Yotam Ottolenghi explains the stories and traditions behind his cookbook, 'Jerusalem'

Ottolenghi spoke at the Fellows and Trustees Breakfast before receiving an honorary degree during the Brandeis’ commencement ceremony on Sunday

Photo/Heratch Ekmekjian

Yotam Ottolenghi speaks during the Trustees and Fellows breakfast on Sunday, May 17, 2015.

When acclaimed chefs Yotam Ottelenghi and Sami Tamimi set about creating a cookbook centered on the city of Jerusalem, they focused on the memories of their youth — Ottelenghi as a Jew in West Jerusalem and Tamimi as a Palestinian from the east side of the city — and the personal stories and traditions of others.

Memories of stuffed vegetables cooked for hours in tomatoes and spices, a grandmother preparing a Shabbat dinner for who-knows-how-many guests, a Muslim mother teaching her daughter to roll vine leaves just right, and a restaurant where the family patriarch must taste the hummus everyday before it is served, no matter how many times his 46-year-old son has made it.

They found they were able to paint a picture of the city with these stories — and recipes — that went beyond the many competing narratives of the city, said Ottolenghi, who spoke at the Fellows and Trustees Breakfast before receiving an honorary degree during the Brandeis’ commencement ceremony on Sunday.

"These family traditions were tacit attempts at establishing identity through tradition to deal with an extremely difficult reality," Ottolenghi said. "We also realized the city is too diversified, and checkered, too raw to be covered by one story, and there were too many official competing narratives obscuring our view. Instead it was the individual, private stories, and lots of outrageously good food, that gave us a glimpse into the people of Jerusalem."

Along with "Jerusalem: A Cookbook," which was published in 2012, Ottolenghi has authored three other cookbooks that are staples in many kitchens around the world.

Before becoming a world-renowned chef, Ottolenghi served in the Israel Defense Forces, then earned a master’s degree in philosophy and comparative literature at Tel Aviv University while also working on the news desk at Haaretz, one of Israel’s largest daily papers.  His parents hoped he would enroll in a doctoral program, but instead he moved to England in 1997 and became a student at Le Cordon Bleu.

His career in restaurants began as a pastry chef, a duty he performed at some of the top restaurants in London, before joining with partners Noam Bar and Tamimi to open his first deli in Notting Hill, London in 2002. He now owns four restaurants and delis.

Asked Sunday if he ever planned to open a restaurant in the United States, he said he was often asked that question, but the answer would remain the same. He has no plans to leave London, and he couldn't imagine not having a regular presence at one of his restaurants.

"I'm the kind of chef that cannot relinquish his presence," he said. "It's very difficult to sleep at night when you can't taste the food served in your own restaurant."

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