Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi: Masters of the Holy Land Kitchen

The London-based chefs bring Jerusalem's cooking to the world

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The most universally acclaimed cookbook of 2012 was about a deeply divided city. Jerusalem has sold more than a million copies worldwide--an extraordinary feat for a noncelebrity food title. It does not shy away from controversy, including short essays on how even food is marked by the divisive politics of the region. Hummus, for example, is the source of heated debate, with both Arabs and Jews claiming ownership.

The authors of Jerusalem are Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the two masterminds behind a string of exceedingly popular London eateries. Both men were born in Jerusalem in 1968, but their paths didn't cross until decades later, in an upmarket London food shop. Tamimi was working as a chef, and Ottolenghi had wandered in looking for a job. Once they realized they were from the same city--Ottolenghi is from mainly Jewish West Jerusalem and Tamimi from Arab East Jerusalem--they quickly bonded. Ottolenghi got the job and two years later left to start his own café and store, taking Tamimi with him.

That original business, a deli in London's swanky Notting Hill neighborhood, opened in 2002. Today the pair own an additional deli--called Ottolenghi, like its predecessor--and two restaurants, Ottolenghi and Nopi. In 2006, Ottolenghi raised his profile by starting a weekly column in the Guardian. The restaurants and the column helped the two chefs introduce their Middle Eastern--inspired signature dishes, like roasted eggplant with yogurt and grilled broccoli with chiles, to a food-obsessed Britain. Now, thanks to Jerusalem and their other books, the duo have a loyal international following.

Both Ottolenghi and Tamimi say divisions between Israelis and Palestinians have had no impact on their own day-to-day lives in London. "Conflict is very much a state of mind," says Ottolenghi. "If you're not in that state of mind, it doesn't bother you." Tamimi says they "never talk politics, ever," because they tend to focus on what they have in common--food. "We're just happy that our cooking and our books bring people together, whether they are Jewish or Muslim."