2012 International Chef of the Year: Massimo Bottura
Looking across the world's culinary landscape, one chef in Italy stands above the rest
A good example of how I have worked through my experiences with other chefs can be seen in a dish called "Compression of Pasta and Beans," which I often call a compression of my gastronomic history, as it is served in a shot glass. The bottom layer is a crème royale, which represents my classical French training from Alain Ducasse. The top layer is "rosemary air," a direct nod to my experience with Ferran Adrià. In the middle there is the traditional part of the dish: bean purée and broken pieces of egg pasta. In this case, however, the pasta has been substituted for with thinly sliced Parmigiano-Reggiano crust. The chewy crusts not only recreates the pasta experience but aims for the heart: My grandmother Ancella, who prepared her broths with Parmigiano crust, let me chew them at the table. In Modena we all grew up eating Parmigiano crust, so this small gesture states where my heart is — forever in Emilia. I believe it is important to have an emotional element in every dish — that one thing that connects you to who you are and where you come from, even when you are aiming for the moon.
Is there a chef who challenges you? Who inspires you to greater things? Or at some point do you feel like you’re competing against yourself?
I admire anyone who makes the hard choice to become a chef. There are no easy paths to success in this business. As Picasso often said, "Success is 10 percent talent, and 90 percent hard work." I have many chef friends around the world. The ones I admire the most are those who are trying to do what is in their hearts — not just as a business, but also as an art form. Living your dreams is the hardest thing you can do. All my respect goes out to those chefs who dare to make a difference in their community and country.
Dal Pescatore in the Mantovan countryside is a beautiful three-Michelin-star restaurant run by the Santini family. I appreciate their hard work, success, and the values they support. I would love to be the first ring of my own three-generation restaurant. I don’t know if my daughter Alexa will join me in the kitchen, but I can dream about it. Italy was built on great families making sacrifices for each other. Today, this is something that risks being lost forever. Nadia Santini is a perfect role model, as she has been working with local producers and traditions for the past 30 years. Her cuisine is never outdated, but always fresh and full of emotional impact.
What do you think the secret is behind a successful tasting menu?
We are never satisfied. We try to keep on our toes and push each other harder and harder to give our guests a unique and emotional experience from the kitchen and from the waitstaff.
We offer our guests three tasting menus in addition to the à la carte menu. There is the Traditional Menu, which pays tribute to Emilia-Romagna in ingredients, traditions, and terroir. The Classics Menu is a best of Francescana, which year after year is updated and revised, based on the best plates from that year and the classics that guests are always asking for. Then, there is the Sensations Menu, which is always changing and evolving based on seasonal offerings. Some wonderful examples are "Autumn Leaves," which captures early winter flavors in the form of frost-covered leaves. You literally eat sugar-frosted aromatic leaves with mushrooms, pumpkin, chestnut, and hazelnuts. This is like bringing the outside inside. Or "Camouflage: A Hare in the Woods," which is a return to the classic French civet with a modernist twist based on a wonderful Gertrude Stein account of Picasso in 1914.
With these three very distinct menus, we are able to tailor to the diverse experiences and desires of our guests. Two separate tables can have completely different experiences at Osteria Francescana. We think this is very special. No two meals are ever the same because each guest is unique. For this reason we keep our tables to 12 to guarantee individual service and attention to everyone.
We expect you’ll be involved with many new projects and exciting things for years to come, but if you were to reflect now on what you wish your legacy would be as a chef, what would you say that is?
Legacy is a big word. Becoming a chef was not my first choice. It happened by chance. But I am glad that it did mostly because I am able to speak to so many young chefs around the world and encourage them to follow their dreams. I love entering the kitchen every morning and seeing the crew getting prep started. When the energy and the people are right, there is a real sense of "nothing is impossible." The beauty of my job is that it is tangible and intangible at the same time. Walking the fine line between these two worlds, I see so many connections to the arts, music, and literature. And I feel very honored to have a voice in this discussion.
Recently, I have been talking a lot about Italy. And my new tasting menu is called "Come to Italy with Me." I hope to be part of a revived Italy, a proud Italy, and an economically secure and creatively supported Italy. There is still so much to be discovered here — tasted, touched, and seen. I will be traveling this March to Washington, New York, and Los Angeles representing Italy with this menu for a year of Italian culture in America. This project is the first step in realigning our culinary values with our cultural values. My legacy as a chef is as an ambassador for the Italian kitchen making sure that there is plenty of space to grow by seeing our past from a critical point of view, not a nostalgic one. May "Tradition in Evolution" become a catchphrase among the next generation of Italian chefs... footballers, designers, artists, writers, architects, and engineers. Why not?
And what else would you like it to be?
In my future I see more future. And my best recipe is the one I have yet to make.
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