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Chef Yotam Ottolenghi on the joy of raiding your own kitchen cupboards

Given the time it takes to research, compile and publish a recipe book, most of the titles hitting book shops right now started life long before the pandemic began. Shelf Love is different.

The first Ottolenghi Test Kitchen cookbook – co-authored by founder Yotam Ottolenghi and head of the OTK (as it’s known) Noor Murad, with recipe contributions from other team members – was conceived during the UK’s first lockdown, as an ode to ‘that one shelf in the back of your pantry’ (or fridge or freezer) where all kinds of pulses, grains, condiments, spices and other culinary surprises lie in wait.

“Noor and I were having these conversations… and it became really clear that something really quite dramatic is happening,” Ottolenghi says, thinking back to spring 2020. “People were really excited about the subject that we were were covering in this book, which is kind of rediscovering their kitchens, rediscovering old simple ingredients that you can get in abundance.”

The Israeli-born chef, writer and restauranteur was unwell with Covid when the OTK – the recipe testing and writing hub, located under a railway arch in London’s Camden – was forced to close in the March.

“It wasn’t as bad as other people got it, but it was bad enough for me not to be able to do anything for two or three weeks. Luckily, I didn’t need to go to hospital… I felt very sorry for myself for that period, it was was pretty tough,” he recalls of being struck with the virus.

With their founder out of action, Murad and the rest of the team shuttered the kitchen, and went their separate ways to wait out lockdown.

“But we stayed very connected with, you know, the beauty of social media and Zoom calls,” says Murad, who returned to her native Bahrain (she has dual nationality, thanks to an English mother). That was when cookbook inspiration struck.

“Raiding!” is what Shelf Love is all about, she continues. “Emptying out your shelves, using up what you have, being quite creative and playful with recipes, replacing certain spices with others based on what you have at home.”

As any Ottolenghi fan would expect, Middle Eastern flavours loom large, as do vegetarian dishes, like chickpeas cacio e pepe and sweet potato shakshuka, as well as carnivorous delights like sesame-crusted feta and black lime beef skewers.

What, you might ask, is a black lime? Murad says she wanted to put the dried citrus fruit “on a pedestal” in the new book: “They’ve got a quite sour, bitter flavour – in the best way. I really want people to feel familiar with black limes, to the point that they will always have a bag or a jar in their cupboards.”

Ottolenghi agrees: “If you put [a black lime] into a stew without doing anything to it, it will give it a really, really different twist. It changes the whole flavour profile.”

The 52-year-old, who moved to London in 1997 to study pastry making at Le Cordon Bleu, says he’s noticed a “real shift” in attitudes towards food since he arrived, in terms of the “knowledge of ingredients, that desire to test, try new things and enjoy new ways of cooking. You go to the supermarket, the most popular thing in a tub is humous – it’s not coleslaw.”

The chef himself is partly responsible for the phenomenal popularity of Middle Eastern cuisine in the UK. After founding his eponymous delicatessen in Notting Hill in 2002 – which attracted a cult following and introduced customers to ingredients like za’atar, tahini and pomegranate molasses – the Test Kitchen opened the same year, followed by two more delis, two Ottolenghi eateries as well as the trendy Rovi and Nopi restaurants.

What was it like being a business owner during the pandemic, when restaurants were forced to close for months at a time and thousands of establishments had to shut their doors for good?

“It was very traumatic, very difficult, very painful,” Ottolenghi says. “I never thought it would come to that moment. But now, I’m glad to say that we are almost back to normal. Luckily, we haven’t had to shut anything and the business is doing well.”

Those dark days gave him a renewed sense of gratitude: “I think that’s the kind of trauma that stays with you. Everybody experienced that with the pandemic, but in their own worlds and in their own ways. For me, it’s just, I don’t take anything for granted anymore.”

And, looking on the bright side, both chefs agree that lockdown gave them one unexpected gift – more time with loved ones.

Murad says: “My whole family lives in Bahrain. It had been five years that I’d been away, so to be able to spend that time with them, which I never thought I would get again, was really quite priceless.”

Ottolenghi admits the “sophistication of my palate [went] down dramatically during that period” due to “a lot of stodge” eaten while catering to Max, eight, and Flynn, six, his sons with husband Karl.

“For me, being at home with my family was just lovely. I mean, the downside is the homeschooling, but I think that everybody struggled with homeschooling.

“But the upside is so nice, because we really got to spend quality time getting to know each other, doing things that we haven’t done before – nature walks and things like that. And it’s just been really precious.”

Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi, photography by Elena Heatherwick, is pubished by Ebury Press

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