Slow food is the future. Know your farmer and your fishmonger. Remember who you are and where you come from.
Chef Massimo Bottura is one of the world’s best chefs. His kitchen is full of compelling contradictions: it is both traditional and conceptual; it is deceivingly minimalist in its presentation and yet full of complex flavours, textures and cultural references to art, literature and history. Massimo Bottura creates real works of art through his food.
Massimo Bottura became a chef by chance when his brothers convinced him to buy an old trattoria - Trattoria del Campazzo - on the outskirts of Modena in 1986. At that time the only culinary credit to his name was his passion for fine dining and an excellent plate of ‘Amatriciana’ often prepared for friends after midnight. At Trattoria del Campazzo, he learned the secrets of traditional Emilian cuisine from rezdora Lidia Cristoni. Meanwhile and for many consecutive years, he also apprenticed himself on his days off to Georges Coigny, a master French chef working in Piacenza. Alongside the Emilian roots he built a culinary foundation in classical French technique.
Upon returning from a six month sabbatical in New York, the young chef had the honour of preparing lunch for Alain Ducasse at Trattoria del Campazzo. This serendipitous encounter led to an internship at Louis XV in Monoco during 1994 and a lasting friendship with Ducasse. The experience had a profound impact on Bottura. When he returned to Modena in 1995, he opened Osteria Francescana and began to develop his conceptual approach to traditional Emilian cuisine. He quickly became recognized not only as a chef but an artist inside and outside his kitchen.
At Osteria Francescana there is a re-working of ideas, recipes and techniques all aimed at the singular purpose of ‘Tradition in Evolution’. Every plate is the result of a conceptual approach to a recipe, an ingredient, a memory, a musical note or even a walk in the snow.
“Even today many people do not recognize that Italian food is in evolution. Italian food is contemporary and evolving in very interesting ways. The Italian kitchen, especially the ‘chef’s kitchen’ is in a magical moment. There are so many exceptional chefs from Sicily to the Dolomites, each with his own cultural baggage, set of experiences and culinary ideas. These chefs are making gastronomic history. Many people do not recognize this because they want Italian cuisine to remain ‘comfort food’ and not a ‘gastronomic’ experience. Perhaps there is a fear of losing the Italy we all know and love.
There will always be the desire to pull out our grandmother’s recipes. That is the beauty of Italy. It is important however that Italian cuisine does not get lost in nostalgia.
In recent years, Bottura’s work has gained increasing recognition amongst the international “gastro-community”; he was picked as the “Chefs’ Choice” at the 2011 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Recipient of the Grand Prix de l’Art by the International Culinary Academy in Paris in the same year, Bottura was also decorated with a medal of honour for his contribution to Culture and the Arts by the town of Modena. He is highly revered by colleagues and critics alike for his vanguard approach to Italian cuisine, a collision of ideas, cultures, techniques and gestures. His presentations at gastronomy congress around the world give food a unique artistic and philosophical expression which could well be presented at the Tate Modern.
“Osteria Francescana has certainly changed from when we began 15 years ago. This change did not happen on the outside – this change began on the inside. It began when we shifted our relationship with food from an object of consumption to an object of meditation.”
“I love music. I think about Maharishi, the spiritual teacher who seduced the Beatles. He changed the way they made music and influenced generations of musicians. He often used the metaphor of the calm lake, like a mirror reflecting nature, but distorted. A fisherman will tell you that to get the best fish, you have to go deep. And Maharishi will tell you that to find what is true, you cannot rely on reflections, you must go beneath the surface. That is what we began to do at Osteria Francescana. Dig below the surface.”
The restaurant received its first Michelin star in 2002, its second in 2006 and on 16th November 2011 Osteria Francescana became one of just seven restaurants in Italy to be honoured with a much coveted third Michelin star.
Bottura possesses a deep understanding of his ingredients. He believes passionately in the farmer and the fisherman, and his food has been designed to keep traditions alive by keeping these traditions in evolution.
Osteria Francescana is located in the heart of Modena’s medieval centre in the region of Emilia-Romagna, often called the ‘heartland of Italy’. This region is the home to Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, Prosciutto di Parma, Cotechino, Tortellini, Sangiovese di Romagna red wine, Colli di Rimini whites and many other noted Italian specialties. Emilia Romagna has found in Bottura a unique ambassador of its flavours.
Bottura is part of the Slow Food Movement which was founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.
“Slow Food taught us that ethics and aesthetics go hand in hand in the kitchen. The pleasure aspect of food is fundamental for a chef. We take raw ingredients and make them edible, hopefully delicious, or at least good. This pleasure engages all the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste but aesthetics is only a part of this sense of pleasure. We have learned that without ethics, our job as chefs is not complete.”
The Slow Food Movement demands sustainable and ethical food sources, and Bottura is a firm believer “if we don’t have an ethical approach, if we are not attentive and respectful regarding the food we buy, we cannot make anything truly beautiful or good. Restoring a correct relationship with food begins with the farmer, the cheesemaker, the herdsman and not with the consumer.
“Each chef knows what that means. It means thinking about the origins of our products and not the end result. It means cutting out the middle man and going directly to the source. It means getting down on your hands and knees. It means fighting for what you believe is right. It means never asking a producer how much something costs. If you have to ask, don’t buy it. Work with a potato instead.... miracles have been known to occur.”
Making beautiful food from local, seasonal and sustainable products is just a small part of the journey, “the business we are in is a complicated one. It isn’t about serving people food. That is the only final act. There is a long list of actions that begin with having a conscious mind. To be chef in the 21st century, we have to be conscious of our thoughts and our actions. Whether we realize it or not, the world is watching. We are teaching without words in the most universal language of all.”
Bottura likes to tell the story of Italian artist Gino de Dominicis who, in the ‘70’s made a video of himself tossing stones into a calm lake. “Nothing particular happens in the video. The artist patiently tosses the stones and watches the ripples. At the end of the film, the title reads: “Waiting for ripples to turn into squares”. As crazy as this conceptual piece is, I find that the premise says a lot about contemporary Italian cuisine. We, chefs, just keep tossing stones and hoping that someday they will turn to soup or that the ripples will become squares. Sometimes, magically, they do. And other times we are just left with stones and circles.”
We live in a world aiming for perfection and ultimate beauty.
How about making food that doesn’t always appeal to the aesthetic eye?
How often we are deceived by our sense of beauty?
Just think about all that perfect looking fruit out there...
When the most perfect strawberry is the one you just picked.
Ugly, imperfect, and frightening can open new doors of meaning.
Think: working class hero, a three-legged cat, Frankenstein.
Don't forget the emotional impact of the underdog, especially when it comes to dessert.
Don’t forget to Chew. Crunch. Squish. Grind.
What lazy eaters we have all become.
Always searching for the smooth, the buttery, the melting…
Have we forgotten to listen to ourselves eating?
Texture is the sound in your mouth.
Keep it alive or risk drowning out that sense forever.
So much perfume in the atmosphere.
Sometimes it is hard to find a neutral space to smell the flowers, smell the grass, and what’s cooking in the kitchen.
Let’s help our clients gain back their sense of smell, or at least the desire to smell again.
First of all, we must give them something worth smelling.
If you smell roasted chicken and eat a baked potato, what does that potato taste like?
Please put down your forks and knives at least once during a meal.
Touching your food is next to holiness.
Do it as often as you can.
The culmination of all the senses is in your mouth.
Treat your mouth like a temple.
Protect it, praise it, respect it.
Your sense of taste is a record of all that you have eaten, of the places you have been, and the world around you.
Remember: nutrition is emotional not mathematical.
© Paolo Terzi