The title of his recently released book is “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef” a journey through his life both personal and public, offering an insight into his creative process and his passions for music and art. Bottura’s love of music is evidenced by a state of the art music system in his kitchen since he enjoys cooking to the sound of music. The three-starred Michelin avant-garde Italian chef from Modena, Italy is the owner of Osteria Francescana located on a quiet street of the old city, and over the last two decades has been steadily changing the face of Italian cuisine in the last two decades. The restaurant constantly maintains the third spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna released annually by Restaurant Magazine.
Bottura’s modernist approach took time to be appreciated especially by the old guard in Italy and he frequently talks about the time he was discouraged and ready to give up after ten years but his wife Lara encouraged him to go on for another year, and the rest is history. He began his career in 1986 by purchasing Trattoria de Campazzo a small trattoria close to home, then moving up to apprentice with Georges Coigny to start assimilating classic French techniques into the traditional Italian cooking from his region. Bottura subsequently spent time in the Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo with legendary French Chef Alain Ducasse and then with Ferran Adria in 2000, where he got the impetus to keep pushing the boundaries of his avant-garde cuisine, something he has never stopped doing since. His time in the El Bulli kitchen was in the company of other stagiares like Rene Redzepi who is since a close friend. Massimo is an extremely energetic, passionate being admired by his peers and an inspiration to all those coming in contact with him. He is a great conversationalist who is informed about any subject under the sun. Bottura believes that exploration of culture leads to acquisition of knowledge and is always willing to engage, sharing his thoughts and views without compunction.
This articulate, intelligent chef frequently seen on stage at various international food symposiums and congresses in Copenhagen, Lima, San Sebastian or Mexico City mesmerizes the audience with his slick, innovative demonstrations , brilliant films and videos as well as his ability to reference arts, science, history and connect them to his interpretation of cuisine. In spite of his contemporary approach, his cuisine is deeply rooted in the region where he grew up and showcases the best of regional products.
The small elegant restaurant Osteria Francescana with a simple facade and elegant interior with gray walls and contemporary art on the walls opened in 1995 in the old part of Modena getting its third Michelin star in 2011. Thereafter it closed for renovations to emerge in its present updated form. He also operates Franceschetta 58 a trattoria in Modena serving his cuisine at a friendlier price point as well as a line of balsamic vinegar and pastas on shelves in the market. Bottura recently opened Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura inside the Eataly complex in Istanbul, Turkey which is his first foray outside his beloved Emilio Romagnia region where he was born and grew up. A week ago in Modena I enjoyed a deer dish named “Oh Deer” from his new menu with a rose sauce and gold-stenciled plate, an obvious nod to Turkish cuisine. Bottura’s sense of whimsy is unmatched and shows up in dishes like Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart.
Bottura relates interesting stories of growing up as a willful, playful child close to the famous Ferrari automobile plant of the neighboring town of Ferrara. Often to escape his three older brothers he hid under the kitchen table at the feet of his nonna as she rolled out tortellini, instilling in him a lifelong love for cooking and creating. Two weeks ago on stage at the Gastronomika in San Sebastian he spoke about sustainability and the responsibilities of a chef. He also presented his cookbook for the first time, flying to the US the next day to appear on Jimmy Kimmel followed by a whirlwind book tour around the world. Bottura chose a book cover that is timeless in order to blend in with classics on any library shelf sans flashy pictures but just a traditional binding with gold letters, another expressionof his individuality.
I had a conversation with him in Copenhagen at MAD4 and then in San Sebastian where he is on the board of the Basque Culinary Center along with other big names like Ferran Adria:
You are perceived as an intellectual chef, a part of an elite group of chefs. Is this creating a distance between you and your peers?
I think in fact this is bringing down walls between young chefs and star or well-known chefs and is going to open doors for a cuisine of the future which will be healthier, more generous and more honest.
You are always connected to your roots and where you come from, you connect to art on one end and then to your soil on the other. Why?
I am trying to put all my passions together from one end of the spectrum to another and compress all the passion into edible bites. So when you eat my food you eat a part of me, my passion and my life.
Is there a duality between modern and traditional cuisine, and are we going back into the past these days?
We cannot go back to the cuisine of my mother and grandmother but we can study it to create a better cuisine for the future. A better product, a more responsible way of producing food as a better farmer or fisherman. I am not following tradition but at times confronting tradition. You have to separate the nostalgic part from the good part and bringing just the good part into the future,
Do you think that travel to events like this [MAD4] takes chefs too far away from their kitchens?
No I don’t think so. This is the way to spread the word where we hear people like Olivier Roellinger, Alex Atala, or myself who come here to share with other people their knowledge and culture and to explain their point of view. We are not preachers but just cooks, and it is up to you to explain everything to others.
I think coming to this event and to have the opportunity to explain to a large audience and not just journalists who spread my ideas in black and white is a unique opportunity. Young chefs can be informed about my ideas and think about themselves and who they are and who they can be. They can think about passion as transferring emotions. They can be inspired to study more and develop deeper interests.
That we are having a conversation where you will relay these ideas outside this circle and spread the world is very important to our profession. This is more important than a single phrase on the Internet. We look at each other in the eyes and are talking getting the feeling behind my words and what I think and discussing ideas.
Yes, because in a conversation like this I can explain my ideas better and go deeper into questions and examine our thoughts.
What are your views on young chefs looking for stardom over anything else these days? Is there a wrong message going out to young cooks through reality TV shows?
The point is if a great chef goes on TV and explains drastically what is cuisine that is a great message and I am all for it. I am not going on such shows but when I see screaming, shouting and bad language which is not even close to the act of cooking it is not right. When we are in the kitchen it is love that drives us and takes us to the final result. We must have love and respect and if you come in our kitchen you don’t hear a bad word or screaming you see people sharing and respecting each other.
In your latest book are you presenting your chef persona or just your personal viewpoint?
It’s just my mind and there is no difference between the different aspects of my mind. I cook because it is my passion and it is inside me as a music lover or art lover or cook. I hear journalists question sometimes my talk about art and old things as a trend, but why I buy art it is because I was thinking of my kids Alexa and Charlie and their future and so instead of losing money that I earn in investments I invest in art so that my children can understand art and grow up with a different vision of the world.
What do you want to convey in your book?
This is about my thoughts, my way of projecting into the future. It’s about my vision, my team. We forget sometimes that it’s not just about you but about the team, the artisans, the cheese makers, the farmers and the fishermen who give you incredible ingredients to work with and transfer emotion with.
Do you want your children to join this profession?
I want my children to decide what they want to do and not be like my father who wanted me to be a lawyer and not a cook and he was disappointed in me for the rest of his life. For me if my children Charlie or Alexa decide to do something else I am going to support them totally.
What keeps the passion alive and at the same level?
When you get deep into things you feel culture is very important. Culture brings knowledge which in turn brings awareness that carries with it responsibility. For example the more you read the more you want to know and as you learn more you want to keep learning. For example in my team I give them a word every two weeks to learn about say Metaphysics or Futurism, then they have to show me two pages of what they learned. I do this because all this shows up on a plate we create. Camouflage for example became a topic of discussion while we were researching the recipe for civet which is a very difficult dish to create. It needs respect, preparation, perfect ingredients and then when we started creating it came out in an abstract form, becoming a crepe, then a royale, then we added some foie gras to add a little bit of irony. Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction” talk about how the French serve a cheeseburger and call it a “Royale with Cheese” but is that a cheeseburger? It’s about that bit of irony.
Of course there are times when you are a little down but it’s about this life eventually since you choose to live this passion. It’s not about being creative from 2-4 and then saying that from 12-2 I am just chopping stuff and so on. being creative and 12-2 I am chopping. When I rebuilt my kitchen we put Wi-Fi music everywhere because I feel I need people around me to feel the passion and learn to evolve.
How do you see evolution?
It’s contamination without losing your past. When you evolve in this way traditions are improved. Traditions are not pieces of art left in a museum to reevaluate. You have to question why and see if they respect the ingredients. It’s our responsibility to change the recipe and evolve the tradition.
I go deep into contamination because without it we cannot evolve for example if we didn’t have immigration from outside we would not be able to keep our artisanal industries alive to make Parmesan cheese for example. They bring their knowledge and culture, helping us evolve.
Do you feel vindicated now since for a long time your ideas were not accepted by proponent’s of the traditional Italian kitchen?
Speaking from experience of this (laughing) which I do have a lot of now I am referred to as “Maestro”. I ask master of what because just a second ago I was referred by the same people as crazy and insane who said I was destroying traditions and ingredients. Maybe now they understand what I am doing and that I am good at it.
Massimo shared during our conversation that once a famous person from Modena told him if you can dream it you can make it. While he believes that he said, “The problem is when the dreams become a reality and if you are not prepared they can turn into a nightmare. If you did not grow deep into yourself you cannot stay grounded. This is what I want to tell all young chefs that if you go deep into your interests one day they will become your passion. Once you have this passion you never lose it.