Chefs offer their take on Jerusalem
Two London-based chefs with roots in Jerusalem one day. The next, poster boys for peace.
Such has been the reaction to "Jerusalem," a bestselling cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli, and Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian, built on their memories of a shared city and its delicious food.
"Regardless of all the trouble, food is always there," Tamimi said.
The men run gourmet delis and restaurants in London and have written an earlier cookbook together. They were known not for politics, but for saving some chic London neighborhoods from culinary boredom with Mediterranean-based recipes infused with fresh, exotic flavors.
That changed with the publication of "Jerusalem," as observers took note of their unusual partnership.
An Anglican minister used the chefs as an example of interfaith dialogue in a commentary on the BBC's influential Today program. The New Yorker piled on with a profile titled "The Philosopher Chef." Britain's Daily Telegraph featured the partners on its news pages - no recipes attached.
Suddenly it wasn't just about how much garlic goes into hummus. It was about them.
"We've been very successful at attracting (attention)," Ottolenghi said. "We didn't go out there declaring a political stance. All we did is say, this is the food that we like."
The book contains a mixture of Palestinian and Jewish food, and the authors occasionally discuss what bothers them about their hometown, with its largely Jewish west and predominantly Arab east.
"We would both like to see the city divided more equally between its peoples so it's not a one-sided story as it is at the moment," Ottolenghi said. "And it's controversial. People can be offended or upset. But I don't think they are, and I don't think (they) should be."
Their lucrative collaboration, built around five establishments carrying the Ottolenghi name, would have been harder to pull off in the city that gives the book its title. There is little social interaction between Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem, and business partnerships are very rare.
London was a different story. Perhaps largely because of its postwar history of appalling cuisine, the city was ready for them. Unlike other European countries that find it hard to stray from celebrated local specialties, London has long been willing to experiment, offering a welcoming home to this political odd couple.
Their establishments quickly gained attention with a high-flying crowd that wanted the staff to know their names when they picked up their cappuccino in the morning or their seared tuna at night.
They don't prepare comfort food in the traditional sense, but it is certainly comfortable to those whose food horizons are open to offerings such as roasted eggplant with feta yogurt, caramelized onions, crispy kale, sumac and lemon zest or chargrilled fillet of English beef with sweet coriander-mustard sauce
The company now employs some 200 people, a dozen of whom were beavering away recently at their London test kitchen and bakery tucked into the arches that form the base of a railroad bridge in the borough of Camden. While trains rumbled overhead, flour-covered bakers stacked pastry circles and rolled out breadsticks one by one under a corrugated steel roof.
Ottolenghi moved to London in the late 1990s after escaping a career path to academia and began to work as a pastry chef. In 1999, while riding his scooter, he happened upon the elegant deli Baker & Spice, and found all the things he loved: Fresh greens, rotisserie chicken and a California feel.
Tamimi had created the concept, and the two bonded over their love of food. Ottolenghi ended up working there, and when he started his own place in 2002, he asked Tamimi to join him.
The men, both 44, never met in Jerusalem, but they have shared interests. Their recipes trace their adventures, like the time Tamimi and a childhood friend crept onto the roof of his friend's house to snatch the figs laid out to dry. The roasted sweet potato and fresh fig salad recipe evokes this memory.
Joan Nathan, author of "Jewish Cooking in America," says she was drawn to the book's personal touch. The book isn't the definitive work on the region's cuisine, she says, pointing out for example that the famed Palestinian chicken dish Mousakhan is not included. But she says that doesn't hurt its appeal. Nathan, who lived in Jerusalem in the 1970s, likes the way the book encompasses both east and west.
"It struck a chord with me," she said.
Though the two men stress their book is about food, they expected people to talk about its context. Politics touches everything in - and about - Jerusalem. Even food is contentious. There have long been arguments, with political overtones, about the origin of that Middle Eastern staple, hummus, with both Arabs and Jews claiming credit.
The chefs would prefer to prepare and enjoy hummus rather than analyze its history. But they know it's impossible to avoid politics.
"It's always in the background," Tamimi said. "You can't really ignore it."