Massimo Bottura | Breaking the rules

19 Jun 2016
6 min read
Massimo Bottura’s volcanic passion for sharing emotions and breaking the rules turned the small Osteria Francescana into the greatest restaurant that Italy and possibly the world has ever seen, writes Luciana Bianchi for FOUR International…
Italian cuisine without boundaries

It is worth noting that his first name translates ‘great’, but the truth is that describing Bottura without using adjectives is an almost impossible task.

He is a complex figure and a restless chef who sees food through a magnifying glass, capturing the emotions of the world around him, adding powerful content to his dishes. It may sound pretentious and over-intellectualised, but Bottura’s cuisine is neither. Generosity, passion and happiness are the words that accompany his dishes, and the dining experience at Osteria Francescana brings luxury and simplicity to the same level of excellence.

The restaurant has achieved what no other Italian restaurant has so far – a three Michelin star and at the same time the topposition in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Also the highest points in Italian food guides. Bottura had already been chosen as the best chef in the world by his fellow international chefs and by the International Academy of Gastronomy. According to Alain Ducasse, he is the best chef Italy has ever seen, and will ever see.

In the gastronomy world, there is no-one who doesn’t know his name, and chefs, gourmets and foodies have all heard of his emblematic dishes. He is probably one of the most quoted chefs of this decade, and in the last twelve months, the general international media, outside gastronomic circles, became interested in Bottura too – from The New Yorker to the BBC, from major US TV shows, such as that of Jimmy Kimmel to CNN shows. Bottura is at the top of his world, traveling to conferences, talking at universities, but always with a solid base in his beloved Modena. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful and special things we experience around the world. Our home offers to us a sense of identity and belonging. As I always say to my young chefs: “Never forget who you are and where you come from!”

Born and raised in a place said by his muse, Lara Gilmore, to be “the city of fast cars and slow food”, his first steps into the kitchen were experiencing traditional food hiding under the table of his grandmother. His mother was an excellent cook, but his father was disappointed with his choice of career.

The background scenery of his childhood was an interesting region. Modena is a small but progressive city, open to innovation and always seeking to achieve high standards of quality. It is the place where some of the most famous fast cars in the world are built: Ferrari, Maseratti, Lamborghini, and before that De Tomaso and Bugatti. Also Ducatti motorbikes! Emilia Romagna is a land blessed withgreat food. Some of the most emblematic Italian products were born in this small area – Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello di Zibello, Grana Padano, Lambrusco, and a long list of other well-known delicacies.

It is also a special place for the arts. The late Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most influential neo-expressionist artists of our time, had his first solo exhibition in Modena, at the gallery of Emilio Mazzoli, one of Bottura’s dearest friends.

Some people get inspired by art, but Bottura lives art. His record collection, art books, installations and paintings at home are impressive. Together with Lara, his wife and right hand, they are respected equally in the art and in the food world: “Collecting art is for us more than a passion. It defines who we are.” he explains.

He added Modena to the international gourmet route and in recent years, he has dedicated his life to being an Ambassador of his region: “We had earthquakes and hard times, but the human bondage in Emilia Romagna, and specially in Modena, is of great power. In my city I found out that nothing is impossible. When I travel around the world, I take Emilia Romagna with me!”

Bottura is unpredictable and his cuisine doesn’t need to be defined as tradition or avant-garde. This is probably his highest achievement as chef – to have a cuisine without boundaries embracing the past and the future together: “The traditional dishes were one day avant-garde! We have to question the traditions to be able to develop. Some of them we need to preserve untouched. Others, need to undergo an evolutionary process. Changes require courage, but also the acceptance that avant-garde revolutionary actions are only understood by people in the future.”

Although his ideas are of great complexity, his is not a pretentious cuisine. The flavours of Bottura’s dishes reveal every corner of his terroir and celebrate the best local produce. His concepts are not limited to localism, but fly freely. He quotes “contamination” as a positive influence to his cuisine, – a cultural contamination – not afraid of losing part of its identity, and having an open heart to experience new things. The young chefs working in his kitchen are part of this healthy cultural contamination. They come from all over the world seeking inspiration, and Bottura confesses to be equally inspired by them.

At Osteria Francescana, eating well and feeling happy is at the top of the agenda. Bottura and his team manage to combine the warm feeling of a home with a visit to an exclusive contemporary art gallery. Art is everywhere – enhancing the visual experience and making a clear yet subtle statement. There are no limits to food and art in this place; both form part of the overall experience. From Maurizio Catellan to Carlo Benvenuto and to the world famous Capri Battery of Beuys – Bottura’s art collection can count as one of the most important contemporary art collections seen in restaurants around the world.

In Bottura’s timeless repertoire of dishes you will find ‘jazz notes’ from Thelonious Monk inside a fish course, and reflections about the human condition in a dish paying homage to the social sculptures of Joseph Beuys. The beauty of multiculturalism can be experienced in a piece of local veal tongue in harmony with flavours of the world. Parmesan cheese will play the leading role in a dish that has changed over the years, having today 5 different stages of ripeness, 5 different textures and temperatures – all on one plate. There are edible installations playing with pop-culture – a magnum foie gras ice on a stick that would inspire Andy Warhol. And there is a tortellini – the best in the world – an ode to home cooking that transports you to your Italian childhood, even if you are not Italian! His millefeuille is made of edible leaves, playing with the original name. Bottura sees beauty in an imperfect lemon tart – an accident that turned a perfectly executed dessert into a piece of modern art.

His new book, ‘Never trust a skinny Italian Chef’, published by Phaidon, is the first cookbook in the world to look like a real art catalogue. The pages couldn’t translate his world in a better way, merging art and food:

“We have to be careful not to get lost in our daily routine in the kitchen. Cooking is an act of love. If you search inside yourself you can find poetry to add to your dishes. We can make the invisible visible! At the same time we need to be humble, every day. We should use our technical abilities and knowledge to serve the product and not our egos. The reality is that chefs are not artists. However, we have an important role – to be the link between the artisans producing our food, and the people!”

Two years ago, Bottura was the first to come up with an important idea – to raise awareness about the problem of waste in the kitchen and the fact that we must all fight poverty, even the chefs in the fine dining industry. The idea turned into a project titled FOOD FOR SOUL which will be part of EXPO Milan – The Universal Exhibition that Milan will host from 1st of May to 31st October this year. The central theme is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’, and this will be the first time that food has a central focus in an event of this kind.

Bottura’s project focuses both on waste related to food and on cultural waste too – themes that have always been in his mind. At Osteria Francescana there is an installation by Gavin Turk – ‘Bin Bag’ – reflecting on our compulsive habit of producing constant waste.

Bottura has invited 40 other top chefs who will be preparing food for people in need from May to October. He is partnered with the charity organisation Caritas, and has even received the support of Pope Francis.

‘Food for Soul’ is restoring an abandoned theatre – Teatro Greco – into a special dining room, with the added objective of returning value to a humble and forgotten area of Milan. On top of that, the food will be prepared by these famous chefs using the left overs from the EXPO, from supermarkets, bakeries, and street markets. This action will require an incredible logistic, perhaps without precedent in history. Alain Ducasse will be among the chefs, as well as many top Italian and international names, such as as David Scabin, Mauro Uliassi, Enrico Crippa, Andrea Berton and Moreno Cedroni.

Pope Francis has confirmed his visit to Reffetorio Ambrosiano di Milano. Caritas, that feeds thousands of people in need around the city, is hoping to continue the project even after the Expo, by getting other chefs involved in this very important cause: “A chef can be the person between someone who has everything and someone who has nothing. This is a project that should, above all, inspire other chefs around the world, especially the new generation. We have many possibilities to help people in need and to cut drastically our waste in restaurants and at home. If we put our heads together we can help to change the lives of many people!”

Reflecting on this overwhelming action created by Massimo Bottura for EXPO Milan, the name of his restaurant suddenly makes more sense than ever: Osteria Francescana – a restaurant blessed by St. Francis – a rich man who one day found in simplicity and humility his true richness, inspiring the world even today.

Find out more about the culinary career of Massimo