Yotam gives us his tips and tricks for growth – from a global, influential chef with a 1,8M following on Instagram you’re sure to get insights that will help you in building your loyal fanbase.
Our bet was that you don’t get asked often to talk about your role as a restaurateur but more as a cookbook auteur. Is that true?
"Often there isn’t that division, I regularly go on book tours to promote my books, and then I am asked about my books but also about how it is to run restaurants and to own them."
Where did you start your career?
"I started my career here in Amsterdam actually. I didn’t work in a restaurant here. But I started home cooking here. Originally I’m from Israel. In the 1990s I moved to Amsterdam and I spent two years here. I did work in a dodgy hotel by the train station back then. And I moved to London after that. But I used to go to Albert Heijn and buy ingredients and taught myself how to cook before I went to a professional cooking school. When I moved to London I started to work in restaurants."
And what was the first restaurant you started your career at?
"My first job was at Capital restaurant, a one Michelin star restaurant, that served mostly French food with different influences as well. I didn’t earn money there, I was an assistant to the pastry chef. I remember it quite fondly cause the pastry chef was very kind, and she was teaching me all these techniques. But then it became a total trauma, because as I graduated from pastry school I had to go to work in the other section, and there it was awful. It was really hard work, very long hours and I was not treated that nicely. I don’t think I lasted more than a few months there. Then I started working in a restaurant called Kensington Place, below the sous-chef. And there I stayed a couple of years. I learned how to cook properly there. Sometimes people ask me what is your word of wisdom to cooks starting out their career? I’d say: choose a restaurant you love to work at. It seems trivial but it’s not, because there’s this whole myth that you have to start working like a dog for 10, 15 years before you make anything of yourself. Choose a place with the right ethos for their team. A place that respects you. That there’s something happening beyond just putting food on the table."
The Ottolenghi brand is almost 20 years old now. Your first venue was the Deli Ottolenghi. How has it been? Could you explain how you grew as a brand?
"It’s quite important for me to say that Ottolenghi didn't start as a brand. I’m not so much about concepts or brands. The first question I ask is, ‘Who is cooking?’ I know there are a lot of great restaurateurs that start with a concept, but for me, I ask myself ‘Who’s food is this?’. I started off with Sami Tamimi, my main cooking partner at the time. We didn’t have a brand, we didn't have an idea, but we wanted to create really delicious food. The food tells a story that you have to own. That you love. We’re celebrating 20 years of existence of the brand now, and we went through different stages. First a website, later on I joined Twitter, then Facebook, and shifted to Instagram. I think one of the things that really helped our brand is communicating our story. And I’ve always been a good communicator of stories because I’ve always been interested in them.
The biggest growth boost to our brand has been our cookbooks. The cookbooks tell the stories of recipes but also the bigger story of the context of the people, how a dish came about. It’s also a personal story of how Sami and I started from Jerusalem and moved to Europe. When we were writing the first cookbook in 2008, we thought we would write this book and then go back to the kitchen. But since writing that book I haven’t been back to the kitchen. I’ve shifted from someone who cooks, to someone who writes cookbooks. And they became international bestsellers."
Would you recommend writing a cookbook to other restaurateurs?
"First of all I think we are in a different world right now, so now if you want to get a book deal you have to have a serious online presence. I did it the other way around. I think books are really effective in conveying a message. Books are like food, they are the bricks and mortar that you hold in your hands. You develop an emotional relationship with them if they’re good. I do recommend writing cookbooks as a restaurateur, I love it. I love the process of collecting the recipes, then telling the story around it, and then the photography stage. What makes a good book a great book is that you have to decide what it is: is it just a bunch of recipes? For me, it's really not that. For me, it’s my story, the fundament of my cooking, this is where I invite you to make an emotional connection. You really have to make sure you know what it stands for. And that is very hard to break down. 'Who is the chef?' you have to ask yourself."
How involved are you still in the restaurant?
"Each restaurant has a head chef, to a great degree, they are very independent. It’s crucial for me, in order to not become a chain that they have full freedom to create recipes under the Ottolenghi umbrella. I come by and taste the dishes sometimes, I don’t taste everything. I run a test kitchen, this is a place where new recipes are being produced. But those recipes are mostly for publication, for books, magazines, newspapers. But we have a really good exchange with the chefs."
“You can’t do without an engaged online fanbase at this point”
When co-writing cookbooks, how do you deal with if you are not aligned on a recipe?
"I co-author my books because I think the people in the test kitchen are incredible creators of original recipes and ideas. With flavors, tastes, and individual likes and dislikes, I find that you often reach a middle ground. When we taste, we adapt together. If I really do not like something it wouldn’t be published, but that doesn't happen often. In conversations around food, there is this sweet spot and you both know when you hit that."
I was wondering, what your team looks like for marketing?
"It evolved erratically, over the years. Before there was no social media strategy, although we’re becoming better at that. I still do the majority of Instagram posting. As a result of the pandemic, we brought in a PR company with who we shoot videos, and then they post about that on our channels. So, I get a bit of help because it becomes quite a lot. They do Facebook as well and run the restaurant accounts and support me. We learned a lot about the need to deliver quick messages to our audience. Changes are so quick these days, especially with the pandemic, that you need to communicate a lot. But honestly, it’s still a bit chaotic, in terms of coordinating the website, the social media, my own channel, etc. But I think it’s also good that it is not completely synchronized. It projects on how reality really is. I think sometimes when it’s too streamlined you can see through that. So I post when I feel like posting, and if I don’t post for a few days, that's also fine."
How important do you think it is for restaurateurs to have a proper and engaged online fanbase?
"You can’t do without it at this point. For a little while, I was thinking you can do without social media, but now I know that’s naive. I think it’s actually very important. Especially now in the pandemic, because it’s changing so quickly, you can’t afford to not be able to communicate messages in real-time. I remember 2020, early in the year and from one day to the next we had to start creating these takeaway food boxes due to the pandemic. It was incredible to see that literally, a single post brings so much business. Through Formitable’s services and other similar ones, people have managed to really reach their customers very quickly. The pandemic was like a test case, but in 5 years’ time, every day will be like that, because I think people will understand it’s a very different reality and they have to be ready."