The Secret Ingredient: Yotam Ottolenghi and the importance of design

Yotam Ottolenghi and design studio Here discuss their recent collaborations, the art of a good cookbook, and the importance of design to restaurants.

In September last year, Yotam Ottolenghi released his fifth cook book, Nopi. A sumptuous publication named after his upmarket London restaurant, the book was praised for its design and photography as much as the mouth-watering recipes featured within. With a minimal cover, gold foil edging, elegant art deco type and images bursting with colour, it is beautifully produced – and the latest in a series of great collaborations between the chef and design studio Here.

Born in Jerusalem, Ottolenghi is known for his inventive Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food. A former journalist, he moved to the UK in 1997 and opened his first Ottolenghi deli in Notting Hill in 2002. He now runs four delis (the others are in Spitalfields, Islington and Belgravia), along with Nopi (named after its location North of Picadilly) and has published best-selling titles Plenty, Plenty More, Ottolenghi: the cook book and Jerusalem, which was co-authored with Sami Tamimi.

While Ottolenghi’s recipes aren’t exclusively vegetarian, most are meat free, and his vibrant dishes and use of unusual ingredients (though often hard to find in ordinary supermarkets, as some of his readers have pointed out) have helped challenge perceptions of veggie food as bland and uninspiring. The success of his restaurants and books ultimately rests on the quality of his recipes – but his attention to detail when it comes to design, and the presentation of dishes, has also played a key role.

In his delis, platters of colourful salads are piled up next to beautifully decorated cakes and jars of Ottolenghi preserves in minimal packaging, while Nopi’s more formal dishes are served against a backdrop of white and gold brass interiors, alongside elegant branding designed by Here.

Ottolenghi's newest deli, which opened in Spitalfields, London in April 2015
Ottolenghi’s newest deli, which opened in Spitalfields, London in April 2015

“A place can fail if the design and interiors are not right,” adds Ottolenghi. “There are so many factors which come into play to create the diner’s experience though – the food, the service, the location, the music, the vibe, the fellow clientele, the price point, the mystery thing that no one can ever fully predict,” he says.

Ottolenghi says the aim with delis was to create a blank canvas upon which his food could speak for itself. “The display is very white, the windows spotlessly see through, the floor staff and servers in plain black shirts, the tables as uncluttered as possible,” he says. “We wanted our customers to walk in and be bowled over by just the food: the colour, the abundant display, and for all the joy to come from there. There is more going on in the delis these days – customer demand has led us to keep key spices and condiments etc on display but that initial design concept is still very much there,” he adds.

At Nopi, the initial idea was to create a more sophisticated – but still uncluttered – feel. “It felt like our grown up and slightly more svelte and sexy addition to the Ottolenghi family – so the décor was always going to reflect this…If the delis were all about abundance and sunshine, then we wanted Nopi to be a bit more luxurious,” he adds.

The Nopi logo features a gold O, referencing both the O in Ottolenghi and a plate of food. The symbol is used throughout the space, on everything from waiting staff’s shirt collars to water bottles and serviette rings. The white and gold brass colour palette used for interiors was inspired by a lamp which architect and designer Alex Meitlis (a regular collaborator of Yotam’s), found in a market in Israel, with gold brass table legs and lights and glossy white wall tiles.

“Ottolenghi food is well-known for being both beautiful to look at and delicious to eat. Our job as designers was to create a setting for the food to be enjoyed in, rather than an environment filled with cues to help enhance the food,” says Here co-founder Caz Hildebrand. “The food had to be the focal point of the experience – the simplicity and the modesty of our approach is clear in the gold O,” she adds. “We worked very closely with Alez to create a unified look – he took cues from the branding and used them throughout the interior.”

Nopi, which is named after its location north of Piccadilly, London
Nopi, which is named after its location north of Piccadilly, London

Each of Ottolenghi’s eateries has a different look and feel, but the design is always closely linked to the underlying concept behind each menu, he explains. “At the delis, we always wanted the food to seem like sunshine on a plate to people and it was the pared-back, clean white surface that allowed us to do this, along with the odd bold splash of colour from the chairs, the red font on the menu and shop front and so forth. At Nopi the food is a bit more composed and formal than the delis so, again, this is something we wanted the customer to be presented with as soon as they walked in,” he adds.

Ottolenghi is closely involved in creative projects, with the chef and his team working with Here at each stage of the process when designing a new book or restaurant. “It’s a really collaborative process between Alex, Here Design, Noam Bar – my long-time collaborator and mentor on all things – and myself,” adds Ottolenghi. “We’ve worked together for a long time now and all understand each other very well. We all bring something different to the table – the big picture, the details, the feel of the place we want to create – but all very much speak the same design language so it’s very much a symbiotic, as well as collaborative, process.”

The chef also works closely with the studio when designing new cookbooks: when designing Plenty More – a sequel to 2010’s Plenty, which has sold more than 500,000 copies – Hildebrand says the aim was to create something that felt related, but also looked fresh and new.

“It was important that Plenty More felt like a development rather than just a sequel,” she adds. “For the first book, the previous designer had used coloured line drawings of vegetables to hint at the vibrancy and abundance of dishes inside. For Plenty More, we wanted to build on that and introduce more colours so we used the same overlapping idea with images of kitchenware,” she says.

Spot varnishes and debossing add a 3D effect on the cover, which stands out amongst other books using images of chefs and dishes or text only designs. Inside, similar illustrations are used for section openers, with shades of yellow, red and green echoing the vibrancy of Ottolenghi’s food (chapters are organised by cooking method, from tossed to mashed and steamed). “It’s nice to have illustrations as well as food photography, as it enables us to be playful and introduce some personality. They are also functional though, helping the reader to navigate their way through the different chapters,” explains Hildebrand.

Spreads from Plenty More; cover shown top
Spreads from Plenty More; cover shown top

Lovekin’s photography captures the process of dishes being cooked and presented, with delicious shots of oranges simmering on a hob, figs being coated in sugar and salads being tossed and dressed. (There is no food stylist involved, just Lovekin and Ottolenghi – and in the case of Nopi, chef Rafael Scully – working in the Ottolenghi test kitchen).

“With Plenty More, it was all about process… so we very much wanted to capture this on page,” says Ottolenghi. “There are relatively few finished dishes or composed shots in the book – we were far more interested in capturing the steam rising off a dish, for example. design is hugely approachable and fun, which I love … and Plenty More really broke into a new and often younger market through both the recipes and, crucially, the design.”

As Ottolenghi points out, photography is a key part of convincing people that vegetarian food can be as tasty as eating meat. “Making a turnip or a swede look sexy on a plate is not easy but if you can do it, you’re more than half way there to selling the dish to people as something delicious,” he says. “With the rise of Instagram etc, it’s more than the first mouthful that is with the eye: a recipe lives or dies on the photograph it gets,” he adds.

The photography is equally impressive in Nopi, which was designed to evoke the experience of eating at the restaurant – and the more formal nature of dishes is also reflected in the design. “All my cookbooks are very different from one another so it’s important to manage readers’ expectations. The Nopi cookbook is full of recipes served at the restaurant which will always be different to my other books, where the recipes are made first and foremost for the home cook,” says Ottolenghi.

Cover and spreads from Nopi book
Cover and spreads from Nopi book

“Some of the dishes are necessarily more composed than some of my readers might expect so I wanted them to know that they’d be entering a slightly different space with this book,” he continues. “We have clearly got this message across very well as many of my readers have remarked upon the fact that the recipes are much more approachable and do-able than they’d expected! I guess that’s the risk with lovely shiny gold things: they both welcome and slightly intimidate at the same time,” he says.

Ottolenghi’s are more beautiful than most, but, as Hildebrand points out, cookbooks on the whole have become much more lavish affairs in the past few years: “Where once they could be simple paperbacks, with text only, or perhaps a few line drawings, they have become more highly designed, the production values have increased…. The lavish use of props and context, setting and pictures of the author, the raw materials and a sense of place are all ingredients that help to make a cook book an object of desire.”

Speaking to Ottolenghi, it is clear that he is as passionate about the way his food is presented – whether on a page or a plate – as he is about the way it tastes. Both his books and restaurant designs are the result of a close working relationship with a small group of collaborators who understand his style and his vision for each new venture.

“We are all on the same side, we all speak the same language, we’re all big enough to be able to disagree without ego coming in to the equation, we all love the actual process of design from concept to evolution. We’re all friends, too, which means you get to drink wine together at the end of the day and that’s always good,” he adds.;

This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Creative Review, which is a Food & Drink special. More info on the issue is here.

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