein ask to how this Jerusalemite, son of an Italian-Jewish chemist and German-Jewish educator, became someone defined by only one name, with his several London restaurants and now four cookbooks, that have not only reintroduced Mediterranean flavors in a new way, but have gotten way more people excited about eating their veggies.

In Plenty More, Ottolenghi looks eastward yet again, though this time further still, to cuisines like those of Persia, India, and Southeast Asia.

“My palate is restless,” he says. “Some of it is because I want to, some of it is because I have to. I understood this only a few months ago how I’m a victim of my own success. When someone on my team tasted a pea soup we made and said, ‘It’s not very Ottolenghi,’ It dawned on me, even though I did know it before, I hadn’t yet put words to it, that there are certain expectations of my recipes now and I can’t ever go back. They need the intensity of strong flavors, the wow factor. I embrace it now.”

Later, in line with the minions to get our books signed, I chatted with an Israeli man behind me, Yoav Eilat, who now lives in Mountain View. I told him that when I wrote about Jerusalem two years ago, my Israeli cousin responded to my posting of the article on Facebook that he had been Ottolenghi's commander in the army, and had no idea he had become such a celebrity. Eilat asked who my cousin was, and within a minute we had verified that Eilat too was in the same army unit with Ottolenghi, reporting to my cousin.

While I was hoping to hear tales of Yotam coming up with creative meals with their army rations, that’s not exactly what I got. Nonetheless, Yoav told me, “Yotam was always a smart and charismatic guy, but it was impossible to predict which field he would become successful in.”

Eilat had also gone to high school and Tel Aviv University with Ottolenghi, but hadn’t seen him in years. After I got my book signed, I dropped back to see them catch up in Hebrew, just two old friends, excited to see each other after so long.

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About The Author

Alix Wall

Alix Wall

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer and certified natural foods chef. Her web site is


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