No one in recent years has worked as hard to put Italy on the worldwide gastronomic map as Massimo Bottura. The avant-garde chef from Modena has for the past months been on a worldwide tour to promote his brilliant book Never Trust a Skinny Italian chef and also showcase his unique Italian style.
Yesterday marked the 20th birthday of Massimo Bottura’s restaurant Osteria Francescana. This Italian restaurant has three Michelin stars and is at the moment considered to be the third best restaurant in the world in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. In 2011, he was also given the Chef’s Choice as the best chef in the world by his colleagues.
Today, Massimo Bottura is recognised among his peers as the chef who moved Italy to the 21st century. Over the years at Osteria Francescana he has pushed barriers, introducing new techniques to age old recipes and ingredients and new ways of seeing things which were bound to be extremely controversial in a land where the grandmother’s recipe is always the best. I’ve quoted Bottura in the past saying that ‘in Italy, you should never touch your grandmother’s recipes.”
It has taken Massimo Bottura 20 years to get to where he is today but now he is considered as a mentor by many chefs who look to him for inspiration and ideas on how to be creative. It is also a story of someone who followed his passion. Whenever you hear him speak, he is always motivating people to get out of their comfort zone, to look at things critically and to recognise that your greatest resource is your brain.
There are many reasons why this chef from Modena is often misunderstood in Italy. He’s attributed this to his country passing through a deep identity crisis at the moment. And many are too stuck in their ways.
What is maybe most impressive about Bottura is his use of humble ingredients in his fine dining restaurant. He is at home using ingredients which come from the Modenese countryside and has no qualms with turning something simple on top of its head to shock and get you to reflect. So he has dishes in his restaurant like spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs or a compression of pasta and beans which is synonymous with the ‘cucina povera’ in Italy.
Maybe he is lucky to be able to get away with serving ‘how to burn a sardine’ or ‘chicken, chicken where are you’ or even ‘oops I broke the lemon tart’ but to get to where he is, he has had to push boundaries and change mindsets in a country that is so steeped in tradition that a chef recently was criticised for changing an ingredient in a pasta sauce on TV.
Today, he is a household name in Italy and is widely appreciated for what he has done to the Italian culinary landscape. On a recent television interview on Rai Uno with Fazio, he was constantly interrupted with great rounds of applause particularly when he was speaking about what he would do to cook for Milan’s poor with waste generated by the Expo 2015 pavillions.
It is a long way from that night in London when he was voted as the best Italian restaurant in Italy, and on that same evening, Osteria Francescana was being featured in a TV programme in Italy where undercover reporters ordered a tasting menu and were questioning the credibility of the kitchen. “It was such a big deal in Italy that the police even showed up a week later to inspect our pantry. We were accused of poisoning people with our food and our ideas. While an international jury was praising us, we were scolded at home. This is what happens when you mess with grandmother’s recipes,” he said in his book.
Bottura has brought modern art to the table. For that he has his wife Lara Gilmore to thank. She played a significant role in making him appreciate modern art which is so visible in his cooking.
Another person who greatly influenced him was a Modenese art dealer Emilio Mazzoli who changed they way he looked at the Italian kitchen. The story goes as follows: “A prominent collector requested a portrait by the artist Gino De Dominicis. After months of persuasion, de Dominicis finally agreed to the commission. While the collector sat for the portrait, the artist went about his affairs, reading the newspaper and making phone calls. After some time passed, the collector became restless. De Domincis picked up a brush and placed a mark in the middle of the canvas. ‘Your portrait is finished’. The collector looked at the canvas and then at the artist, at which point De Dominicis said: ‘This is your portrait from ten kilometres away.’ Bottura says this is where the story of Osteria Franscescana began. “After hearing Mazzoli’s tale, no tortellini, cotechino or sardine ever looked quite the same. Pandora’s box had irrevocably opened and from that moment on, the kitchen started a dialogue with contemporary art that continues to this day.”
The 20th anniversary for Osteria Francescana is a beacon for those who want to follow their passion. “Nowadays people have trouble finding their passion,” Bottura said. “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.”
In many ways, Food and Wine Gazette was created also thanks to this great Italian chef. His contagious passion encouraged me to visit Osteria Francescana last May. The experience was such that it led me to write about it. I had taken the first steps in combining my passions of food and writing. But that is another story yet to be told.
May the 20th anniversary for Massimo Bottura and Osteria Francescana be the catalyst to many more years of success and inspiration.