Massimo Bottura: the master of Modena
Italian chef Massimo Bottura, feeds European heads of state one day, Syrian refugees the next. He talks to Catherine Cleary about why two of the world’s most powerful men sat at one of his tables and how he keeps his grandmother in a jar behind his desk
Massimo Bottura. Photograph: Getty Images
Massimo Bottura is kneading his forehead with slim brown fingers like he’s massaging the ideas in his head into shape. We’re in his office in Modena. Outside on the cobbled streets, the afternoon quiet is only occasionally broken by the buzz of a passing moped.
The Italian chef’s black Maserati, gleaming like a polished grand piano, is parked outside. He stepped out of it minutes earlier wearing a Daz white chef’s
jacket, green chinos and lace-up walking shoes. At 53, his beard is more salt than pepper but he exudes more bounce than most 20 year olds.
In the past week, the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi brought French president FranÇois Hollande to this Modena side street to eat in Osteria Francescana, Bottura’s three-Michelin-star restaurant.
Two days later, Bottura fed young refugees at his Refettorio Ambrosiano project in Milan. We’ll talk over the next 40 minutes about why two of the world’s most powerful men sat at one of his tables, how he has no beef with McDonalds and how he keeps his grandmother in a jar behind his desk.
First, how did it feel to be crowned world’s number two restaurant this summer, with good odds he’ll reach the top slot next year? For Bottura it’s a case of perfect timing. “I arrived there in my full maturity and not too soon,” he says. “So no special vibes spin in my head and make me crazy.”
Bottura speaks elegant English, as anyone who watched him on MasterChef and in Netflix’s Chef ’s Table knows, pausing to think before he answers sometimes. The only headscratcher is when he refers to the “attic” of his restaurant. He is, I think, talking about its ethic.
So instead of crazy thoughts, he explains (and this is where the temple-kneading starts) he’s found his food voice and it’s a complex one. “It’s not like foraging the ingredients and going in the kitchen and serving the things. It’s much more.
There’s centuries and centuries of tradition to evolve and to bring into the future.”
Big pressure then? “Yeah that’s a lot of pressure for an Italian chef. That’s very big pressure for Italian and French chefs. There’s also a new approach to food that is this: if I ask myself a question and say, ‘what is your cuisine. What are you doing, Massimo, every day?’ I think the answer is compressing into edible bites your passion and your memory. So it’s not just about tradition. But it’s also about Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk or Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons. It’s about my grandmother compressed into Miles Davies and Andy Warhol. That’s it. That’s what I do.”
Crumbs, when did cooking get so cerebral? He grins. “Yeah it’s complicated. It’s deep. We’re going deep.” Has being a chef at his level gotten more challenging? Do ‘World’s Best’ chefs have to overthink their food?
“The bar has never been higher than it has in the last decade,” he says. “Ninety nine per cent of the time you see chefs getting ideas here there and everywhere . . . like a gold garbage,” he gestures at a gold-plated Oscar the Grouch bin to his right, “is a gold garbage but if you look deep into the garbage you see leftover bread, a banana that is overripe, almost black, and an ugly tomato.That gold garbage is a Sylvie Fleury that is telling you not to throw away, to check everything you do especially us as chefs and look very deeply into what you do because 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year is wasted.”
This idea of waste is at the heart of the Milan project, Refettorio Ambrosiano, where Bottura has been welcoming chefs from around the world, including this year Jess Murphy from Kai in Galway, to cook with waste food collected daily
from the Expo Milan site.
“It’s been amazing. I’ve seen Alain Ducasse arriving at nine o’clock in the morning, choosing [INGRDIENTS]in the truck, emptying the truck, bringing in the kitchen, put together with his own hands and serving the table,” Bottura says.
“Emmanuelle his assistant she said, ‘I’ve never seen him doing that in 30 years’.
“We fed two days ago 96 young men, between 15 and 17, orphans from Kosovo, Afghanistan, Syria, Senegal. When you serve that kind of food and those kind of people it’s like you reset everything.”
The artworks in his office are his touchstones. He puts his hand on a large-lidded glass cookie jar more than half full with what looks like powdered cinnamon. It’s his grandmother, he explains. Not literally. “This is Ai Weiwei [the Chinese contemporary artist and activist]. This is a [SMASHED]neolithic vase powder. What is Ai Weiwei telling me? That the past is here. Don’t forget about the past while my mind is projecting into the future. So I keep my grandmother, and my grandmother of my grandmother here in a vase that I don’t forget about that and everything she told me and she teaches me.”
The most moving piece is another Ai Weiwei, a single porcelain sunflower seed that sits on Bottura’s desk under a large clear perspex box. A Chinese chef gave it to Bottura after keeping it carefully in his pocket for four years. It’s one of the 100 million seeds created by hundreds of porcelain artisans working in the Chinese town of Jingdezhen. Ai Weiwei had the seeds poured in a thick carpet of human handwork into the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London in 2010.
“It was a social gesture to save a generation of artisans. They were almost disappeared. For generations, they worked for the emperor, and they didn’t have any work. So he just said, ‘you, all the whole community, work for me at least for one year and I want 100 million sunflower seeds’.
When Ai Weiwei paid for the whole work they understood he was doing something good. It’s the same way I’m doing with Parmigiano Reggiano with balsamic vinegar.”
These are the two traditional notes that resonate deeply in Bottura’s food: traditional balsamic vinegar aged in barrels over decades, and Parmesan cheese made from the milk of the white cow grazing on wild herbs in the hills. Without
the support of chefs, these traditions would be waning. When he and a group of lawyers (Modena is a town of lawyers and Bottura is a law school dropout) started campaigning for the return of the traditional white cow to the hills, there were fewer than 100 animals left. Now, he says, there are two factories making Parmesan from the milk of almost 900 of these cows, who produce far less milk than the typical higher-yielding breeds.
“I fight for this every day. I’m not fighting McDonalds. McDonald is very clear in this message. My guys at one o’clock in the morning. They’re crazy for something to eat. Everything is closed. They go to McDonalds. I’m not fighting that. McDonalds is McDonalds and it’s telling you, with the big M ‘I’m here and I’m doing this’.
It’s not hiding... I’m fighting those fake upscale restaurants. They come here, they copy what we do without understanding, they don’t even respect the ingredients, the artisans, the cheesemakers, the farmers. Those people are the real sneaky ones so that’s the point. To arrive where we are takes 30 years, takes be there every day, takes faith, vision, intuition, energy.”
Bottura began with a small trattoria in 1986. “I was just studying the abc, the alphabet, in first elementary school. My lucky, lucky day was when I met Lidia Cristoni,” a woman he has described as his Italian food mother. “After that I move step by step.”
Other teachers included Alain Ducasse, his American wife Lara, who introduced him to contemporary art, and Ferran Adrià in the 1990s. “Most of these young pushy chefs didn’t understand what Ferran was doing because they didn’t have the culture to understand what Ferran was doing. Because the most important thing was Ferran was just giving freedom to express yourself. Don’t worry about the blue lobster or caviar or stuff like that. Just a potato in the right way can be more emotional than anything.”
Bottura is certain that food culture remains a strong force in Italian public life. “When the prime mininster, four days ago brought [French president] Mr Hollande, here in Osteria he said: ‘I want the summit around the table in the best
Italian restaurant to show France what is Italy right now’. For Italians, being around a table is like being in a family. We fight. We make peace.
We drink together. We project together. We do everything together being around a table so that’s a very very important part of our life. And we
believe in that.”
His advice to the next wave of young chefs? “Study. Study a lot. Be more on paper and read because culture is the most important ingredient of the future. Through culture you can go anywhere. Of course, practise a lot without forgetting your identity: who you are is very important.”
His next venture will be to open a restaurant in Cuba or in Moscow. Both locations want him to do something. In time, he wants to open a university based around a refurbished Modena villa. The ideas get bigger. Bottura’s having a moment. He is, he says, “at the right point, the right age and the right time”. Which sounds as close to zen as any Italian will get.
CATHERINE CLEARY’S REVIEW: Osteria Francescana
I‘ve done my best. There have been pleading emails to the pleasant staff at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana asking to sit anywhere. But the restaurant doesn’t have any corners for visiting food critics to lurk. On a pre-dinner service tour of the empty restaurant with manager Enrico, it is immediately obvious that this is a place where nothing is out of place.
Chaos is contained in the Damien Hirst Spin Plate you pass at the entrance.
So instead I walk to Franceschette58, Bottura’s brasserie collaboration with Marta Pulini. It’s a smart buzzy place, the flip side of Osteria. A cheesy collection of mismatched plates are hung on a long grey wall. A sweet jar on the counter has a tumble of ruby red tomatoes in it. The most expensive plates on the menu are €16.
But it turns out fine dining has followed me here. We got a call from Massimo, the waitress says smiling. We’re going to serve you the tasting menu from Francescana.
There is a God. And it’s time to push the kilo of bread I’ve been demolishing to one side. So the dance begins. Airy finger crisps of fried pasta come topped with feathery gratings of Parmesan which melt to milk on the tongue. They’re working on creating a Parmesan fog in the test kitchen. The leap doesn’t seem too huge.
There are rabbit macarons – three sweet bites of bunny spun with tomato into an almost grainy, woodsy brown sweet ragu sandwiched between two delicate puffs of meringue.
We hop back to the Francheschette58 menu with a plate of cured meats: culatello, mortadella, the best salami I’ve ever tasted, mushroomy and sweet, and aged pancetta that has candy cane swirls of white fat and red meat and curls around your fork like pasta, the fat melting in your mouth like pig soup. Then back upmarket with two teeny lollies on mini wooden sticks. Instead of ice creamyou have fois gras rolled in a hazelnut and almond crust with an oil black heart at its centre like the melted chocolate in a Magnum. This is a drop of balsamic vinegar that went into its barrel when I was a baby (44 years ago).
The flavours hang around after you’ve swallowed. You want to pause before the next bite or sip to keep them there for as long as possible.
There’s a small bowl of belly button tortellini with a Parmesan cream that’s got all the creamy tang of the white cows but a lightness as it’s emulsified and whipped with water rather than milk. There are cubes of suckling pig (another brasserie dish), the crackling glazed to glass and a sauce like a fairground toffee apple. And then, as I’m about to wave a white flag of defeat, there’s ice cream with balsamic vinegar, musky and sweet.
I’m still grinning days later at the memory of this meal. Eating Michelin three-star food on mismatched granny plates has been like having an opera singer taking to the stage at a karaoke session. It’s a meal like the man himself: clever, funny and more than a little bit fabulous.
Verdict: 9.5/10 – a meal of a lifetime Bookings for Osteria Francescana open on the first day of every month. The 12-course tasting menu costs €195, with a wine-pairing option for €140
OOPS! I DROPPED THE LEMON TART
Massimo Bottura’s most well known dish is the dessert called “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart”. It comes on a plate made to look like it’s been smashed and then glued together by a three-year-old. Wearing mittens. The smashed tart (artfully flicked on to the plate, finished with lemongrass ice cream and then topped with a broken biscuity pastry disc) is the delicious chaos of the south of Italy, they say.