When Ferran Adria placed at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list successively he not only helped to make a name for himself and his restaurant el Bulli but he also lifted the fortunes of Spain and its gastronomy for good. Italians are now hoping that Massimo Bottura’s second top position in the space of three years will have a similar effect.
Look at the world’s leading chefs today and most of them will have one thing in common. They have nearly all trained at the Adrias’ iconic restaurant el Bulli. No one has had an impact like the Spanish chef over the past years and one can say he has given chefs like Massimo Bottura and René Redzepi and many others the license to reinvent restaurants.
There is maybe no one today who has the aura that Ferran Adria had though in a few years we may look at a number of today’s stars in the same way.
Booking months in advance to secure a table at el Bulli was the order of the day in its heyday. Today that phenomenon is common in many restaurants across the globe. Adria managed to create a food movement in Spain which put the country on the gastronomic map for ever.
Less than a month has passed from the day that Massimo Bottura’s restaurant Osteria Francescana was crowned the World’s Best restaurant for the second time in three years and Italians are hoping that this will be the time that Bottura does the same and that the country is finally recognised for its culinary potential just like Spain and the Nordic countries have been previously.
A few hours before the award, Enrico Crippa, the talented Italian chef of Piazza Duomo, one of the four restaurants in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list told Massimo ‘we are routing for you’ given he was in second place the previous year.
The impact that Massimo Bottura’s top position two years ago had been considerable for the other top restaurants in Italy who have experienced an influx of international guests that flocked to the country to sample Bottura’s cooking and in the process visit the other top spots on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list like Piazza Duomo, Le Calandre and Reale.
It is maybe incredible and ironic that a country that has given so much to the world in terms of gastronomy and exceptional produce would have an ‘identity crisis’ but few people know Italy for its fine-dining scene and Italy’s top chefs know this.
Italy has an allure when it comes to food that is unrivalled anywhere in the world, few associate Italy with ‘fine dining’ or avant-garde cuisine. Italian produce, from its wine to cheese, its olive oils to balsamic vinegar, its cheeses to liqueurs are known worldwide (take the recent burrata worldwide craze) but at the very top few chefs have become household names in Italy let alone outside
Bottura, together with his wife Lara Gilmore who is the driving force behind the story-telling that has made Osteria Francescana what it is today have given Italy hope again though that rise to the top has been riddled with pain and scepticism in Italy. Until a few years ago, Massimo Bottura was considered a heretic by many in Italy despite the international recognition he was receiving. And while his potential had been recognised by Italian food guides, mainstream Italian television filmed the restaurant undercover and said that he was ‘poisoning’ people with his cuisine. After a scathing report on Striscia la Notizia, a satirical TV programme, food inspectors descended on the restaurant to assess what ‘poison’ Massimo and his team were serving their guests.
How dare a heretic chef use a siphon to create foam or to reinvent and reinterpret a tortellini dish
On that day, Massimo gathered his staff and told them that he would understand if they wanted to leave the team. In a country where everyone’s mother is the best cook, how dare a heretic chef use a siphon to create foam or to reinvent and reinterpret a tortellini dish. How dare he serve only six tortellini, all filled with different types of meat when the original recipe calls for just one type of filling and an abundance of pasta in a broth.
That could have broken Massimo and his team but they continued to push the boundaries until they were finally proven right. Others earlier, not necessarily for the same reasons, had given up.
Bottura, who is influenced by modern art (introduced to him by his wife Lara) as much as he is influenced by traditional Italian recipes, is today probably as well known for his ‘cucina povera’ as his three Michelin star restaurant in Modena. While most of the world’s most promising young chefs flocked to Adria to cook with the Spanish genius, today the world’s most influential chefs drop their busy commitments to cook with Massimo in the soup kitchens that he has opened across the globe from Milan to Paris and Rio.
At his soup kitchens, he has attracted some of the best chefs in the world to cook for the cities’ poor and homeless. Mention the ‘rock-stars’ of the food world from Rene Redzepi to Ferran and Albert Adria, from Alain Ducasse to Alain Passard, from Mauro Colagreco to Daniel Humm, Domenique Crenn, Alex Atala and many more and they all have cooked in the ‘refettorio’s’ that have popped up after the Italian Expo in 2015. No one has attracted more attention to the subject of food waste than the Italian chef. Together with world famous chefs, he has cooked using produce that would otherwise go to waste. Together, the chefs have shared knowledge and placed humble ingredients on a pedestal even in their fine dining restaurants. Speak about a lasting effect and creating impact.
Was he the leader of the movement or did he catch the wave? It is irrelevant but he has managed to bring a voice to one of the most important issues that plagues the food industry today and that has even led to laws aimed at tackling food waste in supermarkets.
To understand what Massimo has done with his Food for Soul project you need to understand Osteria Francescana because the soup kitchen project would not exist without the knowledge that he has accumulated there.
There is also cross-pollination. Bottura has no qualms with serving his Bread is Gold pudding at his three Michelin star restaurant and then serve it at his soup kitchen. In the restaurant, he has pushed boundaries not just in Italy but also globally. After all, he was the one to recognise the beauty of a ‘broken’ lemon tart that has now become of the world’s most iconic desserts. He had no qualms with serving it in a three Michelin star restaurant, a moment of perfection of an otherwise imperfect dish.
In his soup kitchens, the Italian chef serves pesto with herbs that are available. While most people would vilify him for using mint in pesto because the traditional pesto can only be made with basil, the Italian chef says that you should use what is available because two thirds of the food produced worldwide goes to waste.
In all this, Massimo has created not an evolution but a revolution.
It might seem like a cliche but for Italians there is nothing that beats ‘mamma’s’ cooking and if they are to set foot outside their mother’s kitchen they would feel more at home in an osteria or a trattoria than in a fine-dining restaurant because that is what reminds them of their mothers or their grandmothers cooking.
Tradition is of course essential and you get that and more when you visit Osteria Francescana. The story-telling at the restaurant might not be to everyone’s liking but ultimately it is all about using techniques to bring out the best flavour. The ragu of the crunchy part of the lasagna (with the story of Massimo remembering the time he would steal the crust of the lasagna) is so intense that I still get goose-flesh as I write this.
His genius lies not just in his creations and in his enthusiasm but also in the stories that his wife Lara has helped to create. Together, they form a formidable team that has opened up Italy to the world.
“This is not a victory for us but for everyone,” they said when they took the stage a few weeks ago to celebrate the top position in the list.
While many are sceptical about the list, no one can deny the impact that this has on restaurants and on countries in particular. When Ferran Adria with el Bulli repeatedly placed top of the list he helped to raise the bar and also the awareness of Spanish restaurants. There is no question that many from the Roca brothers to Arzak, from Eneko Atxa to Andoni Luiz Aduriz have benefited from el Bulli’s spotlight.
Massimo Bottura, Enrico Crippa, Niko Romito and Massimiliano Alajmo are of course hoping that this will at some point have the same impact on Italy. There are many young and not so young chefs in Italy who are pushing the boundaries today. There are many stories that still need to be written, others that still need to be discovered because few in the world take the subject of food more seriously than the Italians. But there is a problem in that the state has not recognised the potential for food to help lift the economy says Enrico Crippa. And the second problem is one of communication which coupled with the first meaning the country has not yet opened up to the world.
While the four representative chefs of the list are in the top 50, behind them there is no Italian chef from the 51st to the 100th place. That’s a pity for a country that is obsessed with food.
The problem, according to both Enrico Crippa and Niko Romito lies with communication and with having the confidence to believe in Italy’s potential.
“We have never eater so well in Italy as we have been doing for the past five years. We need to believe more in what we do”
Enrico Crippa told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview ‘we have never eaten so well in Italy as we have been doing for the past five years. Apart from Bottura, Romito and Alajmo, there are many youngsters doing great things. We need to believe more in what we do. As chefs we believe in the potential we have and it is maybe politics and the state that doesn’t believe in this potential. The state needs to invest in food because this is something that helps our economy. Wherever you go in the world, there are four kitchens that you find anywhere, French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese. We have the advantage that we can do great things with simplicity. With some olive oil, a few herbs, a tomato that could even be dried, we can create something great. You cannot do that with French cuisine,” he said.
Niko Romito says Italy’s cuisine started at home and this was followed by the osteria and the trattoria. Then came the restaurants and creative kitchens and that is maybe the reason why Italians struggle with fine dining. “Naturally there is a lot of influence from the French kitchen, particularly in the 1980s. At the time that was the model to copy.”
Niko said that most books started with recipes from the French kitchen. “It is only in the last years that chefs have started to codify them and we have started to distance ourselves from the French model and put more Italian recipes to table.”
He says that the models that have influenced today’s Italy kitchen are mainly French, Ferran Adria and René Redzepi. The latter was influential not just for his pure kitchen but also for the way the restaurant is designed, the interior design and also the way the table is laid.
“In Italy, we have all the characteristics to create our own model. We have many chefs in different regions who are building a cuisine that is based on their own territory and region. We need to be aware of the huge potential we have and we need to be more courageous about the choices we need to make. In Italy, we have a food culture which is older than the Spanish or the Nordic cuisine. I think that Italy can become the model of simplicity. The model is there. We speak a lot about Italy but the reference point is still the kitchen of the 1980s and 1990s. It is not bad but we have evolved. We can create a new avant garde and contemporary model at every level,” he said.
He is aware of the differences that exist between Italy, France and Spain but adds that with the produce and the experience that the Italians have, ‘what is required is to make it known because few people outside of Italy know what is happening on the gastronomic front,” he said.
The beauty of Italy is that if you stay off the ‘tourist traps’ that you can spot from a mile away, you are bound to eat like a king for an affordable price. You can eat a fresh pasta dish that will make you want to travel for it at the price of a glass of wine or an Aperol spritz in a tourist trap. That is both a blessing but also a problem because it makes people, including visitors lazy.
Under the radar, a lot is being said about chefs like Ricardo Camanini who at Lido 84, Antonia Klugmann of L’argine a Venco, Matteo Baronetto, Francesco Brutto, Damiano Donati, Gianluca Gorini, Paolo Lopriore and Cristiano Tomei to mention a few names.
Then there are ones like Norbert Niedekofler, the organiser of Care’s and Cook the Mountain and Pino Cuttaia from Sicily who is set to launch Cooking Med to raise awareness on the sea and sustainability who are aiming to connect Italy to the world with their events.
Italy is opening up to the world. That it hadn’t done so before is incredible when you think what this country has given the world in terms of food.
If you visit any of the top 4 restaurants mentioned above you are bound to have a unique experience that shows that Italian food is not just traditional but also inventive, full of flavour and surprising.
The beauty is that the restaurants are all different. You have Massimo Bottura with his post-modern cuisine, Enrico Crippa with his classical cuisine that is influenced by his garden and his Japanese experience, the self-taught Niko Romito who is unique in his approach to food not just in Italy but probably worldwide and Massimiliano Alajmo who has been nicknamed the Mozart of the stoves for his cutting edge cooking.
Below them are a range of talented chefs that can and should start to make noise in Italy and beyond. It’s time to think of Italy again.