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Food

The Sweet Life with Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh

When Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh met, it was a culinary match made in sweet-filled heaven. 

Yotam Ottolenghi wasn’t supposed to be a chef. He was supposed to be an academic like his father and grandfather before him. He certainly has the intellect, having written a masters thesis in philosophy and comparative literature. 

But Yotam’s take on creating ‘the good life’ was fed by his lifelong passion for food and eventually he couldn’t resist his kitchen calling. After training at Le Cordon Bleu in London in 1997 and working as a pastry chef at the Michelin-starred The Capital Restaurant, two years later he became head pastry chef at Chelsea’s Baker and Spice. Another three years after that, he opened the first Ottolenghi deli in Notting Hill. Today, there are three more Ottolenghi delis in London, as well as a restaurant, NOPi. He has a regular column in The Guardian, and has written six cookbooks. 

How sweet it is

The most recent of his books, Sweet, a baking tome filled with biscuits, cakes, tarts, pies, desserts and confectionary, Yotam co-authored with Malaysian-born Australian-raised pastry chef, Helen Goh. While the book is a recent release, their culinary collaboration goes back over 10 years to when Helen moved to London. At the urging of a friend to check out the Ottolenghi deli, Helen fired off an email to Yotam, they met, and a wonderful partnership began.  

Helen became product developer and Yotam recalls how she would walk through his door on a Sunday afternoon, “like a gust of wind or, rather, an over-zealous dusting of icing sugar, carrying more brown carton boxes than humanly possible.” A slew of apologies would follow for how many of her cakes had failed (Helen is a perfectionist) before they would settle into a session of ‘Ottolenghifying’ her creations.  

This unique process involves taking a traditional product and giving it a taste twist. As Yotam explains, “We do a lot of stuff that some might consider irreverent, but it’s just adding our traditions, a little bit of Middle East from me and a little bit of South East Asia from Helen.” 

So, in Sweet, you’ll find halva and tahini in the brownies, spiced pineapple in the cheesecake and mixed spices in the pound cake. But that’s not to say the recipes veer too far from tradition. As Helen explains, “In baking, I think people still seek the comfortable and the familiar, but they want a little surprise and I think Yotam and I deliver that!” 

Aussie inspiration

Another thing you’ll find in Sweet is a fair dose of Australia. Having done her training and enjoyed success as a pastry chef here, Helen has been inspired by some of our greats. There are cakes based on creations by Stephanie Alexander and Belinda Jeffrey, not to mention versions of yo-yo and Anzac biscuits. 

Yotam, too, owes a lot to baking Down Under. Known as the ‘king of meringue’, he says, “I’m indebted to Antipodean pavlova because it’s so easy to make and you can do whatever you like with it. It takes anything from chocolate and praline to fresh or dried fruit, the options are endless.” 

Featured image: Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh's cinnamon pavlova, praline cream and fresh figs recipe

Recipes and images from Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi & Helen Goh (Penguin Random House, $55)

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Words by Mark Hughes on 17 Nov 2015
It is not surprising to learn that as a young boy George Calombaris loved food. He was obsessed by it. As we sit down for a chat at his Hellenic Republic restaurant in Brunswick, a very fit-looking George (he is almost equally obsessed with his regular gym routines these days) recalls a couple of prime examples as to how much food was always on his mind. “Dad had an independent supermarket and our job on a Saturday was to sweep the floors. While my brother was stealing cigarettes; I was stealing tubes of condensed milk,” he says. “I remember going to an uncle’s house and while my cousins were out the front kicking the footy, I was standing at the barbecue stealing charred bits of octopus while no-one was looking.” It was almost ordained therefore that George would become a chef. Although he never cooked at home as a child “there was no romantic story of me with my hands in the bowl beside mum because we weren’t allowed in the kitchen”, what is somewhat surprising is the fact that when he did start manning the pans, he wanted to cook anything other than Greek food. He learned French cuisine through an apprenticeship at the Sofitel Melbourne, then the same at Fenix before taking on the head chef role at Reserve Restaurant in Melbourne’s Federation Square. It is here he turned heads, being awarded Young Chef of the Year and two prestigious chef’s hats from The Age Good Food Guide. But it all came to a grinding halt when the restaurant went bankrupt. It is perhaps due to George’s indefatigable charisma that he was able to turn adversity into a pivotal moment in his career, and at the same time, find his Hellenic heart. “I was out of a job, distraught, 26 years of age, and that made me go and do a lot of soul searching,” he recalls. “I asked, who am I? Who am I as a cook? Suddenly, a light bulb went off and I went, ‘Hang on, I know what my culture is, I have lived and breathed it all my life.’ I could see a massive hole in the market being all things Greek – from fast food to fine dining. From that, The Press Club was born. Nine years on, it has been an incredible ride to where we are now.” Changing food culture Now, George is one of the most recognisable faces in the Australian food industry. As co-host of the super successful MasterChef TV series, he is projected into lounge rooms across the globe. For George, the overwhelming positive from it all is the fact that it has got people thinking about food. “What has happened has been incredible,” he says. “I remember getting a call from a friend who works at the local Bunnings and he says, “Mate, what did you cook last night, because we have sold out of blow torches?” We had done crème brulee. The show influences everyone from young kids to adults. I walked down the street the other day and a tradie showed me pictures of macaroons that he made with his daughter. That, for me, means we are winning.” Away from the small screen, George is at the helm of a Melbourne restaurant empire serving everything Greek from street food at five Jimmy Grants outlets, casual wholefoods at Mastic cafe, contemporary fare at Hellenic Republic and Gazi, to top shelf dining at the Press Club. Plans are also afoot to launch into the Sydney market with a Greek restaurant in Surry Hills. Stay tuned. Cooking the books In addition to all of this, George has published five cookbooks. His most recent, of which he is proudest, is simply titled Greek , and features the recipes that mean most to him. 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So when I was young, I was getting fed everything from falafel to moussaka to pasta and ricotta. I was so bloody lucky. “So this book is about everything that has influenced my life, from a souvlaki at Jimmy Grants to a Hills Hoist at The Press Club and everything in between. This is, for me, where I am right now. “I set out on my journey to do all things Greek for all people,” he says. “It’s taken me a long time to get here, 19 years with mistakes along the way. But I’ve loved every minute of it. Now we’re ready to go even harder and I hope there are another 19 ahead. I am just starting. I’m at the beginning of what I wanted to do.”  
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