Cooking the books

Josh Katz: ‘The pandemic told us to live a simpler life... so I did’

The Berber & Q chef tells Prudence Wade about falling in love with vegetables – with some help from his old boss, Yotam Ottolenghi

Wednesday 25 May 2022 08:30 BST
Katz found living off the land ‘easier said than done’
Katz found living off the land ‘easier said than done’ (James Murphy/PA)

Like many people, the pandemic made chef Josh Katz want to go back to basics. He even relocated from London to Ibiza, saying he believed “the pandemic was telling us it wants us to live a more simple life”.

But he soon found this was all a bit easier said than done…

“I moved to the middle of nowhere and started growing my own vegetables – but I found out it’s really difficult,” Katz admits. “It’s actually not that easy to live self-sufficiently, it takes a lot of work and a lot of time” – particularly if you’ve got work and family responsibilities to take care of as well.

Katz soon found he was battling with the more challenging climatic conditions of the Balearic island. In the UK, he explains, “we get a lot more rain – and there you get great sunshine”, but the soil isn’t quite as rich.

He did try, though. “I had courgettes, I tried pumpkin, I had peppers, I had chillies, I had aubergines – I had a lot of things.

Katz is responsible for London restaurants including the grill house Berber and Q and Shawarma Bar (PA)

“You spend all this time growing it, and you get like three leeks at the end,” he adds with a laugh. “I’d really have to commit to that, and live that – do it over and over – because every season you learn a little bit more about that particular patch, and how things grow.”

It would’ve been helpful for Katz to immediately produce a bountiful crop, because he was writing his second cookbook out there – one that’s entirely dedicated to vegetables. Instead, he says: “You would spend a lot of time tending to your plants, and then you would end up with like four red peppers – barely enough to test a recipe.”

This hasn’t entirely put him off, though. Katz says he’ll “persevere” – but it’s not like he’s going to become completely self-sufficient any time soon. Luckily, his experiences haven’t put a dampener on his love for vegetables, either.

“I’m not vegetarian, but I’ve been cutting down on meat over the last few years. For my own health reasons, I want to eat less, and also environmental,” he says.

Katz is responsible for London restaurants including the grill house Berber and Q and Shawarma Bar – and while they might sound meat-heavy, he says: “I think a lot of people expected we would just be a typical male, BBQ ‘dude food’ kind of place, and I was very conscious from the early days to make sure vegetables had a prominent place on the menu and weren’t just a side dish.

“In fact, one of our signature dishes from the first restaurant we opened was our cauliflower dish [Berber and Q’s cauliflower shawarma].”

Katz admits he “couldn’t go vegan – I just wouldn’t be able to”. Instead, he says: “Eating more vegetables and reducing our meat intake is achievable and manageable, and will have a positive impact.”

Not that Katz has always been into veg – he admits it’s been a “journey of discovery, and I’m still on it. Certainly as a teenager, vegetables didn’t play a significant part of my diet, and in my 20s vegetables were never an exciting thing for me.”

The real turning point was when Katz started working for Yotam Ottolenghi in his late-20s. “He’s always been a big advocate for cooking vegetables, and that was probably the starting point for me – cooking in Notting Hill, doing salads every day. I loved my time there. I had been working at a French restaurant before… classic bistro cooking, much richer and heartier French cooking.

“Then I went to Ottolenghi, where it was all about light and bright colours and vegetables. I think that was probably when I started to embrace vegetables. And 12 years later, I’ve written a book on it.”

There’s a mix of cuisines in the book, from the Middle East to North Africa. Mediterranean dishes also feature heavily – perhaps unsurprisingly, as Katz was writing in Ibiza – and there’s a reason he eats a lot of Mediterranean-style dishes.

“It feels like a healthy diet, I always feel a lot lighter for it,” he explains. “Subsequently, I feel healthier and mentally more charged by it. Conversely, when I’m eating lots of rich, heavy foods, I feel a lot more sluggish, a lot more tired.

“I’m getting to the stage in my life – I’m 41 – where my body starts to communicate with me. In my 20s, I could put anything into it, eat whatever and it didn’t really make a difference. But now it tells me what it likes, and what it doesn’t want – and it changes as you get older,” he adds.

“So the Mediterranean diet just feels a slightly cleaner and lighter approach to cooking for me.”

‘Berber&Q: On Vegetables’ by Josh Katz (published by Kyle Books, £25; photography by James Murphy), available now.

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