If you don’t already know who Ixta Belfrage is, you should, even if for no other reason than the fact that her inventive recipes and unique flavour pairings will shake up your cooking repertoire in the best way possible. After shooting to culinary fame in 2020 as co-author of cookbook Flavour alongside household name Yotam Ottolenghi, Belfrage quickly garnered her own significant following thanks to her esoteric cooking and recipes that pull influence from Brazilian, Mexican and Italian cuisines.

It’s a fairly amazing achievement for a woman whose career pathway took a few twists and turns before arriving at food. “I’ve always loved cooking and have been obsessed with food, but for some reason it kind of took me a very long time to realise I should also work in food,” Belfrage tells me. “So I did quite a lot of things before I got into food.” She started a painting degree, before moving to Australia and worked at an Australian power and gas company because she “couldn’t get any other job” before moving into a role as a travel agent. She then returned from Australia, started a design degree and “hated that too.”

“It was at that point that I realised I was really unhappy and sort of lost, and just had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” Belfrage explains. “My sister was just like, ‘why aren’t you a chef? Why aren’t you cooking?’ and it just seemed so obvious. It was a real lightbulb moment,” she explains. She quit her design degree, and went about starting up her own catering and market stall business largely because she believed professional kitchens weren’t for her.

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Her attempts to avoid restaurants lasted around five months, at which point she realised that she needed industry experience to “know what the hell’s going on.” She applied to spots around the city, being very honest on her CV that she had no industry experience, and expecting not to hear back from anyone. But then NOPI called.

“I think they were kind of desperate, because they had just had someone walk out, so they gave me a chance. Although I don’t think I really did a good job there,” she laughs. Somehow I doubt this, but she cites the difference between home cooking and the relatively fast-paced professional kitchens as the reason for her difficulty. “Recipe development is obviously very different to being on the line, working in a kitchen, which is more about following orders and being precise and good at what you do,” she explains. “You know, there’s ordering en masse and there’s the long hours – it’s incredibly hard.”

Earlier in our conversation, I’d touched on the topic of what it means to be a woman in the food industry, and she heralds back to this point, continuing, “I was one woman out of about 15 male chefs, and I found that really tricky. It’s definitely changed a hell of a lot, and there’s some incredible work being done in the industry, especially at Ottolenghi where the executive chef is an amazing guy who is really making sure that things are different. But at the time, five or six years ago, it wasn’t very nice. I felt very outnumbered, and most of the guys were nice, but there was that element of objectifying female customers and just being a bit gross, to be honest,” although, she says, “more often than not they were nice to me.”

Out of the blue, Yotam Ottolenghi turned around to me and said ‘Ixta, I’ve decided to make you co-author on the book’

It was this cocktail of factors, alongside the brutal hours, that had her considering leaving NOPI after nine months when, by chance, a job happened to open up in the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, the elusive space where recipes for all arms of the Ottolenghi empire are tried and tested by a group of professionals. “I was actually on the verge of quitting when one of my bosses walked past the kitchen one day and said ‘Hey, Ixta, there’s a job going in the test kitchen, do you want to go for it?’ and I was like ‘What the hell is a test kitchen?’” she laughs. “I really didn’t know anything about anything. I wasn’t really on Instagram and wasn’t really in the scene, and then she was like ‘Oh, you know what? You probably wouldn’t want it. It doesn’t have the fire of the kitchen. It’s only Monday to Friday, nine to five.’”

Unsurprisingly, she jumped at the opportunity. And while she might not have known what the Test Kitchen was, it’s clear from how she tells the story that this was the perfect job for her, even if she didn’t know it yet. While Ottolenghi himself wasn’t present for her trial shift, she got the job and quickly made her mark. The freedom of the job and the creativity it encouraged allowed Belfrage to shine, not just having an impact on recipes developed for the Ottolenghi empire, but also fine tuning her own personal niche as she went.

Almost four years later she began work on the cookbook she would go on to co-author. “When it was time to write the next book – we didn’t know it was going to be called Flavour at the time – I was the head of the test kitchen and I’d been there the longest, and I was told that I would be project managing and developing the recipes for the next book,” Belfrage tells me. “And so I was working on it for a few months, obviously working very closely with Yotam, because it’s a very small environment and test kitchen. We were a few months in, and I think Yotam and I were at the Test Kitchen late one night, and out of the blue, he turned around to me and said ‘Ixta, I’ve decided to make you co-author on the book.’

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It was a casual conversation that would change the course of her career. While I have no doubt that Belfrage would have found her way without the helping hand of Yotam Ottolenghi, there is no doubt that her attachment to his name pushed her career into the stratosphere. And really, the home cook and diner are all the luckier for it. Her debut solo book Mezcla is unlike anything I’ve ever read or cooked from before. She, unsurprisingly, cites Ottolenghi as a major inspiration. “It sounds obvious, but it’s true,” she says. “I don’t really use many Middle Eastern ingredients, but just in the sense that it’s colour and bright and bold flavours, and layers of texture and flavour.”

As Ottolenghi has been cited with changing the wider British cooking repertoire and pantry staples list forever, Belfrage seems like the intuitive next person to step into a comparable level of influence. Her immense culinary creativity and recipes that stretch the boundaries of definition will no doubt have a lasting impact. Yotam Ottolenghi himself puts it best when he says, of Belfrage, that she has “one-in-a-million creativity.” Like mentor, like mentee.