Chef Massimo Bottura has a willing accomplice in his spouse Lara T. Gilmore in his gastronomic explorations and ruminations that tread a fine line between imagination and reality. Bottura is an impatient culinary creator whose creative mind races at warp speed. Should you have occasion to engage in a conversation with him you soon realize that he has already moved on to the next subject while you are attempting to absorb his previous thought. Gilmore expertly decrypts the messages often connecting the dots in conversations while sharing his passion and boundless enthusiasm for life in the kitchen and beyond.
The maverick chef has upended most preconceptions of the Italian food culture in the past two decades replacing them with his iconic impressions of modernism in cuisine. The down to earth power couple excel in the art of connecting with others leaving a trail of friends and fans, which include peers, on their travels. While in Los Angeles for food events spanning several days Bottura was spotted cheerfully serving shards of Parmigianino from a giant wheel brought in from Emilia Romagna anointed with 50 year old Balsamic vinegar to delighted guests. Other chef speakers chose to hang out in the green rooms backstage.
Chefs these days are akin to modern culinary minstrels speaking at cross disciplinary events or cooking at collaborative ventures across cities and continents. They have also taken on the roles of cultural and social influencers, some like Bottura more seriously than others. Under the aegis of their Food for Soul non profit the couple recently unveiled the third iteration of their communal kitchen, Refettorio Felix in London. The first Refettorio took place in Milan during the Expo 2015 to feed the homeless and less fortunate utilizing food waste from the exposition. The Pope Francis-approved initiative also led to the Refettorio Gastromotiva soup kitchen being launched during the Rio Olympics. The recently released “Theater of Life” documentary narrates the story of Bottura’s first community kitchen in Milan and offers a peek into the lives it impacted with cameos of the chef’s celebrity friends like Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, Andoni Aduriz, Alex Atala, Alain Ducasse, and many more who joined him. The slender, bespectacled chef’s fourth book “Never Trust a Skinny Chef” narrates the back stories and artistic visions realized in his iconic dishes.
Bottura’s mission to use his celebrity to mobilize communities and address food waste was the overriding theme in our disparate conversations spanning the globe. In Mexico, at the Chef Talks in Sydney or Barcelona, or while sharing anecdotes about filming with David Chang for an upcoming documentary, even in party mode in Melbourne and Barcelona at World’s 50 Best Restaurants events. One afternoon before heading into the kitchen of Michael Cimarusti’s two Michelin-starred Providence for a four hands dinner during their visit to Los Angeles the two shared their impressions of the dining scene in Los Angeles and the motivation behind their community kitchen initiative.
What is your take on the LA dining scene?
LA is like sparkling water and it is a moment in time right now when there is a lot going on. LA is trying to step up to another level. A level, that is above the classic City of Angels notion where no one cares about much more than bling bling. I met a lot of young people, at events, in kitchens, on the UCLA campus, even at the Santa Monica farmer’s market that really impressed me with their passion and I think in a few years LA could be a very important reference point for food. A Californian reference that is not just San Francisco anymore which has established itself as a gourmet city, but LA as the perfect place for the avant-garde, the new gastrobistros that are rising everywhere else around the world, notably in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. More people want to eat this kind of food now over super fine dining. Not me personally, but generally that is what younger diners like and what young chefs can find the space for in cities. I sensed so much enthusiasm in LA which to me that signals that people know that something special is happening here and want to experience it.
It also depends on the diner because in LA the diners have to grow up along with the chefs. Chefs have to bring along that dining crowd, educate them, bring them into the fold, teach them how to be patient and to evolve their own palates. It’s not just about chef’s becoming better chefs in Los Angeles but also diners taking responsibility.
Why the cooking events and collaborations around the world?
We want to show what Osteria Francescana is about from different points of view. We chose classic dishes for example in LA to show the irony, fun ,poetry, flavors, and the unexpected in different ways. While one was a salad, another a vegetable dish, one a meat course, another a dessert representing a range of work. We chose the “Insalata de Mare”, “The Crunchy Part of Lasagna”, “Psychedelic Veal” and “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart”, and “Autumn in New York/Spring in LA” to do so.
Do you feel that food should be part of a narrative or story?
Yes or else it’s too simple, you get the right ingredients, use the proper technique for the product and then you can serve good food. However to create something that is going to last, transfer emotion, make you think like for example my Salate de Mare, you can impact so many people whether in a pizzeria or in a fine dining situation. We are chefs and we cook food for diners in order to share our palate.
First of all the food has to be good and in 2017 , be healthy. At this moment in time chef’s are much more than the sum of their recipes. We chefs can be agents of change and I speak about the Insalate de Mare in an ironic way in the language of a new Italian artist. When I cook the Crunchy part of Lasagna I am not just fighting against the spaghetti and meatball, Bolognese sauce perception but transferring the emotion of everything that we have in Emilio Romagna.
What was the inspiration behind “Autumn in New York/Spring in LA”?
Autumn in NY is a reference to a Billie Holiday ( an American jazz singer) song which wasn’t always sung in NY or even in Autumn but is still an iconic number. It is about a feeling and a memory that happened in a certain place at a certain time. While at the farmers market in Union Square Massimo started thinking about how important it is to not just to acknowledge the farm to table story but to really recognize the farmers and their work. He worked thorough a contemporary and conceptual dish that evolved to show off the season. The idea is to have a plate that revolves around the seasons or their departure and that makes it interesting
The original version of the dish was about mushrooms, pumpkin and truffles while the one in LA was about all the green vegetables . The dish is green like when you drive on the highway after it rains and you see this green everywhere.
It is also close to the Refettorio idea of buying seasonal, buy the right amount, buy just what you need and can keep in your refrigerator, then cook what you have so you save money, eat better and don’t throw away food. This is about fighting food waste and this is the best way or recipe to share that idea. I am traveling all over the world with this idea and this the most important ingredient I have that influences not just the palate but the mental palate . I know that everywhere there are farmers, fishermen, cheese makers, artisans who are going to make, deliver and serve amazing food and we need to acknowledge them. This is the way to go even for fine dining which is more now cultural than ever and involves knowledge, consciousness and a sense of responsibility.
Is this the motivation behind the Refettorio project?
Refettorio is totally different from this in that it is all about a sense of responsibility especially when I talk about a recipe or share a suggestion about cooking with the seasons then I am referring to the Refettorio.
The first purpose of the Refettorio is to fight waste by utilizing the knowledge of a chef. The second is to transfer the knowledge to the volunteers. Third is to rebuild the dignity of the people that are part of the Refettorio through beauty, service, hospitality, art, and music. Fourth we also feed people, we feed the needy but that is not our first purpose and that is why we call it a cultural project and not a charity project. If it was just a charity project we would serve thousands of meals a day, it would be good, warm food , enough of it and that would be it.
When Ferran Adria was serving a salad as an appetizer at the Refettorio in Milan there was a lady who was allergic to something and so she sent it back. We redid it and sent it back but she still could not eat it. Ferran Adria went out into the dining room to ask what she was able to eat and he came back and remade the salad himself and then served it to her himself. This exemplifies the meaning of the Refettorio, to treat the people as human beings.
Is the London Project different from the other two?
We worked very hard in restoring the London Refettorio with new kitchen, new equipment and all. We wanted to build a very nice place where people can come in the morning to a warm cup of tea, enjoy lunch and the day. It’s all about daytime for the Refettorio but may be they can rent the space in the evenings for events in order to make the facility sustainable.
It’s a nineteenth century meeting hall that has been used as a drop in center for homeless people for 25 years and that is why we chose to work with them. We saw that the building had great potential but was kind of neglected , the tables were plastic and it all looked kind of sad.
When we first walked into the large space we decided we could work with it and did our best to raise money to put in a new kitchen and furniture. We chose Ilse Crawford not because she is a fancy modern designer but because she is all about well being and designing spaces that make people feel good. So with a very small budget, and many things donated we hoped to help make the invisible, visible. It’s just a five minute walk from Earl’s Court tube station in a very beautiful, but hidden part of the city.
Why is design and ambience important in such projects?
If you make the space more beautiful then you can attract more volunteers, more fundraising, and more people willing to pay for things. That is why bringing these well known chef’s there is so important not just because they can help set up the kitchen, and come up with great recipes that are more delicious and healthy. These chef’s can also help attract attention in a little, neglected part of the world where no one is paying attention to these things.
At the end of the day it’s not about feeding people but mobilizing communities to take care of their own, be more engaged, maybe donate two hours a week of their time in a space that is beautiful. We don’t own these spaces they don’t belong to us. We are just launching the ideas to raise attention and money to revitalize the community.
We are using the voice of the chef since everyone is watching the TV show (the “Chef’s Table” episode on Netflix) and wouldn’t it be interesting to be active, go to one of these places and cook as a volunteer, learn from a chef. It’s really revolutionary in a way since anyone can get involved.
Most such projects tend to be exclusive so are you attempting to be more inclusive and change the existing dynamic?
We have found by our experience in Rio de Janeiro and Milan that the volunteers who started working there have taken over the community kitchens. They belong to them now, they care about them and have a sense of pride. That makes the neighborhood so much more stronger as it has happened in Milan. The older people were volunteering and one day they asked if they could have the kitchen at lunch in order to cook their own meal for each other. It made it a special place for them, enriching their lives and making them feel they have a voice and value. So by one little thing so much changed. We serve only 100 people every day as we want to do it well and keep the quality without it becoming too chaotic. It’s a risk every time we do these challenging projects but we learn from each experience.
In Milan the whole neighborhood and even in the one in Rio changed around the Refettorio because they are such beautiful spaces.
There is a question about how does one address poverty and then you think about the power of beauty in a world where there is so little beauty. One of the things that people don’t think about is the power of beauty or to bring it in to places where there is so little beauty. Beauty is indivisible and we can’t divide it up and we feel the more there is of it then it translates into more for everybody. It’s not that if there is a beautiful sculpture and hundred people watch it then it loses some of its beauty. No one takes away a piece of it and it remains for everyone to enjoy. That is what we really think that it’s important to make the surroundings more beautiful by incorporating art.
You are planning to spread this message to other parts of the world including LA?
After visiting I realize that to me the best place to introduce this idea is at UCLA because it is a university in the cultural heart of LA. We want to involve the new generation of students in this project
It’s going to belong to the students and they will run it. To get these young people activated in doing something for the community is what we would like to do.
Then you are training their minds to become socially responsible?
Exactly! That is why we need people to help spread the message. The more people spread this cultural message the better it will be in order for the world to change for the better. It is important for such cultural projects to be successful by communicating this information to more people.