Massimo Bottura, chef patron of Osteria Francescana can be described in many ways. Firstly a chef and owner of the most talked about restaurant in Italy, Bottura is more a philosopher, creative artist and genius than a cook. But. when he gets down to cooking, his creative genius takes over and that is why he is so talked about.
Like many geniuses, he can often be misunderstood. Nowhere more than Italy is it so easy to be misunderstood. When he took the stage at Chefs Revolution in Zwolle, on 14 September 2014, many were expecting him to demonstrate his creativity by cooking some of the dishes that have made him world famous. Instead, he gave a 45 minute presentation which left those present spellbound and applauding many times as he spoke about his philosophy and passion.
What no one knew, and he only recounted this to a few people who went to speak to him after his inspirational speech, was that his box in which he was transporting the ingredients and food preparations from Italy did not arrive in Zwolle. Instead, he had to create a presentation within less than an hour. Many would probably be thankful for that given he gave what was one of the most inspirational speeches I have ever listened to.
There is no question as to why he was voted the best chef in the world by his colleagues. He is looked upon by young chefs not just as a chef but rather as a mentor who speaks his mind even if he could be misunderstood or say things which might make him unpopular.
Bottura is an incredibly humble person. Despite the stress of his presentation, he took time to speak to all those who stopped him and posed for photos and selfies with young chefs who had listened in awe. He is also taking time in May to work on a project which aims to tackle the very sensitive issue of food waste.
He started off his presentation by questioning the audience. “Do you know who you are?” he asked provocatively. “This is the question that I came across in the book, One, No one, 100,000 by Luigi Pirandello recently. It is so important to understand who you are particularly for people who want to create something.”
Follow your dreams however crazy they may be
“The message I give you is to follow your dreams however crazy they may be. Just be yourself and do not be a copy of anyone else. Be authentic. Study. Read. Follow your interests whatever they are.”
Here was a chef speaking to an audience mainly made up of food professionals or enthusiasts. But he could just as well have been speaking at a motivational seminar such were the power of his words.
“Unfortunately we live in an era where we know nothing about everything. This is what I call the Google culture. When we don’t know something, we just rush to Google to find the answer. But that is not the way to learn,” he said.
Bottura finds inspiration from two of his passions in life, music and contemporary art. Anyone who has seen his dishes knows that he is heavily influenced by contemporary artists.
“I tell you that you need to learn everything you can but then you have to forget it. I remember that one of my most devastating experiences was when I had worked in 1993 in Alain Ducasse’s restaurant. On my last day Ducasse came to me and asked me whether I had taken any notes. He then asked me to see the notebook. I naively gave him the notebook and he immediately tore it up. I was shattered. But then he told me that everything was in my head. He told me, go, you can stand on your own feet. This was one of the most important lessons I have ever learnt,” said the Italian chef.
“I immediately understood that once you learn something you can express yourself. You can turn off the light but you can still find yourself and be creative. We know we have five senses but there is a sixth sense and this is your thought. Beauty comes from people’s thoughts,” said Bottura. “I love sunsets and landscapes. You walk into the ruins of Machu Picu in Peru or the Pantheon or Mont St Michel and you are amazed by the power of thought Our ancestors who created these gems by thinking. Like the works of Picasso, they can transmit emotions through their work.
An avant-garde creative, Bottura loves tradition. “Tradition is important because it shows us where we came from. The past defines who we are but it also enables us to dream about the future,” he said.
He explained the story of his signature lasagne served in Osteria Francescana, a dish which I had the pleasure to taste at his restaurant last May. The story of the dish is one of the past and the future. “We all know that the best part of the lasagna is the crispy part. When we are young, it is the part which we steal first. I wanted to create this experience so I created a crunchy overcooked pasta which I fried to burn it. Then I created a foam of béchamel with a bone marrow ragu.”
It was here that Massimo Bottura took a deviation to speak about the scourge of food waste. He explained that it was impossible that the world could afford to throw away 1.3 billion tonnes in food. “How can this be possible?” he asked. “Chefs in 2014 are cultured, they study and they are ethical. This is a crucial part of cooking and we need to raise awareness on this problem.”
He announced that he would be working next year, during the Milan Expo 2015 to raise awareness about this problem. “I will be working together with some of the best chefs in the world to feed Milan’s poor people and students with the waste which will be generated from the pavilions. I believe that we can still cook great meals from these leftovers. We, as chefs, need to give the best example,” he said to large applause.
Going back to the story of Pirandello he said the main character got lost because “he was not asking himself who he was, where he was coming from and where he was going. We are cooks but first of all we are human beings. We need to believe in our ideas . The kitchen is a place where you can experience great emotions. It is a place where you can experience poetry. It is where our cultural heritage derives from. My mum always used to say that you should follow your passion. A defining moment came when at 22, I went to tell my father, that I would quit studying law because I had found a trattoria in the outskirts of Modena and I would no longer be going to his office to work there because I wanted to cook. It was a defining moment and one which did not find the support of my father.”
Make visible the invisible
“Nowadays people have trouble finding their passion. I get asked this question so much. What I say is that when you have a passion anything else does not mean anything. The right idea can come from anywhere. You live your life as a passion. But never forget where you come from. You need to innovate, but you also need to be respectful of tradition.
“You need to bring out the best of your past and project it into the future. Do not let yourself get lost in everyday life and in the nitty gritty of the daily chores. It is an obligation to leave a little space open for innovation and to follow your passion. By doing this you can make visible the invisible. Unfortunately we get sucked into the routines of our daily lives. It is therefore extremely important for creative people or people working in the creative industries to leave a door open for new ideas.”
Bottura will be published a book called “Never Trust a Skinny Italian chef” next month. “This is not a recipe book,” he told the audience. “I actually wanted to call it “No Recipes”.
In a country with many critics Bottura is not often understood. He says Italy is passing through a deep identity crisis at the moment. He says there are three things in Italy which one cannot touch. “First there is the Pope. Second there is football, we are a country of 60 million coaches. Third, you should never touch your grandmother’s recipes.”
Bottura said the route he took was hard. “I try to concentrate on the future and evolve not to get stuck in the past. Art is the highest thought, it is the landscape of ideas. My advice would be that if you trust your ideas you need to keep going, you need to insist. Sooner or later your ideas will be recognised,” he said.
He told the audience present that they should read as much as possible, “My recommendation if you have an interest in something is to go deep into it. I was maybe critical of the google generation which I recognise is important, but at the same time going deep into a subject is also important. To me food, like art, is a vehicle to transfer emotions,” Bottura said.