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Yotam Ottolenghi: how I travel

The Israeli-born chef, restaurateur and food writer on losing his glasses and finding inspiration.
Yotam Ottolenghi

Yotam Ottolenghi

Thomas Butler/The Guardian/Headpress

Just back from: Cape Town. I had fabulous food in the most beautiful setting. The highlight was Liam Tomlin’s food at Chefs Warehouse. The smoked trout with Cape Malay dressing and curry emulsion was a triumph.

Next up: Northern Ireland. My husband Karl’s family lives in County Down and it’s a great opportunity for our children to hang out with their grandparents and cousins.

Where did you go on your first trip abroad?

It must have been to my grandparents’ house outside Florence. The Italian produce must have cast its spell because I’m still obsessed with lemons, olive oil and tomatoes.

What sort of traveller are you?

I like to plan ahead. I need to make sure that I eat in all the best places because for me going on holiday is about learning new things and coming back with lots of new dishes to cook. One time I got the wrong information about a place in Bangkok that I was told served the best oyster omelette. It took me hours to find it, and when I got there I found out that it was closed on Mondays. Now, I do my research.

How do you combine work with travel?

I have to go abroad on book tours, and although it’s always a packed schedule, sometimes with an intimidating number of interviews and events, I make a point of searching for exciting new places to eat, and I have a quiet dinner and unwind.

Who has been your best travelling companion?

The co-author of my last book Sweet, Helen Goh. We travelled together in Malaysia about 10 years ago and, more recently, on a book tour in America. We make each other laugh a lot, sometimes deliriously so, and we both eat obsessively. I can’t think of a better companion.

What do you write in the occupation box on forms at Customs?

I used to write “chef” but then, a decade ago, I visited Morocco and the Customs’ officer wasn’t happy because he thought I wasn’t being very serious. In French, chef simply means a chief or a leader and needs further explanation.

How do you deal with eating and air travel?

I have to admit I’ve had some decent food mid-air on some long-haul flights – I even got an idea for a recipe once – but usually pre-boarding snacks are essential.

What’s your ideal sort of trip?

Anything that combines relaxing, eating and spending time with my family. I’m always on the lookout for new inspiration, so local markets with ingredients I’ve never heard of are a big plus in my book.

Which of your travels has left the greatest impression on you?

I’ve been hooked on Malaysian cuisine ever since I travelled to Kuala Lumpur and Penang 10 years ago. My tastebuds discovered hot acar pickles, roti canai and tau foo fah (a velvety soy-milk pudding topped with sugar syrup) – flavours that still influence my cooking to this day.

What are your packing essentials?

Lots of snacks, not all necessarily good for me (gummy bears, on occasion). Lots of adaptors to charge everything. Trainers, in case I find the urge to go running, which I hardly ever do.

What have you learned the hard way about travelling?

To pack two pairs of glasses in case I visit a theme park with my boys and lose my only pair on a caterpillar roller-coaster ride and then have to drive back practically blind.

What sort of traveller do you aspire to be?

I want to be that person that still looks fresh and put together after a long flight. Alas, I’m still working on that.

Does travel broaden a person’s horizons? Has it broadened yours?

Absolutely, I continue to draw inspiration from the places I travelled to and they inform so many of my dishes. North Africa, the US, Malaysia and India have all contributed to my recipes. My world would have been a lot more boring without them.

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