Italy's newest Michelin-three-star chef, Massimo Bottura, cuts a smart, professorial figure. Descriptions and proclamations about his talent and import are just as flattering and impressive. Drawing on the wealth of his part of Italy's classic local products, but approaching his menus with a novelist's or historian's sense of narrative, Bottura is one of the most innovative chefs in the world today — and a good bet to start bringing back a little gastronomic glory to a food-crazy nation whose restaurants have lately been eclipsed by those of Spain and Scandinavia.
Bottura's attractive contemporary-styled Osteria Francescana is located in Modena, in the gastronomically rich Emilia-Romagna region — famous as the home of Maserati, Ferrari, and Lamborghini, but also of aceto balsamico (the real balsamic vinegar), cotechino and zampone sausages, and such pasta as tortellini and tortelloni, so there's lots of tradition to draw from. Bottura deconstructs and reimagines tradition with such dishes as "memory of a mortadella sandwich," "five ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano in different textures and temperatures," "bollito misto... not boiled," and "Oops! Broken fruit pie." It's all delicious, and also lots of fun — ultimately, enough to top The Daily Meal's inaugural list of the 101 Best Restaurants in Europe.
For these reasons, we're pleased to announce that we've chosen Bottura as 2012's International Chef of the Year — joined by The Daily Meal's 2012 American Chef of the Year, José Andrés.
We reached out to both chefs to discover where they, and the state of food (in their opinion), may be heading. In this interview, chef Bottura talks about the challenges of having some of the world's best ingredients, the importance of narrative, and the secret behind a successful tasting menu. Check out the slideshow for photos of food from Osteria Francescana with commentary from Chef Bottura.
You've been hailed as one of the world's best chefs when it comes to balancing the demands of tradition and modernity — what's your philosophy behind this?
My kitchen can be defined as "tradition seen from 10 miles away." I revisit traditional recipes and ideas and make them contemporary. This is my speciality. I try very hard to respect tradition but also to respect ingredients, heroic farmers, butchers, and fishermen. Know your farmer, your butcher, your cheesemaker, and your fishmonger. When you have a relationship with the people who produce your food, it will always be better quality.
Rethinking a dish requires distance. Take a step back. Think about the core flavors of the recipe, why it ever came to be, and how it has survived for so many centuries. Then start taking away. You must think about texture, flavor, and form. Keep recipes simple, with distinct flavors that do not cover one another. What is better than tasting the real flavor of something, even something as simple as a potato? Sometimes, I have to ask if our traditions respect the ingredients and if they don’t, then it is time to rework them. I call this "tradition in evolution."
Sometimes new ingredients are added. Sometimes the form is changed. Sometimes you have to try to reinvent the plate from scratch by throwing out the recipe. The most important thing is to apply a new way of thinking to an old idea without ever losing sight or respect for the ingredients and the traditions that bind you to the place you live. Here in Modena we have such amazing resources that we have only started to tap. I use ingredients from my terrain: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto, handmade egg pasta, balsamic vinegar, and so on, but I think the most important ingredient to use in the kitchen is one’s mind. Too often, people cook with their hands and not their brains. Actually, you need both.
Narrative is a big part of the dining experience at Osteria Francescana — the history and story behind each dish. Where does this love for narrative come from?
Actually, I think that the narrative dialogue that runs through my cuisine comes from growing up in a big noisy household with five brothers, aunts, uncles, and my grandmother at the table everyday. Sometimes there were 15 of us at a time. The conversation was always buoyant with the exaggerated tales that my brothers would tell, and my parents trying to keep us all in order. The conversation was as important as the food, and consequently I am no longer able to separate the two. Everything I eat, even the simplest pizza, has a narrative behind it, from the ingredients to the pizzaiola who makes and works the dough.Storytelling — food that tells stories, evokes memory, accounts for cultural differences, informs as well as nourishes, and lends to a greater sense of belonging — is not only a necessity, but a gift to future generations of chefs and diners. — Chef Massimo Bottura
When I am working on a new recipe, the ideas are never abstract, but firmly rooted in a point of departure. It is never just about ingredients or an "amazing combination" of flavors, but about ideas that spin out from what I see every day in the world around me. Right now, I am working on a series of plates around the idea of "leftovers" and not throwing away even the tiniest scraps. Perhaps this is because Italy is facing a great economic crisis, or maybe I am getting old and just don’t want to throw anything away, I don’t know… but the recipes that come out of this reflection will have stories to tell, which I hope will last as long as the recipes themselves.
"An Eel Swimming Up the Po River" and "Trains Depart at Dawn."
Why do you think narrative is so important? And can people still enjoy food — yours in particular — without it?
Storytelling — food that tells stories, evokes memory, accounts for cultural differences, informs as well as nourishes, and lends to a greater sense of belonging — is not only a necessity, but a gift to future generations of chefs and diners. I want to tell a visual story to help the public understand the products I use and the territory I come from. The plates do not need explanations or lengthy stories to be understood or appreciated; however, a little history often enhances the diner’s experience. When you go to a museum and look at the artwork you do not need a guide, but sometimes, when someone leads the way, you see the work in a new light.
Like many others who worked at elBulli, you've been faced with the problem of having learned from Ferran Adrià, often considered the most influential chef of our time. What can you take away from someone like this without copying what he does?
I learned a great deal from my experience with Ferran Adrià. What I brought home, however, was not a notebook full of recipes or techniques but an open mind about how to think in the kitchen. My first stage experience was with Alain Ducasse. That opened my mind to fine dining and the rigour of the Michelin kitchen. From there I worked on my technique and also on discovering who I am and where I live. Five years later, I arrived at elBulli. I already had a keen sense of where I was going and Ferran encouraged me to trust myself.