When I first heard the name Ixta Belfrage, I imagined all sorts of possibilities for this person I’d never met. It’s a name for a playwright, a film director, even the heroine of a tragic novel. Ixta would be the beautiful vixen who breaks hearts as she restlessly works her way through men who can’t keep up with her.
The first thing I find out when I meet Ixta (pronounced Eesta), Yotam Ottolenghi’s co-author on his latest book, Flavour, is even better. She was named after a Mexican volcano. As a child she could see it from her grandfather’s house. I can’t think of a better name with which to bless a daughter.
Ixta, despite her dark hair and red lips (there’s something of Salma Hayek and Frida Kahlo about her) isn’t fiery, though; in fact she’s modestly pinching herself that she has what she sees as the best job in the world.
Belfrage started working for Yotam Ottolenghi, first at his restaurant, Nopi, nearly five years ago. She had no formal training and no experience – except a lifelong obsession with food – but was immediately hired.
“She was simply a natural cook,” says Ottolenghi. “She cooked trial dishes for me that were both original and perfectly executed. There was just no two ways about it – she had the talent and the originality. She also has a rare ability to combine ingredients, to do that cross-cultural thing.”
Belfrage grew up in Brazil, Mexico, Italy, the UK and Australia, so has been exposed to different cuisines and cultures her whole life. If you look at the ingredients used in Flavour, you’ll see more of a Mexican influence than in Ottolenghi’s other books.
Her father was born in the US and her mother is Brazilian. They both work in the food world; her father is in the wine trade and her mother is a nutritionist, though “not that good a cook”, Belfrage whispers.
She’s had a chequered education – dropping out of two degrees, one in design and one in fine art – and spent periods working as a travel agent and selling gas door-to-door. The constant in her life has been cooking.
“There’s nothing more exciting to me than food,” she says. “I’ve always been obsessed. Living in different places has had a huge effect. I don’t think about what ‘goes together’ in any traditional way, I just try things out. Everyone should. For example, I make a prawn lasagne with Asian flavours and Mexican chillies which I love.”
Helen Goh, another Ottolenghi star (she co-wrote Sweet with him) says that a lack of training has been Belfrage’s advantage. “She isn’t weighed down by the rigidity of professional kitchens,” says Goh. “Like Yotam, she has the courage and openness to be an ‘extreme disregarder’ of rules. It’s almost childlike, their unselfconscious passion and fascination, and I think this is what allows them to be very creative in the kitchen.”
Goh also thinks that growing up as outsider in so many countries is a plus. “It’s kind of a survival instinct, when you are a child living in a foreign country. You’re vigilant about how people do things in other cultures.”
For the past four years Belfrage has worked in the Ottolenghi test kitchen, developing dishes for the chef’s column in The Guardian and for the new book. The process sounds like heaven.
There’s no pressure to produce a specific number of recipes and no limit to how many times you test a dish. Some are tested as many as 15 times before they make the grade. Basically, you go in and cook the dishes that are in your head. At lunchtime you sit down with the other staff – Tara Wrigley and Noor Murad – and eat the morning’s labours. Ottolenghi himself usually comes in at some stage every day.
The dishes are discussed, and the afternoon is spent writing up recipes and sometimes brainstorming. “It’s all very fluid,” says Belfrage. “Though we sometimes have to work on specific themes, like Christmas. We end up with a list of ‘orphans’ every so often, new dishes that haven’t found a home and we try to find a theme to link these.”
The ideas for dishes come from everywhere – travelling, eating out, ingredients she stumbles on, what she finds in her fridge. Strangely, for someone so in love with flavour, Belfrage hates “trends”. Dishes come out of her life; she doesn’t go looking for unusual ingredients to shoehorn into her cooking.
Her favourite food memory is of spending time at the home of her best friend when she was growing up in Tuscany. “Her dad made pasta, much of which was hung up to dry in the laundry room. When I smell clean laundry I always think of pasta.” What does she eat when she’s at home and too tired to cook? “Tinned fish. It’s so umami, so deeply satisfying. And fried eggs – I fry them in ghee – with hot sauce.”
Belfrage says Ottolenghi is one of the smartest, most generous people she knows. “I’ve basically been on a crash course in cooking and producing cookbooks with him.” I wonder if she minds being the force behind someone else. “I’d love to do my own book. But I would never want a restaurant. If you have a restaurant you’re tied down.” Fittingly, for someone named after a volcano, Belfrage loves freedom.
Ottolenghi Flavour by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage is published by Ebury Press (£27). Order your copy from books.telegraph.co.uk.
Ixta’s flavour fixes
“Made from fermented rice grains and widely used in China, Japan and south-east Asia. Milder, sweeter and less acidic than distilled Western vinegars, so I often use it in situations that call for a more subtle and rounded hit of acidity.”
“The dried version of the poblano chilli. Poblanos are green when fresh, and become dark red when dried, developing fruit and sweet notes with mild to medium levels of heat.”
“Aged in salt, rather than marinated or pickled, and I’d urge you to get anchovies kept in olive oil, rather than sunflower oil. Anchovies give a savoury depth to the dishes, and they are only particularly fishy if you use a fair amount.”
“A Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soya beans (but also sometimes rice and barley) with salt and koji, which is rice that has been inoculated with mould spores, making it sound far less delicious than it actually is. Miso is the embodiment of umami; it’s sweet, salty and meaty all at once, and can single-handedly give an incredible depth of flavour to anything you add it to.”