2012 International Chef of the Year: Massimo Bottura

Looking across the world's culinary landscape, one chef in Italy stands above the rest

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.

What’s your assessment of the state of food and dining in Italy? Is food exciting in Italy right now? If so, which one Italian chef should the world look out for?
I am an Italian chef, born and raised in Emilia-Romagna. At 50, I am still discovering new Italian flavors. I am asking myself, "What are authentic Italian flavors?" A great part of my investigation is about throwing away my own assumptions about tradition, territory, and ingredients — clean slate. I am tasting, traveling, and discovering within my own country and outside as well. I am interested in what other people think is Italian food and adding that to my reflection. Italian food is internationally appraised and yet it seems still to be stuck in someone’s grandmother’s kitchen. It is as if Italian food is not allowed to evolve. Everyone talks about authenticity, but I am not sure that that is really what they are aiming for. It almost seems like copying off someone’s test and not thinking things through properly.

Italy’s greatest resource is its artisans. We must support them and reflect light on them in order to guarantee that the next generation of artisans will be there for our children and grandchildren. It is very important that young chefs do not lose themselves in their own dreams of grandeur, but keep building for the future of Italy. The more we focus on territory, on the amazing resources we have been given by our ancestors, the more we are able to create recipes with lasting value. Ethics and aesthetics go hand in hand. Think about the power of Slow Food and how it has changed a generation of chefs. This is the trend for the next decade, and maybe forever. Someday instead of chef superstars, there will be farmer superstars. That will be a great day indeed.

What’s good about Italian cuisine right now is the feeling amongst contemporary chefs. We are all on the same page trying very hard to move the Italian kitchen forward. This means collaboration — organizing events, being present at conferences, traveling, and communicating. Events such as Identità Golose in Milan, or Festa Vico in Vico Equense, Naples, are opportunities to share ideas and gather momentum. Another great thing about the Italian kitchen right now are the exceptional artisans that are providing us with incredible products — from the almonds in Noto and the Zibbibo vinegar in Pantelleria, to Pienolo tomatoes from the hills of Vesuvio and Alpeggio ricotta. Every corner of Italy today has a gem waiting to be discovered and to be put to work in our kitchens. Thanks to them, we are able to express ourselves through these details.

There is still a lot of resistance to change and much ignorance. Many people think that avant-garde means leaving the past behind, whereas all of us are very dedicated to "reconstructing" the Italian kitchen — not deconstructing it. The Italian kitchen has gone through many evolutions. Heroes such as [Gualtiero] Marchesi [Italy's first three-star chef] are reminders that there is still much work to be done to redefine the Italian kitchen as not only "grandmother’s comfort food" but as fine dining based on truly exceptional products and harmonious combinations of flavors inherited from Italy’s rich cultural cross-pollination over centuries. This is what we are all aiming to do — bring out the very best of Italy.

Right now in Osteria Francescana, we are re-evaluating Italian classics and the extraordinary ingredients they are made of. These plates fall under the "Come to Italy with Me" theme, which is actually an invitation to explore Italy with new eyes… and an open mind. Not to look for what you know but to seek out undiscovered flavors. Risotto "cacio e pepe" is a new recipe that takes a Roman staple and turns it into an Emilian re-visitation using Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of Pecorino Romano and rice to remember the mondine from Nonantola [the famous women rice-harvesters from an area near Modena] instead of spaghetti from the south. It may sound simplistic or banal, but the early reactions from our guests are surprising as we are touching upon the "familiar Italian comfort food" but not stopping there.

There was a knock on my office door this past June. There stood Italy’s best chefs — and my dearest friends — gathered together for a surprise lunch at Osteria Francescana. They came to show their solidarity during a difficult time due to the May earthquakes suffered here in Emilia. This group of Italian chefs represent the future of Italian cuisine. They are: Massimo Alajmo, Davide Scabin, Ciccio Sultano, Norbert Niederkofler, Mauro Uliassi, Moreno Cedroni, Carlo Cracco, Chicco Cerea, Antonino Cannavacciuolo, Andrea Berton, Giancarlo Perbellini, Gennaro Esposito, Niko Romito, Heinz Beck, and the youngest of all, Giovanni Santini. Stop at any of their restaurants, and for sure, you will have an incredible experience. The best Italy has to offer.

Where are the most interesting things in food happening?
They are happening all over. First, they are happening in people’s kitchens, and that is amazing. So many people are returning to the stove. Interesting things are happening in gardens and farms, on rooftops, and in unlikely terrains across the globe. Finally, farmers are getting some credit where credit is due. This is very important.

After nearly 20 years, I returned to Hotel de Paris to celebrate monsieur Ducasse’s 25th anniversary there and I found it just as stimulating as when I left. I’ve just returned from South Africa where I tasted some incredible produce, fruit, and wine. I am on my way to Chile in January, and am very curious to discover the culture and the food there. Eataly is opening another gourmet Italian grocery in Chicago after the most recent opening in Rome, and before that New York. Finally a new formula for civilized grocery shopping.

Who would your choice for chef of the year be?
There are a few chefs who are not only cooking in the kitchen, but heating things up outside the kitchen as well. This is admirable because they are using the kitchen as a vehicle for reform. Gastón Acurio in Peru and Ben Shewry in Australia are blending ethics and aesthetics into their diverse landscapes and cultures. And then there is the next generation of bright young Italian chefs popping up in unexpected places with Michelin stars on their horizons.

Read: The Daily Meal's Chefs of the Year 2012

Read: 2012 American Chef of the Year: José Andrés


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Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.