Yotam Ottolenghi

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I grew up in a family of classically trained musicians in Europe and Japan and the salads of my childhood were pop music monstrosities. Limp greens drowned in vinegar and cooking oil. Humps of iceberg dressed in sweet, orange slime.

Ottolenghi, Yotam.  Plenty , (Chronicle Books, 2010).

Ottolenghi, Yotam. Plenty, (Chronicle Books, 2010).

Even as I began traditional culinary training in Vienna and Italy, salads remained a thorn in my eye. In my early 20’s I “met” Yotam Ottolenghi and suddenly saw salad through a new set of glasses. 

My mother gifted me Ottolenghi’s Plenty (Chronicle Books, 2010) and, diving into the book, I finally grasped the potential for beauty and complexity of salads.  

As I analyzed Ottolenghi’s recipes in Plenty and later in Ottolenghi, I began to notice a pattern. Where other chefs are content mixing oil and vinegar, Ottolenghi plays with different types of ingredients to create a cohesive and more interesting whole.

To my mind the components of his salads are: leafy greens or herbs, fruits, proteins, vegetables, grains, fats and acids. They are simple, but Ottolenghi's dishes are like humble symphonies to me.

To think of the salad like a song, imagine the voice of each ingredient. You would find herbs, fruits and citrus playing the high notes. The bass line—nuts and starches—is a unifier in its consistency and depth. In the middle, flushing out the body of his orchestra, are leafy greens, proteins and vegetables, raw and, sometimes, preserved. 

With appreciation for the unique timbre of each ingredient, Ottolenghi selects and arranges for balance of flavor and textures. He combines ingredients that flatter each other while allowing each its own distinct voice. 

Watermelon Salad inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi.  Photo: Claire Bunschoten.

Watermelon Salad inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi. Photo: Claire Bunschoten.

The song is simple and unpredictable and satisfying. Ottolenghi favors balanced, thoughtfully layered flavors and textures and steers away from predictable combinations. 

Consider the five basic flavors—sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami—and the unexpected melodies they can make.

Ottolenghi, for instance, will combine fruits or sugar-rich vegetables to bring out sweet notes. He tempers that sweetness with tart notes in yogurt, sorrels, sour berries or cherries rather than vinegar. 

If flavor is melody, texture is harmony and pushes the palette in different directions. I now use three to five ingredients with contrasting and complementary consistencies to further balance a salad.

A great example of these principles is a salad from Ottolenghi made with arugula, figs, and pecorino cheese. Figs are sweet, tart and yieldingly soft, but can also add crunch thanks to their seeds.Then you have the pecorino, which has a strong flavor, contributing fat and protein. This cheese accents the fig and the fig mellows the sharper notes of the cheese. While these two components are in dialogue, the arugula and basil provide rhythm and support to the whole. This salad doesn’t need oil or vinegar—the figs are naturally acidic and the cheese provides fat—so it is drizzled with honey.

It’s extremely simple; but all the elements are present and vibrant. He leans into minimalism and creativity, which I admire. After all, in a family of musicians, I am the black sheep. I have chosen to play with flavor rather than melody. Ottolenghi showed me the diversity and capabilities of the instruments available to me as I arrange and score. The music may not literally exist, but I hear it clearly. The chords resolve with every bite. 

With Yotam Ottolenghi in mind, I crafted this Watermelon Salad with Kerrygold Cashel Blue Farmfresh Cheese.

Philip Ian Kubaczek is a 26 year old half-American and half-Austrian who has spent half of his life in Japan. He is a trained chef and studied in Austria and Italy. He previously worked as Pâtissier and Demi Chef Entremetier at the two star Michelin restaurant Steirereck im Stadtpark in Vienna. Philip is also a forager, musician, carpenter, and humble potter. He lives and cooks in Rensselaerville, New York.