How many times have we heard about the importance of quality of ingredients in cooking? For Massimo Bottura, the opposite holds true. “Cooking is not just about the quality of ingredients but also about the quality of the ideas.”
That should not come as a surprise to those who know about this Italian chef. He is known to find inspiration everywhere including in particular from the ‘cucina povera’. He then takes his creations to a level worthy of the second best restaurant in the world. Many would nowadays throw away the crust of a Parmiggiano Reggiano even if it is used to impart flavour to soups. He has found a way to use it to replace pasta in his compression of pasta and beans (Pasta e Fagioli).
Bottura does not need any introduction. Chef of Osteria Francescana, the Modenese restaurant that is the second best restaurant in the world, he can be a man of many contradictions. He is known to make things look very simple but that simplicity comes mainly with the benefit of hindsight. When he speaks, people stop to listen as he as a beacon for many, not just chefs, who look for ways to be inspired and to be creative in their work.
“The future for me is about culture. There are many young chefs pushing to get to the top. But they are not taking the right approach. I think the point is to touch paper, to read, get deep into things. You need to stimulate people and create a great team. The chefs that work in my restaurant, Taka and Davide could work anywhere they want in the world but they stay because they feel stimulated,” he said recently when he took the stage at Chef Sache in Cologne. He was talking mainly to chefs but he could have been passing on his message to anyone in the creative field.
Bottura is aware that food at the moment is in the middle of a revolution. “What has changed over the past 10 years is that chefs have started sharing. We are sharing techniques, ideas, dreams. We are changing the future. People start to understand and listen to what we have to say. If we use it in the right way, we can make a difference in future,” says the Italian chef.
When Bottura was on stage he presented a new concept – a Caesar salad in bloom which he started serving recently in his restaurant. His interpretation of the Caesar salad is known worldwide but this is one in evolution and it is served as a dessert. It is ingenious but you cannot expect any different from a chef who is known for his innovative thinking.
As Taka is preparing the dessert, Massimo is backstage reading some notes he has jotted down on a train journey from Milan to his home town Modena the night before.
He says that creating a recipe is an intellectual gesture that involves ingredients, technique, memory and the compression of everything in bites, of edible culture. “It is the flavour of your passions, used as a vehicle to transmit emotions.”
Bottura speaks of creativity as poetry. “In a world of obligation, you can lose your point of reference. The secret is to keep a small space open for poetry, to be able to jump into that space and realise the unimaginable. This is what it means to make visible the invisible,” he says.
Using music as a metaphor, Bottura says what makes music successful are the pauses and the silence. “The chord of the guitar can break and create an opportunity. A contemporary chef must live the moment, to explore and go deep without forgetting the past and where he comes from. You cannot improvise being a great chef. But great chefs can improvise.”
He explains the story behind the Caeasar salad in bloom. It has 25 different elements starting from fresh herbs that are filled inside one by one, each day. “They are all elements from Italy, a yogurt of almond milk, a clorophil aromatic, a camomille jelly, elderflower vinegar aged in a barrel of aceto balsamico and an extraction of a perfume of a bouquet of flowers.”
Bottura shows the macaroon of fois gras and white truffle he served at a dinner for Italian Prime Minister Renzi and French president Hollande recently. “We created this for a visit of Alain Ducasse three years ago and had forgotten about it. I wanted to create something that was a bridge between France and Italy. A person born in Piemonte feels more French than Sicilian. The macaroon is rebuilt with hazelnut (from Piemonte), jerusalemn artichokes (topinambur) and the meringue is salty with no sugar. There is also fois gras that is marinated. The season’s white truffle is added to the finished dish. This is what it means to compress passion into edible bites.”
The Italian chef is well known for his love of music and contemporary art. And it is here that he finds most of his inspiration. “We have to stop thinking about cooking just to fill our stomach. I want to feel your heart, I want to feel your mind. That is the way I see it. At one point, culture brings knowledge. And through knowledge you open consciousness. Consciousness gives you a sense of responsibility,” Bottura says.
He is now about to speak about the Refettorio Ambrosiano, a soup kitchen that has been feeding Milan’s poor with some of the food waste that was generated by the Milan expo. Enzo Ferrari the person who built Ferrari and who hails from Massimo’s home town used to say to everyone that ‘if you can dream it you can make it’.
Bottura dreamt of a way to answer the question which was the theme of the Milan expo. It may sound simple but it is anything but. ‘How do you feed the planet?’. He said that every single day since May, there has been a chef who went to the Refettorio Ambrosiano to cook for poor people. This is not charity but a cultural experience. He says the experience forces you to be creative like creating a pesto using breadcrumbs instead of pinenuts or using mint with basil as there was not enough basil.
“When you come to Osteria Francescana, I hope that you are going to have good food and it is also healthy. But the role of he chef nowadays has much more implications. We create culture but our work also has huge implications on tourism,” Bottura said. The Italian chef believes there has been immense change over the past 10 years. “Look at how we have grown. Look at how many kilometres we’ve walked to reach this point. With young chefs, I am trying to give them this type of opportunity. it is not just about culture but also about practice and learning. The aim is to create a better future for everyone.”
He spoke about the project to create a university close to Osteria Francescana to enable young chefs to study. Referring to the Kandinsky pyramid he says there were many people at the base in today’s society and very few people at the top. “The people at the top have a mission to bring as many people up to the next level as possible. That can be done by culture and eduction. This is the greatest challenge we have right now,” he said to a huge round of applause.
It was at this point that Bottura presented Camouflage: A Hare in the Woods which is a dish that was inspired by artist Pablo Picasso. This dish is a hare stew. Bottura says that this is something that Bocuse has been doing for 40 years. “This is an abstract way of seeing the civet of hare of Mr Bocuse.”
How do I see something like this? Bottura says that the camouflage inspired Picasso to create cubism. And with this dish he is hiding the stew of hare underneath the camouflage.
It is said that the iconic dish Oops I dropped the Lemon Tart has been inspired by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. He shows a photo of the artist dropping a very old vase on the floor. “He is dropping the vase to tell you that his past and his culture are in his mind. He is saying that the past is there but he is he is a contemporary man and not nostalgic of the past. He is projecting himself into the future.”
“If you are nostalgic, you will say they your tortellini are better than mine, that your grandmother’s tortellini are better than your mother’s. If you do not lose yourself in nostalgia you can bring the best from the past and project it into the future,” Bottura said.
The presentation is nearly over and Bottura asks whether the audience knows the story of how the iconic dish Oops I dropped the Lemon Tart came about. Many in the audience have heard the story before but Massimo wants to explain it one more time. With Taka there, it is maybe simpler.The Japanese chef is famous for having dropped the tart made from ‘pasta frolla’. “It was the last service of the day and he dropped one of the tarts. We needed to serve two tarts and only had two. So we ended up rebuilding a second one on the other plate because the result, which came about as a mistake, was beautiful.”
The broken lemon tart is an abstract painting of Southern Italy. It has a caper from Pantelleria, bergamot from Calabria, a lemon from Sorrento, oregano from Puglia, almond from Noto, spicy pepper from Matera. You have the south of Italy in one line of flavour. Then there is the zabaglione with egg yolk and lemon from Sorrento.
Mistakes, sometimes transfer better emotions than perfect creations, the Italian chef says. You cannot argue with that.