I love to eat and I love food so when an opportunity arose to see one of the world’s most famous celebrity chefs speak at the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre, London, it was too good to pass up. The location itself right on the Thames is wonderful. Exiting Embankment Tube Station and seeing the Southbank Centre on the opposite bank and the dome of St Paul’s cathedral lit up in the night is exquisite!
The big question is, can a 2 hour show talking about food, without any prospect of eating any food, be engaging and entertaining . The theatre was about 90% full and there were plenty of groups of friends, mostly groups of ladies who had come together.. They were armed for the show with their wines (in plastic cups for safety). Judging by their chatter and laughter in the bathroom after the show, they had a great time and were very jolly from the drinks!
I was seated very far back so despite the promise of some test kitchen action, I could tell I was much too far back to get even one molecule of delicious food aroma. The only “cooking” done in the test kitchen was really just the addition of some condiments, oils and sauces to some pre-cooked eggplant.
Yotam Ottolenghi is a really well known chef of Middle Eastern Heritage who has released several books and has a number of restaurants throughout London. This Middle Eastern heritage permeates through his vegetable heavy recipes. His recipes are delicious but somewhat complicated and time consuming for the weeknight cook. He is married to a man from Northern Ireland, Karl, but despite this, he is an absolute favourite amongst the ladies. Noor Murad is a chef from Bahrain and heads up Ottolenghi’s Test Kitchen.
Together, they led us through this evening. First, they discussed the various chapters of their new book, Extra Good Things. The concept of the book is about having flavoured oils, condiments, crunchy additions, sauces, etc. to add that something special to your dish. These “extra good things” can be made, kept and used to jazz up other dishes in the coming days, thereby adding flavour with no extra work. There was some audience interaction during the show with the use of a QR code and some audience voting. They also added some condiments to basic cooked eggplant to show how adding condiments can elevate a simple dish. This added a lot of levity because one of the audience members who got to try the dish was an absolute die-hard fan. She told Ottolenghi that she had written many love letters to him and he had changed her life. At the end, she went in for a number of hugs. It was awkward and very funny.
What food inspiration did I gain from the night?
- To Ottolenghify a dish is to add a twist to a basic dish e.g. by adding more seeds, salsa, feta, herbs, flavoured oils, lemon etc.
- Shanklish are balls of strained yoghurt, like labneh, with flavourings stirred through and then left at room temperature for about 5 days to develop a blue cheese funk. (I’m not convinced on this one!)
- Green Tahini – a blend of parsley, lemon juice, tahini and garlic. Sounds yum!
- Tomato sauce with cumin, chilli and cinnamon to make an eggplant parmigiana pie with a kataifi topping.
- Dukkah to add crunch such as on baked root vagetables with harissa chickpeas.
- Crispy garlic for the flavoured oil and the texture of the fried garlic.
- Rocket pesto – for a dish of pasta and beans with a shower of grated haloumi over the top. Haloumi as the new parmesan!
- Caramel clementine dressing with the blackened chicken. The clementines adding the freshness to the rich dish. (The quality and sweetness of the clementines or mandarins you can get in the UK is extraordinary so I can believe that this would be a heavenly dish!)
- Zaatar tomatoes which have been confit in balsamic vinegar and spooned over polenta.
- Smoky chipotle oil made with smoked praprika, chipotle flakes and galic
- Jammy peppers, slow cooked with onions.
- Celebration rice – rice with lamb, chicken, herbs, nuts, pomegranate seeds.
- Meringue roulade made with brown sugar for extra chewiness and filled with caramelised apples flavoured with vanilla and bayleaf.
It turns out that one of Ottolenghi’s favourite cuisines is Malaysian cuisine. He said that one of his dessert island dishes is Nasi Lemak, coconut rice with all kinds of toppings. (I didn’t realise that one could choose more than one dessert island food. Seems like cheating!) His favourite store bought biscuit is a milk chocolate digestive. He was silent for ages before answering this audience question. I suspect it has been a very long time since Ottolenghi has sampled a store bought biscuit!
The evening was very amusing at times because there would be a lot of detailed discussion about a particular dish or perhaps a photo on the big screen. Sometimes, the audience would let out a audible moan that vocalised their of longing and desire for the food, their frustration at being unable to eat it at that very moment and their admiration at the concept.
Yotam Ottolenghi was asked what he was serving on Christmas day. It turns out Christmas is the one day he is not allow to Ottolenghify the food as his Irish husband wants a traditional Christmas of his youth. Poor Ottolenghi has to make it through the Christmas meal with his homemade chilli sauce to add some spice to his plate. He seemed very anti-gravy. He said it was a sin to cover up all your good work on the plate with gravy.
It was a fun night. It’s always interesting to see how food is such a reflection of a person’s heritage, memories and life experiences. I enjoyed being in the Royal Festival Hall and I love any talk about good food. It does pale to the eating of food though. Does it make me want to try some Ottolenghi recipes? Maybe. I still do think they are overcomplicated but I will definitely take aspects of them for inspiration.