Part IV: “Ottolenghi Simple”

Merkle’s unofficial book club presents: 5 books to improve yourself - and your business - during Corona

“There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” (Simon Sinek) Most people at Merkle (including me), started to work here because they felt inspired by their potential future colleagues during the recruitment process. I realized this once more when, very naturally, an unofficial Merkle book club started to form around a year ago. We would exchange books that we had read and loved, that made us wonder or grow or want to talk about with colleagues.

For most of us, the Corona crisis comes with some extra time: no more commuting to work, for some less or even no work at all; no big trips or activities are possible. On the other hand, there is plenty to worry about, when given time with oneself alone. Insecurities about your own health and that of loved ones, but also financial issues are faced by most of us.

I’d like to encourage you to worry less and read more. These 5 book recommendations will not only give you a way to fill your time, but also motivate and possibly inspire you! Their lessons are suited for both personal growth or for business  improvement - independent of your role, status, or sector. To get you started, I will share my own experience from both personal and professional perspectives. Let’s go!

“Ottolenghi Simple”

smile simple!

Wait, a cookbook? Now she went nuts. But while nuts are an extremely underestimated ingredient in dishes, I’d much rather talk about lemons in this post. Because if life gives you lemons, use them wisely!

How my personal experience is connected to ‘reading’ “Ottolenghi - SIMPLE”

First of all I should mention that I consider myself very talented in various areas (positive self-talk, am I right?). The kitchen is not one of them. I have confidently spent the better part of three decades not thinking of myself as a good (or even decent) cook, and lived well with that self-image of being completely useless in front of the stove. After all, you can live off of bread, cheese, and the occasional pasta, right? My sister had already tried to convince me otherwise. I still have her handwritten cookbook with family recipes ranging from salad dressings to cakes. Particularly sweet is the first chapter, which she called “Tips & Tricks”, where she mentions condiments or sauces that I should always keep in the fridge or pantry. I choose to see it as a kind gift rather than a nervous outreach of my family, fearing I might not be able to sustain myself well enough. While I occasionally picked up the book after my sister gave it to me, it never really caught on during my student years. One of the reasons being that German cuisine is not exactly known for its spectacular variety in taste, especially when it comes to vegetarian meals (which are the only ones that come into question for me). So when I was introduced to some Portuguese foods in my late twenties, I was astonished what a few extra flavours can do to a simple dish (disclaimer: not that I would have been cooking myself much at that point. I was merely referring to the experience of tasting bought foods). Take piri-piri, for example. A very effective tool to “spice up your life”, quite literally! But also the very simple, yet variable combination of onion-potato-parsley is something often found in Portuguese cuisine, and it is a fun side dish to a heavier main course. So said parsley became one of my first friends when I was somewhat forced to cook for myself while living in Portugal, because I couldn’t afford to eat out very often. I made due and experimented a little with what the mediterranean supermarkets offered, but apart from always cooking masses (which I quickly became known for at work), my skills did not exactly develop into a distinguished category.

“Ottolenghi - SIMPLE” changed that for me a little bit. This time, I have my brother-in-law to thank for it - him being an enthusiastic cooker, it was his Christmas gift to me in 2018. Even though it had “SIMPLE” in its title, the recipes seemed veeeery sophisticated to me. Also, entering Middle Eastern style cooking tasted otherworldly (yet so delicious!). But I felt that I needed to show I had liked the gesture, so I had to actually try out some of the meals and send pictures to the family as proof. Guess what I found out. Anyone. Can. Follow. A. Recipe. And that folks, is your mind blower for this blog entry! As complicated as even the “simple” version of a cookbook seemed to me, by following instructions I was actually able to put together flavourful dishes. I discovered that fresh herbs make a huge difference to a plate in comparison to dried herbs. I learned that a little bit of fresh lemon juice will make your heart jump of joy in almost any recipe. And I experienced that, while it will probably not become an area in my life wherein I will ever excel at - I do get better at it with practice, and I am able to enjoy it because I invest the effort and get better at it. Now that we are all spending more time indoors, I encourage you all to get out that old recipe book from the shelf, and give it another chance. And remember: sour makes you happy!

How your business can improve from you ‘reading’ “Ottolenghi - SIMPLE”

There are three lessons to be taken for your business from this particular cookbook.

1. Simple means something different to everyone.

The authors of “Ottolenghi” know this, which is why they came up with six attributes that categorize each recipe. For some, simple means that you can prepare your meal in a short amount of time. For others, it might mean not to buy or hord a whole lot of ingredients. Yet another one prefers to prepare their dish hours or days in advance, and then consume. We are all different and hence perceive simplicity in different ways. How often have you tried to convey a “simple” idea to your colleagues, and received nothing but utter confusion? I recently made the experience that a team member and I just did not seem to get on the same page of how to structure our tasks. Simplicity to me is: automated formulas, digital sheets comprising various aspects. To him, simplicity is: handwritten to do lists, visually appealing and colour-coded diagrams. In the end, we needed both - in any case the question of “how can we simplify this as a team?” should have been asked weeks before we actually did! Can you see how the question of “what does ‘simple’ mean to you?” could stimulate your teamwork?  

2. Freshness is important.

To me, “simple” also means not buying too many goods that can go bad when not used up quickly. So for a long time, I avoided buying or growing fresh herbs. MAN, was I missing out! Not only will your taste buds thank you for it, but the nutrients will fuel your body and make you feel well nourished if you regularly include fresh ingredients in your diet. And just as much as dried, long-lasting ingredients will not add as much taste to your meal as fresh ones would, old and canned ideas won’t spike creativity in your business. Much like your mindset going into a meeting or working task matters (see Part I: “Miracle Morning”), so do fresh thoughts that you create room for. Marie Forleo and her team have regular meetings where they do the following exercise: “What if we…” - and everything is possible. EVERYTHING, from “What if we had a ball pit in our studio?” to “What if everyone of us would participate as individuals in a big media campaign?”. Most of these ideas are not followed up upon with an actual action - but they surely put some freshness into everybody’s day, spark creativity and eventually, one or two flavourful, promising concepts will come out. 

3. Sometimes it can be beneficial to set yourself boundaries.

Mr. Ottolenghi himself said that, while experimenting for this book, he had trouble limiting himself for the recipes with 10 or less ingredients. However, with time, he found that this imposed limitation was actually a gift: he learned that despite the restrictions the end result did not make him miss anything. Sometimes we get so wound up in wanting to reach various KPIs, that we lose focus. Wanting too much at the same time creates unnecessary pressure and the flavour of the end result might not even be worth it! Much like with make-up, less can sometimes be more. Unless we are talking about lemon juice, of course.* *You can, actually,put too much lemon juice into your meal. Be careful with that.