Yotam Ottolenghi, a London restaurateur and chef of omnivore proclivities, almost turned down an offer to write a column on vegetables for the Guardian.
The herbivores he ended up cultivating inspired him to write a cookbook. “Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi” became an international bestseller. Last year’s “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” co-written by his Palestinian partner, Sami Tamimi, also did well.
Recently released in the U.S., their 2008 collaboration, “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook,” features recipes from their London restaurants. The Jerusalem natives spoke to me at Bloomberg News world headquarters in New York.
Cole: What’s a typical day like?
Ottolenghi: Sami runs the kitchens. At the moment we have four locations. Sami works with the teams, training the head chefs, and checking the quality of food. We have this perfectionist work culture at Ottolenghi. I spend most of my time testing recipes and writing my column.
Cole: Where have you eaten in New York?
Ottolenghi: Last night we went to Empellon Cocina. Tonight we’ve been invited to Daniel by Daniel Boulud. We’ve never been. I think we’re going to go jogging before.
Cole: How do you write a cookbook together?
Ottolenghi: We brainstorm ideas for a few weeks. Every recipe has a story. Either we ate it somewhere or one of our chefs introduced us to a new ingredient.
Cole: How many did you start with when you wrote “Jerusalem”?
Tamimi: We started with 250 recipes or ideas for recipes. Then we had to cut many out because we didn’t like them. Some of them weren’t recipes. We had to create them from memory or research. Some come with a lot of fat and sugar, so we have to change them.
Ottolenghi: “Jerusalem” is a slightly different book because it’s not our current food. It was going back and rediscovering the food we had as children.
Cole: About 3,000 cookbooks are published a year and many never sell more than 35,000 copies. Why have your books been such a big hit?
Ottolenghi: Our first book (“Ottolenghi”) didn’t have many takers. The next book, “Plenty,” was a vegetable book and vegetables were becoming popular. So it came at a really good time, and it was a new approach to vegetables.
Cole: What’s the oldest recipe in the book?
Ottolenghi: Hummus is one of the most ancient recipes, but many of these are really old whether they’re 500 or 1,000 years old. They’re quite ancient.
Cole: How many people do you think actually cook from your cookbooks?
Ottolenghi: I think 80 percent of the cookbooks bought aren’t being used. But I believe people cook from our books because we make them very straightforward. There may be a long list of ingredients, but we write them for home cooks, not chefs.
Cole: There has been talk here in the U.S. about the nutritional value of insects. Will you consider using them in your cuisine?
Tamimi: We haven’t used them yet. There aren’t any of our recipes where you think, maybe I can add a bug here or there.
Ottolenghi: I’m not against it. If they taste good, then use them.
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater, Jeffrey Burke on books.