Close-up: Know How Cooking Is An Act Of Love For Italian Megachef Massimo Bottura
That chef is Massimo Bottura, patron of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, which was crowned in 2018 as World’s Best Restaurant after first topping the list in 2016. Granted, Bottura has garnered both praise and criticism since opening his restaurant in 1994 in the town where he grew up, mostly for his wildly imaginative reinterpretation of Italian cuisine. But, like others including Spain’s Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, Brazil’s Alex Atala of D.O.M, and Denmark’s René Redzepi of Noma, Bottura’s vision is revolutionising and reinventing the cuisine of his country.
“So you travel from all over the world to eat this kind of food that is totally different from just good food,” says Bottura, as we catch up during a recent visit to Singapore at the invitation of American Express to mark the relaunch of its Platinum Card, which rewards members with one-off dining experiences like this one with the Italian master chef. “Of course it’s amazing food; it has three Michelin stars. But more than that, it’s about eating great ideas.”
For those who have had the opportunity to dine at Francescana, the dishes are undoubtedly contemporary, even playful, but also a little nostalgic. The cuisine isn’t Italian fare as many of us know it, but it’s still relatable. His famously endearing The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna, for example, is a deconstructed ode to his favourite childhood dish, featuring his favourite bits.
“People are travelling [to Franscescana] to eat emotions,” says the charismatic 56-year-old chef. “They don’t need to eat a big pan of lasagne [like the ones] their grandmothers would bring to the table, as it was done 100 years ago. They just need to eat as the kids eat, stealing the crunchy parts— that’s the emotional part, the crunchy part on top of the lasagne.” He adds that when lasagne is prepared for the staff meal, he still rushes to steal the crunchy bits. “They don’t keep it aside for me—I have to go for it.”
That is, of course, if Bottura has the time. The chef has a number of projects on the go and a few more in the pipeline; in October, he opened Torno Subito (which means “I’ll be back soon”) on the beach in Dubai, and might even open a bed and breakfast. But the projects he’s currently prioritising are rather more selfless. “Once you arrive up there, it’s important to give back,” he says. “There are people interested in money and building empires, and there are other people who are more interested in helping others.”
The Il Tortellini project in Modena, for example, was launched to teach special needs children life skills, including learning how to hand-make pasta from rezdores, the women who traditionally do so before major feasts. “Of course, it’s about Charlie—my son always keeps me grounded with his genetic problems [autism]—but it’s also about keeping traditions alive,” says Bottura.
He is also seriously passionate about growing his refettorio [refectory]— or Food for Soul—soupkitchen initiative, launched in Milan in 2015, through which surplus food is recycled to make meals for the underprivileged. To open a refettorio every day somewhere in the world that needs one is a dream of the chef. There are currently outlets in Brazil, Modena, Bologna, London, Paris and, soon, Naples, and he’s also looking to launch one in Mérida in the Mexican state of Yucatán.
“It would be very important to open in the United States—like in San Francisco, Denver, Detroit, and New York,” says Bottura. “It’s extremely important to have people who understand the project and can really help us in the daily operations; it’s all about creating a community.” Bottura tells us more about the passions that drive him.
You speak of preserving tradition, but what you do at Francescana is very modern.
Because I believe in beauty. I believe in culture—and culture brings knowledge. And knowledge brings conscience, and conscience a sense of responsibility. And so the culture of beauty can change the world. When you break things, like I did with my tradition and my past, you have to rebuild; that’s the most difficult thing.
What about those who aren’t familiar with Italian food and your references?
Actually, I have to say that the people who travel from all over the world to eat at Osteria Francescana know more [about Italian food] than some Italians.
What does this tell you about your food?
When I say that Osteria Francescana is a laboratory of ideas, and we feed emotions and we feed culture, this is exactly what it is.
How does it stay relevant?
Like the great artist Ai Weiwei was explaining to me, to break a 2,000-yearold vase is to break tradition, but breaking it is just a starting point, starting a new tradition. It’s not about forgetting our past. Looking at a country’s past in a critical and not a nostalgic way is key to building its future.
What’s a dish that illustrates this point?
I think “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart” [his unique take on the lemon tart, served upside down and smashed] is rebuilding, in a perfect way, imperfection. And the five different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, in five different textures and temperatures. And the ice cream bar of foie gras with hazelnut and almond, with balsamic vinegar in the middle. A new dish we have now is called “Wagyu Not Wagyu”—we’re rebuilding this popular meat, its quality of fattiness and muscles, with fake wagyu, meaning we cook pork belly and heart separately, then we slice both very thinly, then we compress these in a vacuum pack for a couple of weeks so that they become stuck together. Then we slice it very thinly onto a plate and serve it with a ponzu sauce made with burnt onions—and we serve it as a dessert. The point is very simple: I’m serving, for a cost of 15 euros per dish, a quality of ideas that costs 1,000 euros. This idea is so strong and illuminating. If you work hard, if you have the right technique, if you have the right culture and you have knowledge, one day you can be wagyu beef. It has the same meaning as “The Potato That Wants to be a Truffle,” a soufflé with foam of vanilla encased in potato skin, with slices of black truffle on top.
What about creating food that everyone can afford?
That’s a different thing. That is a reflection I had when I created Franceschetta 58 [a casual restaurant, also in Modena]. You can walk in and have a great meal for 30 to 40 euros. The head chef there worked at Osteria Francescana for eight years. And he’s hosting the young generation, even some locals, who are very interested in food—gastro-bistro and hipster food. He’s also hosting the older Modenese who can’t get a table at Francescana. And they spend much less, so they aren’t complaining about eating very small portions and having to pay a lot of money, [not realising that] there are 60 people at Francescana working for 28 guests.
Has your work on the refettorio changed you as a chef?
No. When I say and write in books that cooking is an act of love, it is exactly that. We cook in the same way, with the same passion as a Michelin-starred restaurant, at the refettorio.
What are your other plans?
The refettorio is a big project because we are expanding into North America. Even Franceschetta 58 has amazing potential everywhere. Gucci Osteria is so successful in Florence that Gucci has already asked if we are open to expanding outside Europe. We are also restoring this amazing property, an 18th-century villa in the country in Modena, and that could one day be 12 to 14 rooms full of beauty next to a park that’s 250 years old. Maybe it’ll just be for special events. I don’t know.
Any advice for young chefs?
Don’t be pushy. You cannot improvise to be a great chef, but a great chef can improvise. The point is, if you grow slowly, like a tree, you’ll have big roots.