“We really set the bar high”: on designing Ottolenghi’s FLAVOUR
“We really set the bar high”: on designing Ottolenghi’s FLAVOUR

Caz Hildebrand couldn’t have known for sure she was designing one of the most recognisable and iconic cookbooks of all time – Yotam Ottolenghi’s 2018 book SIMPLE, an emphatically stark cover which featured just the title, author name, and an embossed yellow lemon on a white background ­– but she knew she was onto something.

"We had quite a battle with the cover, but I was very determined and stubborn about it because, well, Yotam loves lemons," says the chef's long-time collaborator. "For me, it’s the perfect form and it encapsulates potential, and I knew that printing techniques would enable us to get that lemon texture. Having had a very successful cover, which also was much adopted by booksellers and marketers… it was a dream come true.”

So the team set themselves a challenge for FLAVOUR, Ottolenghi’s new cookbook with Ixta Belfrage. SIMPLE, Hildebrand says, “was universally recognisable at a thousand paces, so that’s often my brief to myself: Can you spot that book from a thousand paces? We really set the bar high.

"In a market as crowded as cookbooks, there are hundreds if not thousands on display, all with plates of food on them; in other words, there’s a lot of visual noise. And one of the things I want to do is clear some space and, if you will, ring-fence my territory.”

But FLAVOUR, she says, was “a more conceptual challenge. What is flavour? How do you visually encapsulate that concept? We tried a variety of objects. Pieces of fruit or vegetables. And the onion seemed to us a perfect metaphor, because it has layers and layers that you can unpeel. And most recipes start with ‘chop an onion’, so it was elementary.”

Cookbooks are more than just a cover, of course. Inside, FLAVOUR delivers exactly what the stylised, multicoloured onion suggests via three 'Ps' that provide the book’s three main sections: process (“cooking methods that elevate veg to great heights”), pairing (“four basic pairings that are fundamental to great flavour”), and produce (“impactful vegetables that do the work for you”).

I ask Ottolenghi himself what he has learned since putting together his first cookbook over a decade ago. “First of all, I learned how to make books more beautiful," he says, referring to the iconic covers. Then, he adds, “how important it is to tell a really good story” (FLAVOUR is also replete with personal essays). 

"The recipes have to be good, but in order for people to cook them, they also really have to be useful. And I think about that a lot, about the usefulness of recipes. They have to suit someone. They have to fit into their lives.”

Again, design plays a significant part.

“Food marks so many occasions in our lives”, says Hildebrand, “and a cookbook can become fully associated with those important moments. So it does sort of have to be your friend and companion; it has to be usable. If you make it too inaccessible in design terms, it fails at the first jump. To that end, I think it’s my job to make it incredibly inviting. The design should not be noticeable, but natural.”

For FLAVOUR, Hildebrand had to ensure the book flowed between recipes, essays and visuals.

"You have to figure out the structure and the hierarchy of material. But also, we wanted to make those essays not feel too much like hard work to read. And Yotam was keen to leaven them with some sort of visual material. So, unusually, we decided to choose to use an illustrator to separate that work from the photography of the actual recipes. We found quite a range of illustration styles, and it was a matter of finding something that felt right for the book. Someone who could express the concepts but also complement Jonathan Lovekin’s very exquisite photography and Ixta and Yotam’s very beautiful food.”

(As a rule, she says, food photography “has to look alive and fresh. I don’t want to recognise props that I’ve seen in other people’s cookbooks. I don’t want to see that plate in that background again.")

Foremost on Hildebrand’s mind is maintaining an aesthetic balance that expresses the character of the author and their food.

“Something I always say about our job as designers and art directors is that, really, we’re just midwives. The trick is to try to tease out of an author, what it is that they want their book to be, really trying to understand where their passion lies and how to convey their distinct character. And obviously, Yotam has a particular character. He has a very intelligent and worldly sort of approach to his work, but he also is an incredibly warm human. I think it’s really important to get some of his charm and warmth into the design.

“Although”, she says, casting her mind band to FLAVOUR’s cover, “white is quite a big Ottolenghi thing – he's quite restrained in terms of the cafés and architecture.

"The challenge is not to be too clinical and cold. I hope we’ve achieved that balance. I guess we can only wait and see whether the audience judges it to be a success."

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our readers' letters page.

Photo: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

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