Massimo Bottura: The "novelist" of the Italian cuisine

Chef-patron of award winning Osteria Francescana, the first Italian restaurant ranked at the top of the "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list in 2018, is one of the most prominent figures of the modern Italian culinary scene.

In 2019 he was listed among Time magazine’s most influential people in the world, Bottura has consolidated his reputation as one of the world’s most creative culinary figures. His internationally renowned three Michelin star restaurant was named number 1 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016 and 2018, and it is currently part of the Best of the Best list. Expanding his legacy, Bottura started bottling Aceto Balsamico under the name of Villa Manodori, which is now a collection of a wide range of the best condiments used his kitchens. He decided to open another restaurant in Modena, Franceschetta58, a casual bistro where to have fun approaching local cuisine with an ironic and contemporary twist. In 2018, Massimo Bottura inaugurated the partnership with Gucci opening Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura in Florence, which last year awarded 1 Michelin star.

A new international collaboration with W Hotels Worldwide was the opportunity to bring the Italian dolce vita on Dubai’s shores with the opening of Torno Subito in 2019. Another great adventure started last year unveiling Casa Maria Luigia, a 18th century guest house set in the Emilian countryside. In February 2020 Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura Beverly Hills opened in Los Angeles, expanding the concept outside of Italy. In March 2020, at the beginning of the Italian lockdown, Bottura and his daughter Alexa launched Kitchen Quarantine, the Instagram live showthe family did every night during the Italian

lockdown. For them, it was a fun way to interact with families all over the world and teach people good practices in the kitchen such as cleaning out the refrigerator to limit food waste. The show, now available on YouTube, awarded a Webby Award last May. More than a chef, Massimo Bottura has been recognized for his commitment against food waste and social isolation, founding the non-profit organization Food for Soul together with his wife Lara Gilmore. He is also the author of Bread is Gold: Extraordinary Meals with Ordinary Ingredients and Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.

A modern gastronomic Bel Canto

Massimo Bottura's forward momentum at the gastronomic revolution of the latest years is undeniable. An innovator and restaurateur for twenty-five years, he opened his Osteria Francescana in Modena in 1995. His artistic dishes could be considered a typical gastronomic Bel Canto combining deep rustic flavours, philosophical basis, delicate combinations and counterpoints. He gloryfies his childhood memories with a touch of Italian sensibilité, and approaches taste through a "lyric" lense drawing his inspiration by every day life and art, his great passion. "Inspiration is everywhere. I will be watching a film, walking the dog, or listening to a record on the turntable. Inspiration comes from the world around me – not just from art. You have to be ready to catch the flash in the dark because it only passes once. I often advise young chefs to read, travel and dig as deep as they can into their culture to understand who they are and where they come from. Only then can you discover your true motivations, passions, and inspirations.

When I first began looking at contemporary art, I found it confusing. With time, reading, research and more looking, I began to see that contemporary art forced me to look at the world from another point of view. Once I began to do this, I felt my eyes were opened and could no longer stay shut. I had discovered a remarkable new world. My wife and I began collecting contemporary art for the restaurant to share our enthusiasm with our guests but also to help them see the similarities between the art on the walls and the ideas in the kitchen. Art is a point of reflection. The artist’s thoughts are often an inspiration to me and to the kitchen. Through the artist’s eyes you can see the world in a magical way, not the everyday life but the poetry of life. This is very important to keep in mind when you are in the kitchen chopping onions and peeling potatoes. It is easy to lose yourself in the everyday obligations we all have, chefs or not, and art reminds you to keep a window open for poetry. When the right time comes, if that window is open, you can jump through it into a parallel universe where even the most mundane object turns to gold", chef Bottura poetically adds.

Athough his dishes seem to have an art background, he explains that the aesthetic ontology of a dish, should never be a reason to consider it comparable to a work of art. "I would never compare our dishes to artworks. We are artisans, not artists. An artsist can work in any way, shape or form; our job is as chefs is different. We have a responsibility to our guests to make good food. At Osteria Francescana we work on the complexity of flavour coming from the deepest part of my memory and experience, from home in Italy and from my travels abroad. We often surprise dinners with clear, honest, and true Italian flavours – and avoid the fireworks, smoke and magic tricks. Our dishes address memory both personal and cultural; we make references to music, film and art. We turn mistakes into triumphs and look for what’s hiding underneath the rocks. But at the end of the day, all of our energy is devoted to making good food, healthy food, delicious and seasonal food that not only satisfies the empty belly but also stimulates the mind. It takes consciousness, vision and intuition to create a recipe. We challenge ourselves every time as if it was the first, over and over again. Everything we think, see and learn gets squeezed into our cuisine: this requires open mind and open eyes on the world, to not take anything for granted and learn from every experience, failure and success. We created a laboratory of ideas where we make culture on a daily basis, where we get in touch with farmers, artisans, fishmongers that grew up with us and shared our philosophy, those who enable us to transfer emotions to our guests through the ingredients that they deliver us everyday.

Our kitchen is not a recipe book, a list of ingredients or a showcase of techniques: it is a narration of our landscape, our passions, our memories, and culinary heritage. Our research brings us in many different directions, but we constantly keep in mind where we are, in space and time, because this defines who we are. We know which is our place in the world. Culture brings knowledge. Knowledge leads to consciousness. From consciousness to a sense of responsibility, it is a very small step. Because consciousness couldn’t lead anywhere else if not here: it brings us to be responsible of each other, inside our team first, and then outside, towards our community. It’s time for chefs to go outside their kitchens, to take outside everything we’ve accumulated in years of experience, hard work, sacrifices, but even satisfactions and acknowledgments", chef Bottura adds defining the exact range of his culinary philosophy.

Memories, stories, mentors and an ode to imperfection

Storytelling is another basic part of chef Bottura's philosophy. "Every dish has its own story. For example, The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna tells about my childhood memories, when my mother would pull out the tray of lasagne from the oven, and my brothers and I would crowd around the kitchen counter fighting over the burned corners of the pan. To re-create this memory, we prepared a thin sheet of pasta that is fried and toasted. It sits above a traditional hand cut meat ragu with a touch of besciamella sauce on top. The tri-colour pasta looks as though it is about to fly off the plate like a bird about to take flight.

Then, there’s Oops! I dropped the lemon tart. Takahiko Kondo, our Japanese sous chef, dropped a lemon tart during service one evening. There was no way to substitute it somehow, it was the very last one and we were going to serve the last two tarts of the service. So I took the other one and I broke it on the plate. It was so beautiful that we decided to re-create it in the same way from that day on. Not only does this gesture talk about the importance of leaving a window open for poetry in our busy lives, but also the emotional value of imperfection. The tart is perfectly delicious and its broken presentation is a metaphor to southern Italy which is a very broken place, even back in Goethe’s day as he so often stated in his Italian Travels, but some of the most important and most well loved flavours come from there: lemons from Sorrento, bergamot from Calabria, capers from Pantelleria, oregano from Sicily… and so on. This dessert is a reminder of the importance of finding poetry in everyday gestures.

Lidia Cristoni, his mentor at Trattoria del Campazzo (his first restaurant), is the first to mention amongst the emblematic figures of his gastronomic memories. "I would certainly think about Lidia Cristoni, my mentor at Trattoria del Campazzo. From her, I learnt how to be a chef. Besides showing me how to properly run the kitchen of a restaurant, Lidia taught me the basics of traditional Emilian cuisine, the respect for food, the “nose-to-tail” golden rule, which means using everything and wasting nothing. Grown up with bread soups for dinner and Nonna Ancella’s passatelli for lunch, it couldn’t be anyone that an authentic Emilian rezdora like Lidia to show me the path to follow within the context of a professional kitchen. But the most relevant lesson that Lidia gave me is how fundamental is to stop with the whole brigade, before the service, and seat all together at the same table. To leave aside the pressure of the service, the fatigue of such an hard work and share the meal like an authentic family.

Chef Alain Ducasse is another figure with a great impact on his evolution. "My traineeship with Alain Ducasse at Louis XV was truly relevant to me. From Alain Ducasse, I learnt the value of using locally sourced ingredients and establishing trusting relationships with artisans, farmers, fishmongers and so forth. These lessons were very valuable to me and helped guide my decision to open Osteria Francescana. He also taught me to trust myself, my palate, my sensitivity, my creativity. It happened when, at the end of my stage, he grabbed my precious notebook with all my thoughts and notes from such an enriching experience, and tore it in paper confetti just in front of my astonished face. Then he told me: “Now, you are ready.” To create, you have to know everything, and forget everything".

Impresario at the "Theater of Life"

I ask him about his initiative “Food for Soul”, how the idea come up and what his future plans include regarding “Food for Soul” and any other projects around the world. "I became aware of my role as a chef outside the kitchen over the past yeas. My first experience was in 2012 when a series of earthquakes hit Emilia-Romagna region where Modena and the restaurant is located. Over 350,000 wheels of Parmgiano Reggiano cheese were damaged. And I thought about what I could do tho help the dairy farmers sell the cheese so that they would not go out of business. We came up with a recipe – riso cacio e pepe. We shared it with the world encouraging everyone to buy and use lots of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. This small gesture proved to be much bigger than I even realized. There I learned that a recipe can be an act of solidarity or a social gesture. I understood the power of food and the important role that chefs can play in society.

In 2014 when Italy was preparing for Expo in Milan 2015, I saw another opportunity to use my voice to make visible the invisible. With the help of the Catholic association Caritas, and friends in the world of design, art and the culinary world, we created a new format for a soup kitchen – The Refettorio Ambrosiano. During a 6- month period over 60 chefs from around the world came to cook in this soup kitchen for the homeless working salvaged food into delicious and healthy meals. Everyday, we collected food waste and worked to make it edible. I invited chefs from all over the world to leave their recipes at home and challenge them to cook banana peels, ugly carrots and wrinkled potatoes. I wanted them to be as aware as I became that food waste and hunger are two sides of the same coin. A recipe book will tell the amazing stories and share the recipes from this kitchen. It will be published by Phaidon press.

After the experience at the Refettorio Ambrosiano, my wife and I decided to continue this work and we founded the Food for Soul non-profit organization to raise the same awareness that has risen in me during the Expo in Milan. Through Food for Soul, we want to promote a call for action against food waste and hunger. After the rewarding experience in Milan, we began working with the non-profit organization Gastromotiva, to build a Refettorio Gastromotiva in August 2016, to leave a permanent legacy of the Olympics to the city of Rio de Janeiro. Our next project will be in London. Together with the Felix Project, a non-profit organization supplying food surplus to the charities of the city, we will open Refettorio Felix by revamping an already existing soup kitchen and serving healthy and nutritious meals to those in need. Refettorio Felix will open in June, during the London Food Month festival; we launched a call to British and international chefs to come and join us to cook from food surplus and make every meal special. Refettorio Felix will stay even after the festival ends, as a legacy for the city of London. We are working to make our voice louder, to join efforts against food waste and social isolation and make visible the invisible. Together we can make the difference.

The interview was published at Greek magazine "Big Fish", in 2018, last update: 13/12/2020