When the World’s 50 Best Restaurants announced earlier this week that Massimo Bottura’s Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana had made it to the top of the list for the first time few in the culinary world were surprised. His rise to the top of the culinary world has been progressive and constant.
What may have been surprising was the time it took for him to achieve the pinnacle of success.
This was as much a victory for Bottura, his wife Lara Gilmore and his team as much as it was a victory for culture and creativity.
The Italian chef could have easily been a poet or an artist. He says creating a recipe is an intellectual gesture that involves ingredients, technique, memory and the compression of everything in bites of edible culture. He uses food as his medium for creativity and the palate to transmit emotions.
“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.
There was never such a fitting moment for Bottura to win such recognition. Since before the Milan Expo, he has made it a point to raise awareness about the issue of food waste. He has rallied the world’s best chefs to cook with food that would otherwise have gone to waste. This was not just a social gesture to feed Milan’s poor, it was a rallying call from one of the most visible and recognised chefs in the world.
Bottura has been travelling around the world from one culinary congress to the other spreading the story of the Refettorio Ambrosiano. This was a project to reinterpret the iconic church refectory, where monks once gathered for their meals and turn it into a dining hall for the city’s neediest while cooking with ingredients from the food waste that was generated by the Expo. The list of chefs who cooked there was breathtaking. From Ferran and Albert Adria to Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, Mauro Colagreco, Joan Roca, Rene Redzepi and Daniel Humm, over 50 of the world’s best chefs turned up at the soup kitchen to cook with the humblest of ingredients and send the world a powerful message.
But the 53-year-old chef of Osteria Francescana, did not stop there. Given the success of the project, Massimo Bottura and Osteria Francescana decided to create the Food for Soul Foundation that will continue to develop the ideas and concepts as well as the recipes that evolved over the months of preparation and action. The main goal of the foundation is to offer support and guidance for opening future soup kitchens around the world based on a shared sensibility about food wastage and hunger.
On the evening when he was crowned as the chef of the World’s Best restaurant, Bottura after thanking his wife and team called on all his colleagues in the room to join him in Rio for the Olympics and cook in the soup kitchen he is opening there. That is the perfect caricature of Bottura.
After dedicating his energies for the past 20 years to turn the humbly named “Osteria Francescana” into the World’s Best Restaurant (osteria in Italy is the name given to a ‘winebar’ that evolved to serve simple meals) , he has turned activist and thanks to his charisma and media presence has spent most of his time in the past two years advocating and raising awareness about food waste as a contemporary problem.
The Italian chef is today at the top of the culinary world. But that has come at a price. He has been for many years one of the most misunderstood chefs in Italy. Before gaining the recognition of food critics who gave him a chance and understood what he was trying to achieve he was vilified and criticised not only in local newspapers but also on national television. On the night in London when he was voted as the best Italian restaurant in Italy, Osteria Francescana was being featured in a TV programme in Italy where undercover reporters ordered a tasting menu and questioned the credibility of the kitchen. It was such a big deal in Italy that police showed up a week later to inspect their pantry. Bottura says that they were accused of poisoning people their food and their ideas. “This is what happens when you mess with grandmother’s recipes.”
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.
What is maybe most impressive about this Italian chef 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 make you to reflect. So he has dishes in his restaurant like spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs, memories of a mortadella sandwich or a compression of pasta and beans which is synonymous with the ‘cucina povera’ in Italy.
The Italian chef is one of the very few chefs in the world who can get away with serving his iconic dish ‘ooops I dropped the lemon tart’ which is a recreation of a lemon tart that is recreated perfectly but in a shattered form. It is said that this iconic dish was inspired by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. When Al Weiwei drops a vase, he is saying that his past and his culture are in his mind. Al Weiwei is saying that the past is there but he is a contemprary man and not nostalgic of the past. Some might consider this unfair but Bottura has made a name for himself as one of the best storytellers in the restaurant business. Every dish that he creates and that is served in his restaurant has a story and is there for a reason.
Massimo’s mentors were Georges Cogny, Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adria and his cuisine is a reflection of these experiences. But as he says, his wife Lara Gilmore has also played a significant role in making him appreciate modern art which is so visible in his philosophy of cooking. He has also been influenced by a story that Modenese art dealer Emilio Mazzoli told him which changed the 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 chef from Modena is also record collector and loves music. 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.”
Bottura is now considered as a mentor to many chefs. Over the past months he has been telling them that the future 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 Italian chef may have reached the top but he is still buzzing with ideas. He likes to refer to the Kandinsky pyramid and says that there are 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 through culture and eduction. This is the greatest challenge we have right now,” Massimo Bottura said recently.
Having reached the top, Massimo’s mission of taking the best from the past and projecting it into the future is just about to start.