Yotam Ottolenghi Melds Food and Art at the Met
“Look at this,” says Yotam Ottolenghi as he’s walking up to a photo of Indian men sitting on the ground and eating popsicles. “When you’re figuring out a place or an era, you look to food. It evokes the sensory experience.”
He’s silent for a moment. Thinking. Aside from guards milling about, we’re the only ones in this gallery at The Met Breuer in New York City’s Upper East Side neighborhood.
“What do you call this?” he asks about the popsicles. “We call them ice lollies.”
It’s 3:30 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, and Ottolenghi and I are wandering through the newest museum exhibition at The Met Breuer: Modernism on the Ganges featuring the works of prolific street photographer Raghubir Singh. Somehow I’ve convinced the celebrated chef, cookbook author and food columnist to take a break from preparing for his dinner event later that night—inspired by Singh’s photographs, cooked by Floyd Cardoz and presented in tandem with legendary cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey—and attempt to quietly chat about the art around us and theorize about the connection between art and food.
However, that’s not too much of a stretch for Ottolenghi.
Long before he opened an empire of vegetable-centric eateries in London with his business partner Sami Tamimi and penned best seller after best seller—Ottolenghi, Plenty, Plenty More and, most recently, Sweet—he was a master’s student in Amsterdam. His thesis was on the philosophy of the photographic image and how the medium changed the way we translate or transcribe reality. When Ottolenghi sent a copy of it to his parents after he finished it years ago, he snuck in a note that he was going to culinary school. That was probably the first time he wove his background in art and academia with his love of cooking, as accidental as it was.
“See the movement,” Ottolenghi says, pointing at Singh’s photographs of Holi revelers. “I wanted to get that through food.”
Last fall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art invited Ottolenghi to host a feast based on their show, Jerusalem 1000-1400, and it activated that old philosophy student part of his mind. It turned into a dinner with commentary, where he narrated the story and technique of the dishes served—and it was a hit, just as you would expect from Ottolenghi, and inspired this one focused on Indian street food and photography.
“Every media can shed light on another media,” says Ottolenghi. “Here, I’m bringing an exhibition to life through food.”
Fans stop him throughout the gallery—to tell him they love his cookbooks or how they wrote a letter once asking to see the kitchen. But soon he's reminded of his responsibilities in a few hours further north at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He has to be off to the next iteration of The Met’s melding of food and art, with an array of samosas, textural bhel puri and slider-like Goan beef cutlet paos cooked by Cardoz and his team. After a few attempts, Ottolenghi will finally coax the excitable crowd to stop and watch the videos he and Jaffrey have picked to show the cooking behind the street food and listen to Jaffrey’s wonderful tales of growing up in India.
Then, once everyone is full of kulfi and wine, Ottolenghi and the guests stroll back down to The Met Breuer, back where the day at the museum all began.