Walking into a room with Massimo Bottura is a like walking into one of the great theatres of the world. The man is operatic and colorful, in an endearing way. His ethereal words will comfort the soul and make you question the universe. His aura will inspire to you reach further. His knowledge will seep into those who listen to his words. You will laugh, ponder, and maybe even shed a tear. You will walk out of the room a better, more culturally curious being. He is not merely a chef, or the best chef in the world- he is a prophet for inspired living.
Bottura is a leading figure amongst a new generation of Italian chefs. His avant garde techniques makes him one of the most creative culinary forces in the world. This past summer, Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana, claimed the number one spot on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He is the first Italian chef to claim this honor, which many in the food business consider to be the highest level of achievement possible in the culinary world. This high honor is paired with three Michelin Stars, and a plethora of other awards and prizes which would take up way too much print to list. In other words, the guy is not only good at what he does, he might be the best there is.
What exactly does being on the top 50 list for the past eight years mean to Bottura? “The restaurants in the top 50 build culture, they do something different,” he states. “Otherwise there is no sense, why we are there and other great restaurants are not.” Bottura and his talented team create their unique culture from a small space in Modena located at 22 Via Stella. “Culture creates knowledge, Knowledge brings consciousness, consciousness brings responsibility.”
Are these the words of a chef, or a provocateur of thought? Bottura not only wants to feed our appetite, he strives to feed our minds- and he does so by using culture as a tool. He actually says that culture is the most important ingredient he uses. “Culture is what you need to have a dialogue, to express yourself with good ideas,” he adds. “The chef is not the sum of his recipes, he’s much more- it’s not just about the quality of the ingredients, It’s about the quality of the ideas.”
Bottura has engaged in a profound exploration of territory and tradition at Osteria Francescana. The dishes are an expression not only of Bottura’s desire for Italian cuisine to evolve, but they act as pieces of art, where aesthetic is as important as flavor. This artistic expression can be found in the absolute concentration of flavours guided by conceptual premise.
Guests of Osteria Francescana can choose from the à la carte menu or from the restaurant’s two tasting menus. The Tradition in Evolution menu pays tribute to Italian ingredients, traditions and terroir. The longer Sensations menu includes seasonal expressions from the experimental kitchen.
Bottura believes that traditions root us in a place, culture and time, but they must never be stagnant. “Traditional food is the result of a successful experiment, we must continue to evolve our palates and our techniques and remain flexible in the kitchen to new ideas, ingredients and concepts,” he claims. “Only then can we project ourselves into the future and allow our own gastronomic evolution to follow.”
“The chef is not the sum of his recipes, he’s much more- it’s not just about the quality of the ingredients, It’s about the quality of the ideas.”
The Francescanan evolution of Italian traditions can be seen in Bottura dishes such as “Come to Italy with Me” and “Compression of Pasta and Beans” where the rules have been bent and come full circle, constantly reminding diners of Italy’s rich gastronomic heritage.
“Being contemporary means know everything and forget about everything,” says Bottura.
This loaded statement makes all the sense in the world. Bottura is a student of the past, but does not dwell in the past. He learns from what has been done, and he destroys. Out of this destruction comes great rebirth- the ability to mirror the past and recreate in your own vision. He studies the mould, destroys it, and recreates it as he sees fit- making it his own. His art.
Although the Emilian chef now sits on top of the world, and his celebrity status permits him to voice his opinions openly – Italy’s culinary hero was once a villain of traditional Italian cuisine. He was accused of killing the wholesome cuisine of the Italian “nonnas”. His dishes were accused of being part of an unsafe molecular cuisine- quasi witchcraft for the Modenese people! Many people wanted him, and his ideas to go away.
In 2000, five years after opening Osteria, Bottura was struggling to find a purpose for the restaurant to exist. Having spent years working in some of the most prestigious kitchens in the world from Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV to Ferran Adria’s ElBulli, the Italian chef was exasperated. He contemplated closing shop. His wife and a stroke of luck had different plans for him.
One evening, one of Italy’s top food critics was driving in Modena when his car broke down. The writer visited Osteria Francescana and could not believe the incredible gem he had stumbled upon. His outstanding review spread across Italy, Europe, and the world- and the rest as we say is history.
Throughout the years, it became apparent that Bottura is dedicated to reconstructing Italy’s cultural heritage – not deconstructing it.
His genius is now being praised the world over. He has not killed Italian cuisine, he has given it a fresh take, and has put Modena on the map.
The land’s unique ingredients are the building blocks to Bottura’s creations. The Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a quintessential element in a Francescana dish. Classic Italian and Modenese dishes are re-evaluated by the chef’s free flowing approach, ensuring that the Italian Kitchen is free to evolve.
Osteria Francescana is more than just a restaurant, it is a place that must be experienced and appreciated. Art is very much an integral part of Bottura’s philosophy.
Bottura’s wife, Lara Gilmore, introduced the superstar chef to the world of the arts- transforming the him from regular restaurateur to global superstar. “I’m so focused into music and art… the dialogue with music is extremely important,” says the 54-year-old.
I dropped the lemon tart, Osteria Francescana’s signature dessert, was the title of an art exhibit in New York’s SoHo district where artists were confronting imperfection. “Maybe it’s the first time in history that a chef inspired art, usually it’s the opposite.”
The lemon tart dessert is exactly what Bottura preaches. Destruction followed by rebirth. The brittle pastry being destroyed actually turns into a beautiful expression of creative indifference.
Osteria Francescana has housed creative works such as Francesco Vezzoli’s “La Vie en Rose”, Carlo Benvenuto’s “Table and glass” and Mario Sciffano’s “World Map”. This impressive collection has expanded to include works from Bottura’s personal art collection. Maurizio Cattelan’s “Tourists”, Ceal Floyer’s minimalist “Paper and Ink” series, Jonathan Borofsky’s “half a sailboat painting” (literally half a painting); and Gavin Turk’s “bin bag” are some of the works that can be seen at the Osteria. A visit to the Modena eatery is a feast not only for the taste buds but for the eyes and the soul. The latest addition to the Osteria’s collection is one of Damien Hirst’s Spin paintings. “The artworks on the walls lend a view of the landscape of our ideas,” says Bottura.
As I sat face-to-face with Mr. Bottura- the theatre of Bottura, his eyes locked onto mine. He has a unique way of capturing a person’s undivided attention and drawing you into his imagination.
“What’s in your Future? What is your dream?”
The subject was asking the journalist a question. This was a first. The prey becomes the hunter. My mind races.
“I have no idea,” I stumble back.
“No idea… that’s bad.”
“You have to have a dream, because if you can dream it, you can do it,” he says. “But the young generation, they lose themselves, they stop dreaming.”
At that moment, it dawned on me- this man’s sole purpose on earth was not to cook food, it is to provoke thought and stimulate ideas. To destroy and rebuild with the inspiration he surrounds himself with. However, he also believes in a higher purpose.
Bottura believes that the role of a contemporary chef is about involving others, and he has been doing exactly what he preaches. The Italian chef has used his celebrity and charm to bring about social change.
During the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan, Bottura spearheaded a social experiment centered around food waste. He created the Refettorio Ambrosiano otherwise known as Food for Soul. The Refettorio, a contemporary soup kitchen, was created in collaboration with the Vatican and Caritas. Many top chefs from Italy and abroad joined Bottura during the 5 months of the EXPO Milan, cooking for the city’s needy and sharing innovative recipes for reducing waste in the kitchen. The project addressed issues of food wastage and hunger in major metropolitan areas.
Bottura duplicated the concept at this year’s Rio Olympic games, setting up the Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio De Janeiro’s Lapa neighborhood. The kitchen was powered by a generator and used food surplus from the Olympic venues to feed underprivileged locals.
The Next step; Montreal and New York City. Bottura has hinted at a possible Refettorio in Montreal’s Little Italy district, above the Marche Jean Talon. The world’s top chef is convinced Montreal is ready to fight food waste.
He then plans to open a Refettorio in the Bronx, with none other than Academy Award Laureate Robert De Niro. The Bronx Refettorio will be supported by the Italian Consulate in New York.
The world has learned to love Massimo Bottura not only for his brilliance in the kitchen, but his vision and compassion towards making the world a better place.
We must give this man a standing ovation.
In turn, he will bow, exit stage left- and move on with his constructive disruption of the world around him.