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Yotam Ottolenghi: 'I loved the pizza but Hassam had a massive cat I was terrified of'


My earliest food memory… When I was about five I remember going to a bakery in the Old City in Jerusalem run by a big man called Hassam. He used to bring us sesame-crusted pizzas from a hole-in-the-wall oven. I loved the pizza but he had a massive cat that I was absolutely terrified of.

My store-cupboard essentials… At the moment I have tahini paste, black olives, vermicelli pasta, crispy-fried shallots, ground cumin and dried mint.

My favourite cookbook… I love all the books that come from chefs at the restaurant Chez Panisse in California, such as Alice Waters. A lot of the things I like doing now – Mediterranean-style cooking, olive oil, a lot of vegetables – Alice was doing 40 years ago.

The kitchen appliance I can't live without… I use so much zest in my cooking – orange, lemon, lime – that it has to be a Microplane grater. I use it for ginger, garlic and Parmesan, too.

My top culinary tip… Fry some chilli flakes in butter then pour it over soups and stews. It's something I picked up in Turkey a few years ago. The butter turns a nice crimson-red and it gives a richness and heat to whatever you serve it with. It's delicious over eggs as well.

My favourite food shop… Broadway Market in east London is a great destination for foodies. I often wander round all the cafés, bakeries and pie shops.

My comfort food… Tomato and semolina soup. I love the texture so I always cook it if I need to cheer myself up. Some people have rice in their soup but I like mine thickened with semolina balls.

My dream dining companion… Hilary Mantel. I'm obsessed with her books, so I'd like her to tell me stories about life in 16th-century England. Nothing to do with food, just a lot of gossip from the Tudor courts.

My top table… Negozio Classica on Westbourne Grove, west London, is an Italian delight. It's been around for years and they have the most fantastic full-bodied wines. The food is very simple but they use wonderfully fresh ingredients.

My guilty pleasure… I don't do guilt. Whatever I do, I do it happily. But I'm obsessed with very good dark chocolate. I like to immerse myself in the depth of flavour, a bit of acidity, low sweetness and just that really pure chocolate flavour.

My desert-island dish… Pasta al forno. My dad always used to take the leftover pasta from the night before and stick it in the oven with lots of Parmesan and mozzarella and make a pasta bake. Pasta with melted cheese is the one thing I could eat over and over again.

My food hates… People who mix everything up on their plates. When I cook a meal I like to serve things one by one and keep them separate. I get that from my father – he's such a purist. Some people even put their desserts on the main plate. It's just wrong.

My tipple of choice… I love a pure, good-quality Russian vodka such as Beluga. You never get any kind of hangover, so you can just keep on drinking it. It's perfect for soaking up all hearty, wintry Russian food such as dumplings, potatoes, herring and pork.

The strangest thing I've eaten… Sheep's brain. I tried it in Marrakesh while filming my new show. The flavour is very intense so I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. You can't eat too much.

Yotam Ottolenghi's new TV series, 'Ottolenghi's Mediterranean Feast', starts tomorrow on More4. His latest book, 'Jerusalem', is out now (£27, Ebury)