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Il numero uno

He’s crazy about modern art and is inspired by jazz music. He quotes Kandinsky and Picasso and isn’t afraid to give his dishes bizarre names. We interview Italian chef Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant, Osteria Francescana, was elected to “the world’s best”. Food and Travel Arabia met him in his Italian home town of Modena. 

“And the winner is … Massimo Bottura”! These were the words that were almost yelled out at the famous Cipriani Club 55-restaurant, in Wall Street, New York, in June last year, when the winner of the famous “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” was named.

As the crowd’s enthusiasm broke loose in the Wall Street restaurant, Bottura threw himself in the arms of French master chef, Alain Ducasse, who was also present. It was the same Ducasse that, years back, had been Bottura’s mentor, and who once ripped the notes out of his hands while yelling at him: “For Christ sake, throw away these stupid notes! You already master the techniques to the fullest. You just need to find your own way”!

 Today, many years later, it’s fair to say that the 54-year-old Massimo Bottura has indeed found his way. In his home country where food is given religious significance, he is a gastronomic god, renowned for his skillful and brilliant interpretations of modern cuisine. The proof is in the pudding, as the Brits say, and in recent years the number of accolades has been impressive: the third Michelin star was conquered in 2012, in 2015 the renowned Italian L’Espresso guide gave Bottura 20 points out of a possible 20, and for the past 5-6 years, his restaurant has been considered Italy’s best. Well, that’s just to mention a few.

And now, in June last year, the title of world’s best restaurant. But it doesn’t stop here, because in the beginning of 2017 the New York Times even placed him on a list of “the world’s most creative geniuses”.

You should think that it would be difficult to Massimo Bottura to get his arms down after all this success. But if you think that this has turned him into an arrogant and unbearable prima donna … well, then you are absolutely wrong. He is totally down-to-earth, he gesticulates with his whole body as the born-and-bred Italian that he is. He’s full of nerve and verve, laughs a lot and excuses the mess in his office before we start our interview.

You are Italy’s most successful chef and recently Osteria Francescana has been elected the best in the world. What do you think of these tributes? 

“They’re obviously nice to have and to receive, above all because it’s an honor not only for me but for Osteria Francescana’s entire team including my young and skillful collaborators who work in the kitchen and in the restaurant. Having said that, I would like to add that we are obviously not aiming to get titles. We work to give our clients an extraordinary dining experience. I often say that each meal should be like a Champions League final (Europe’s most important soccer championship, ed.)”.

Immediately after your name came out in New York, you embraced Alain Ducasse. Has he been your major source of inspiration?

“I spent about half a year with Alain Ducasse at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco. It was in 1992 when Ducasse was busy revolutionizing French cuisine. It was an absolutely fantastic experience and also a very important period for me. However, I will also mention French master chef Georges Cogny, who lived in Piacenza near Modena for several years. I learned a lot from him, especially the essentials of the classic French cuisine”.

But you also had another important mentor, if I’m not wrong …

“Yes, the great Adrià. This was also a magnificent time. I was working with a group of young chefs who were being mentored by Adrià. We began work early in the morning and didn’t finish until after midnight. Of course, we were all super-motivated. During that period I really learned to think independently. I tore apart all my notes and I threw away some of my old recipes. I definitely learned to be more intuitive and to follow my instincts”.

Let’s look back in time. How did you actually discover the art of cooking? Where did your interest come from? 

“I’m the youngest of five brothers and sisters. And I was quite a little terror. So very often I had my older brothers on my tail. They chased me around the house and often I ended up hiding in the kitchen under the big table where my mother and granny were busy cooking for the whole family. Usually they drove my brothers out of the kitchen so I actually remember the kitchen as a very safe place, a secure spot. I think this is an important point of departure. Later on, when I was between 12 and 14, I would go to organized dances with friends on Sunday afternoons. Afterward, we would go to my house and I would make crepes with chocolate for everybody. I was the cook of the group. That’s more or less how I started”.

But I know that your whole family was also very interested in gastronomy …

“Oh yes! Both my mother and grandmother were excellent cooks, and I also remember the whole family going to eat at an superb restaurant near Parma called Cantarelli which had two Michelin stars. And often my father took my brothers and me  with him to dine at the restaurant of Gualtiero Marchesi (one of Italy’s most acclaimed chefs, ed.).  It was in the years before Marchesi had earned three Michelin-stars, but the restaurant was already top-notch. Then one of my brothers started importing whiskey from the U.S.  So, yes, my family has always been very conscious of cuisine and taste”.

What was your first experience as a cook?

“It started when my brother Paolo told me that one of his friends had a restaurant for sale. I jumped on it. I remember on the first day I was too scared to go into the restaurant to see the clients’ reactions to my dishes. I served classic French cuisine but with a focus on local ingredients. I think that people from Campazzo, the local town, were whispering behind my back that I was bonkers. Looking back, I realize  that Picasso was right. He said that success is 10% talent and 90% hard work. This is exactly how it has been for me”.

The necessary passion

Since then Bottura hasn’t looked back. In 1995 he bought the Osteria Francescana and over the last 15 years has transformed the restaurant into a temple of modern Italian cuisine. Today the restaurant offers clients different menus priced at 90, 130 or 160 euro. They dine in a restaurant decorated with modern art and select dishes from a menu that is equally contemporary.    

Also passion reverberates in the restaurant. It starts with Bottura who radiates a love for his art. He talks like a champagne waterfall, spilling over with expressive Italian gestures. He peppers his speech with discourses about his culinary muses: jazz, art and literature.

You’ve said that you find inspiration for your cooking in visual art, literature and music.  Could you explain how they stimulate you?

“I find modern art very important and inspiring to my work. As you can see, Osteria Francescana is full of modern art. Kandinski’s (Russian artist, 1866-1944, ed.) pyramid is a great spiritual inspiration for me. I’m fascinated with his famous pyramid from 1911 that reflects on humanity’s spiritual life. In my own personal pyramid on the art of cooking, I put at the top culinary creativity. We could say that it expresses who I am. Just below are technical skills and then, at the bottom, the raw materials. These are the three elements that must go together to achieve the best possible result”.

And what about musical inspirations?

“I grew up with music, especially jazz. My brother and I have a collection of 10,000 LPs. Music to me is passion, and it’s that passion that I put into my work and the dishes I create. Take, for instance, the American jazz genius Thelonious Monk. Early in his career many considered him to be a nutcase because he played in a way that nobody had ever heard before. The truth is that he was only seeking his African roots through his music. Only a few people understood that, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. This is a wonderful story, because it’s also a metaphor for believing that what you are doing is the right thing”.

You speak about literature, philosophy and music. Are you a chef-philosopher? 

“No, I wouldn’t say that. What I talk about is passion. The passion that comes from reading, from listening to music. The passion that comes from pursing an interest in depth. Remember; to speak about passion is to speak about emotions. Passion is expanding your knowledge, the same knowledge that inspires you to make a new dish. Or you could simply say that often my dishes spring from my passion and my emotions”.

You said before that Monk was seeking his roots through his music. Have you done the same in your kitchen?

Definitely. In these years we speak often about the importance of going local,  using local ingredients, safeguarding the local biodiversity and so on. I’ve been doing that for many years. Actually, it would be difficult to duplicate Osteria Francescana in another place”.

In search of old values

Massimo Bottura is regarded as an advocate and key figure of innovative, experimental and modern cuisine yet this created a problem for him a few years ago.   In 2009, the popular Italian satirical television program Striscia la Notizia accused Bottura of relying too much on scientific techniques in his kitchen, a practice used by many prominent chefs. After the program aired, Bottura found himself in media firestorm. Yet the accusations were unfounded and countless colleagues came to his support, including the Slow Food organization, which released a press statement defending him.   

How do you distinguish between technical skills and the knowledge of chemical reactions in a modern kitchen? And what about the relationship between tradition and innovation?

“Well, tradition and innovation walk hand in hand. They need one another. Then, when you reach a certain level as a chef, I would say that a certain scientific knowledge regarding the reaction of some ingredients is required. This knowledge enables you to show the utmost respect for the raw materials and to use them in the best possible way”.

What do you think about food’s aesthetics, a subject often discussed in the gourmet world?

“Well, I can’t say that it’s not important because it is. But there’s something more important right now and that’s ethics. We are living during the time of a global crisis.  People are not only seeking beauty. Primarily they are seeking the truth. So ethics also means showing respect for the raw materials and for the people, for example  farmers and fishermen, who work the land and cultivate the products we eat. This is fully in-line with the Slow Food philosophy. It’s a search for ‘old’ values”.

Several of your dishes have weird names, for example the “Potato that wants to become a truffle”. You’ll also find on your menu a fois gras in the shape of popsicle. What’s that all about? 

“Well, take for example the fois gras. It’s a snobby dish so I decided to make a more relaxed version. The fois gras contains Modena’s famous balsamic vinegar together with Calvados. Then it’s covered with crystallized hazelnuts from Piedmont and almonds from Sicily. All of Italy is represented in the dish. Then, of course, the popsicle shape makes it very informal. As far as dishes with strange names, in the case of “the potato that wants to become a truffle”, I know that the truffle is generally considered more noble, more elegant than the potato. But without good reason. The potato is a wonderful root vegetable. Remember that it saved the entire German nation after the Second World War. Even Van Gogh did a painting of a group of people eating potatoes. The potato should not struggle to be a truffle. It should be proud to be what it is for when it is used properly it’s simply magnificent”.

Now that your restaurant has gained the title as the “the world’s best”, have all the dreams and ambitions of Massimo Bottura been realized?

(Bottura breaks out in laughter, ed.) “Oh no, absolutely not. The future is like a journey. Awards and recognition are, of course, nice to receive but they belong in the past. I live in the present. What happened yesterday is – almost – forgotten”.

And what is your recipe for success?

“Aside from passion and hard work, it is definitely humility. Only through humility are you able to absorb the knowledge and the energy of the people around you. Being humble also means that you experience moments of doubt. You ask yourself whether you are doing the right thing. So you must fly using your head. Have dreams and ambitions. But with both feet on the ground”.

Osteria Francescana, Via Stella 22, 41121 Modena – Italy ~ www.osteriafrancescana.it

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