Chef Massimo Bottura: An Artiere of Italian Cuisine

In conversation with the man behind the World's Best Restaurant

Chef Massimo Bottura stands outside his personal Italian restaurant.

Where else would you meet with an avowed art-lover and aficionado but in a museum? Massimo Bottura was spending his downtime the day before the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards gala in New York City in his favorite environment: surrounded by the work of artists he reveres. We have had many conversations in unusual locales, including a bacchanalian Gelinaz event in Lima when the detail-oriented chef was worked up over the fact that his octopus dessert would have to hold until the wee hours of the morning before being served.

The imaginative and creative chef — whose mind races at warp speed — is a fascinating conversationalist. Extremely intelligent, witty, and well-informed, he can hold his own on any subject — but especially art and music. The state-of-the-art music system that blasts his kitchen is the envy of many, and his passion for music even morphs into dishes such as his black cod and squid ink dish, a “Tribute to Thelonious Monk,” the jazz pianist. Bottura's love for Italy, Modenese cuisine, culture, and history has also translated into iconic dishes like “An Eel Swimming Up the Po River.” The famous “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart” is a classic Bottura creation that is all about turning an imperfection into perfection by serving the dessert upside-down and smashed. The bearded, bespectacled, and slight-framed Bottura published his fourth book, Never Trust a Skinny Chef, in 2013, to narrate the back stories of many of his creations and to tell, in his words, the multiple layers of meaning behind each one.

Osteria Francescana, his restaurant in Modena, the heart of his beloved Emilio Romagna, was the epicenter of the shock waves Bottura sent into Italian gastronomy by reimagining traditional dishes. A meal at Osteria Francescana is a revelation of possibilities: a journey into a mythical Italy that exists solely in Bottura's imagination. The food, more often than not, upends all preconceptions of Italian cuisine as we knew it. The small town of Modena has become a requisite stop for gourmands on gastro-pilgrimages. It is certainly a unique experience that reverberates beyond the palate because Bottura manages to invade your mind and stamp it with his own vision.

Bottura spent the early stages of his career in other exalted kitchens like Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo. However, it was Ferran Adrià who, during Massimo's time at El Bulli, inspired him to cook his versions of modernistic, progressive Italian cuisine, something he has never stopped. “Culture,” “evolution,” “revolution,” “contemporary,” and “confrontation” are words that crop up frequently in conversation with Bottura. Many of his dishes have become iconic expressions of modernist cuisine, and yet being the perfectionist that he is, he frequently revisits them.

The “Bottura Caesar Salad” reappeared as “Salad de Mare” on his Instagram feed recently, being plated with David Lee Roth's “Just a Gigolo” playing in the background. Bottura described it as the revolution of an evolution with new elements for the new season and the new year. When I asked when he decides not to revisit a previously created dish, he said, “If it is not evolving, that means that I have to stop serving it. After a point, it is going to degenerate. Our everyday life is so strong and so obsessive that people get used to or conditioned to things. It’s like going to work in a factory and not in a creative space if you don't continue to evolve.”

Bottura is indeed living a special time in his life right now with his restaurant at No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and it was recognized as the best in Italy for 2016 with a 20/20 rating by the l'Expresso-Ristorante d'Italia food guide. Besides the uber-successful three-Michelin-starred restaurant, he also has the informal Franceschetta 58 in Modena. It has been a tough road leading to this juncture for Bottura and his wife, Lara Gilmore. He credits her for tirelessly encouraging and supporting him through the long period when his avant-garde cuisine was not welcomed by Italians.

The art-obsessed couple shares a unique bond, even finishing each other's thoughts mid-sentence, while — like any couple — often agreeing to disagree. The first season of Netflix’s Chef's Table in 2015 provides a glimpse of this synergy and their life in Modena with their two children. Last year, 65 of his celebrity chef friends joined him in Milan at the Reffertorio Ambrosiano kitchens to transform the Milan Expo’s 15 tons of daily food waste into meals for the underprivileged. The Pope Francis-approved initiative also led to the Reffertorio Gastromotiva soup kitchen during the Rio Olympics under the aegis of Bottura’s Food for Soul nonprofit.

 

The Daily Meal: What is the connection between art, culture, and cooking?

Massimo Bottura: Art is the highest point of culture because artists have strength to do whatever they want. How do you recognize an artist? It is by their sign or signature style. You look at a painting by Chuck Lewis, you know who it is. You look at Cindy Sherman, you can't miss it. You look at a plate by Ferran Adrià, you know right away that's Ferran. So if you create your own thing and you put your own personality into what you create and, as I like to say, then you convey and compress your passion with each edible bite. Your creation then exists forever like my “Drop de la Montaigne,” the ice cream bar with foie-gras, or the five different ages, textures, and temperatures of Parmigiana. These plates are icons and people come to Modena from all over the worlds to eat this food and absorb the culture. Even people from a different part of the world can recognize them and get a look into this culture. The one thing that separates a chef from an artist is that the artist is free to do whatever he wants; a chef, however, has to create good food. A chef is an artisan like the people who build Ferraris. They are not artists, even though they make the fastest and most beautiful cars in the world; they are artisans.

 

So, are chefs artists?

There is a category between an artist and an artisan that is called an artiere in Italian. An artiere is an “artisan” or artigiano obsessed by quality. We chefs are like them, simply artisans obsessed in our minds with quality. It is not just about the quality of ingredients; it is also the quality of ideas. Our ideas are at times extremely deep and match those of artists. Think about “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart,” whereby we created, in the most perfect way, an imperfection.

Last year, in a group showing of several artists in an art gallery in New York, there was the lemon tart dish, inspired by a chef. That's amazing, I didn't ask for this; they chose it, and to me that means I am not following any trend but others are following what I am doing. If you follow everything I do and the actions you see that there is expression of the artist I love the most, especially a social artist like Ai Weiwei or Joseph Beuys and the socialist culture. It’s about breaking a 2,000-year-old Ming vase and saying, I am not defeating my past but trying to reveal and rebuild the past in the contemporary mind.

That is the point of culture: It creates knowledge which in turn impacts the consciousness, which then leads to a sense of social responsibility. I have to say I couldn't have done this without my restaurant Osteria Fransescana because that is where we create culture in our laboratory of ideas. It's about new ideas while the social responsibility is in the soup kitchen in Milan and in Rio de Janeiro.

 

Is that soup kitchen a place in gastronomy where hunger meets generosity?

I don't think it is a charity event; in fact, I think of it as a cultural event. Just like the grandmothers of centuries gone by, we are creating a new tradition. Italian cuisine comes from the basics, where from nothing we create something. We manage the ration, something the Japanese don't even think about yet; we do that very well and have always done it. If we are able to use this “invisible” waste, we are making the invisible visible. We use waste to create beautiful dishes, bright in flavor, using what would be thrown away. A ripe banana, an ugly tomato, or some bread crumbs are not waste, and if you have the capability of transforming them, there is so much you can do with that.

In the less-developed economies or less-fortunate societies, every part of a plant or animal is used. That is why I have involved Brazilians, Peruvians, and others from South America in this project, because they have the history and knack to use products in this manner and we Italians do the same.

 

When you first opened your restaurant, you were cooking in the kitchen while now you are not always there. Does this effect the experience for your diners?

Even now nothing comes out of the kitchen without my thought in it. Davide is my right hand in the kitchen. He has been with me for 12 years and is the man who interprets my rationale in a perfect way. He understands exactly where I am going and, like me, loves art and music. It's almost as if he is in my mind; especially as I am dyslexic since I think too fast, and my mind is too quick. When people say, “Oh, you are away so who is cooking in your kitchen?” I say it’s the same people who are cooking even when I am in the kitchen. We have 40 people who are committed and devoted to the Osteria Francescana.

 

What are your thoughts on the progression of American gastronomy?

America has a very big potential because they have money; they are free to think, and they have great schools. The Culinary Institute of America is one of the best schools I have ever seen in the world. There are many great chefs in America who are great examples for the young generation of chefs. The problem is everyone wants to be up there very fast and they don’t want to invest the time to learn. On the other side, the French don't put themselves into discussions of cuisine because they think they are already there. As a result, French cuisine is dropping so drastically and if you eat a meal with three courses then you need three days to digest them. I think that is why there is a renaissance of Italian cuisine because there are so many young Italian chefs who realize that terroir is an expression of food. They build relationships with the artisans who are the real heroes of cuisine. This factor is making Italian cuisine very interesting right now.

 

You have been a catalyst for change in traditional Italian cuisine in the face of tough opposition and criticism. What motivated you to persevere and succeed?

I have to say I am very happy that I survived that period. You need faith on one side and someone close to you who believes in what you are doing and keeps pushing you on the other. Someone who generates self-confidence in you because sometimes you have self-doubt and question yourself. If you have a spouse or a mentor or a strong team, you can achieve this. My team was sending me messages on WhatsApp giving me encouragement about the 50 Best awards tomorrow. Many of them — like our sommelier and maître d’ — have been with us for 15 years, and Davide and Taka have been with me since 2004. We also have twin brothers who are our head waitstaff and have been with us for seven years. Sometimes you question if you are working for the team or is the team working for you. I believe that the team is everything. Building the right team is difficult, and if you are successful at it then they become your strength. 

 

How do you keep the team intact over the years and have people stay on?

These people probably receive an offer every day from all over the world. I would say that it is our culture of stimulation that keeps them with us. If you stimulate them and let them express and try even if they make mistakes you encourage them. Taka keeps asking me how can he grow, and I do my best to stimulate that growth. That is the secret of both the success and longevity of the team. For the past seven years, we have been in the top five best restaurants in the world, and it’s the best feeling ever for all of us.

 

How much autonomy do you give your team members?

I have to say both 100 percent and 0 percent. One-hundred percent because everyone can express themselves in different ways, so we can get some good energy and ideas. Sometimes I give the team a task to make a plate in two days that could tell me who they are. This is very important for me to know and see. I can see the human being even though the flavor and shape is that of a ravioli with ricotta, sage, and herbs made by an 18-year-old stagiaire [trainee].

 

Is the cross-cultural contamination of cuisines beneficial for gastronomy?

It is possible to be contaminated in a wise way and not in a wild way because you should never lose consciousness of who you are and where you come from. Crossing is very difficult. Take my example: I grew up biting Parmigiano Reggiano, and when I taste Grana Padano, I can tell the difference. A mozzarella made three hours ago tastes of the buffalo, the animal, because you take a bite of the animal and not just imbibe the milk or chew the cheese. When you are in a setting where the bar is set so high, if you don't jump the right way you fall. Italians are so into flavors that if you don’t get this right and show especially the local Italian people then you can fail. For me to be able to do what I like, I had to explain to them that I could draw like Rafaello [Raphael, the Italian Renaissance painter] and I could make the tagliatelle or tortellini better than their grandmother and even her grandmother. I had to get them to accept it before I could cook in abstract. You have to show the world before they believe in you.

 

Every chef from the category of the Top Five restaurants of the world becomes known or recognized by a signature style or dish. Is that a good thing?

It’s a very good thing, and it’s extremely important. If you don’t have that signature, then you are not recognized. Take the example of every single thing that comes from Noma; it has the special signature. When I went to Noma Australia this year, I was not eating Australian food or products but Rene’s mind, so to say. 

  

How important have these rating systems or lists become in recent years for you personally?

It is very important because it’s recognition for you, for the team, for the business. We are working for ourselves, and I believe in what we are doing. In recent months, there have been creative conferences, not related to food, in different parts of the world where people who influence the food that we are cooking right now got together. They were designers, architects, artists, musicians, all amazing people who understand the food I am creating much better than anyone else. They are so attuned to the creative process.

 

So you are appealing to an audience with a certain intellect?

[Laughing] I think I appeal to gourmands because the first thing for me is to create good food, and then if you go deeper, you influence creative people with your creativity. To be able to open people’s minds to possibilities is extremely satisfying to me.

 

Are you happy with where you are in life right now?

After the universal exhibition [Expo Milano], we have had such a push of positive energy, and I have even rejoined the church. I was not going to church, but the new Pope is amazing, and who doesn't like him? He is open to everyone, and God is whatever form you may give Him and he says who am I to judge? If it wasn’t for Pope Francis, I couldn't have done the Reffertorio in Milan. The Pope was so bright and quick to grasp the concept and move the focus from downtown Milan, where we were initially concentrating. The Pope suggested that we should focus on the periphery of Milan because the periphery is always in the dark or shadows. It was so right, and that is what we did.

 

Is it true that you acquire more confidence as a chef with age and experience and can take revolutionary steps while as a young chef you are scared to break away from the pack?

You realize that there are different values and most of the values you were carrying when you were 20 or 25 and a lot of ideas and instincts that you had from the beginning are still the same. What has changed a lot is the way of communicating them and the provocation. When you are younger it’s important to be provocative, and for me, it was important to find myself. As I matured as a person, I realized it becomes more interesting to slip something to someone without making it obvious. The provocation comes maybe not even by the way the plate looks but by the flavor or a memory you trigger. Working in that way the relationship with your diner or guest also changes. With maturity, you don't feel compelled to define yourself anymore in absolute terms and you leave yourself more gentle space. You don't feel the need to control the experience and let everyone have their own space.

When as you are young, you feel you must break everything like Ai Weiwei broke the vase [the Chinese conceptual artist broke a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty vase in a performance piece]. However, the most difficult thing after breaking is rebuilding and to do that better than the past. If you do not rebuild it better, then that gesture was wasted. With your contemporary mind, you can accomplish that and then you will be recognized.

 

We use the word "contemporary" to define modern or relevant to the present, but how long does anything remain current or contemporary?

That is a very good point and sometimes what is contemporary for you is not the same for someone else. When we build something or arrive at a certain point, we all get there with varied reflections that brought us to that same juncture. To arrive at cooking sous vide, the Roca brothers arrived one way while maybe I or someone else arrived in another way. It exemplifies a contemporary way of thinking from varied directions. This is what makes food so interesting right now. We are so focused on using different techniques but applied according to our history and in our own fashion. So the Rocas put soccer player Messi into their dessert while Redzepi is discovering a new herb growing in the ocean and I am finding a way to evolve balsamic vinegar. Sometimes you need time to figure out how contemporary something still is; it is the irony of time. Being contemporary means evolution like my Caesar salad, an abstraction of Caesar salad that we have changed five times (and counting) in the last 10 years.

 

What are you working on now?

The idea of a Mediterranean soul or taking classic fish preparations that we all grew up with in Italy with — like al cartoccio or en papilotte or en sale or a la muniana, sautéed in olive oil with a touch of lemon and cream. Playing with the idea of these preparations, I have compressed them into one dish. I am playing with technique, irony, and abstraction. The paper in en pappiote is made with salty water, like seawater that looks like a burnt piece of paper. This is how a classic preparation becomes contemporary because you are thinking about your own experience, your memories, techniques you acquired as a chef while questioning if they can be put together for a whole new experience. At the end of the day, we named it “Mediterranean Soul” because when you eat it you will have this sensation of being in a very specific part of the world, the Mediterranean. Under the burnt paper, you will find all the elements of al cartoccio because there are black olives, lemon, tomato, and capers in this dish. 

 

You created this paper using sea water?

Yes, we dehydrated seawater with a lengthy technical process and beneath this seawater paper you will find the soul of Italian cuisine. The fish is turbot because its expression is in the northern part of the Adriatic Sea, and flat fish like sole or turbot are the best from there. Under it, you will find a creamy sauce made not with cream but extra virgin olive oil, fish broth, and a touch of lemon zest. We filter everything and create an appropriate density and pour on top because we are in the Mediterranean and not in France. This dish is like tasting Italy on a plate.

Our new tasting menu is called Tutto, which means “everything.” This word comes from a postmodern artist Buetti who, back in the 1970s, did a lot of work in games, logic, and reason and was very forward in his thinking. He did a series of paintings in which he used stencils of random things he loved like a palm tree, a person riding a bicycle, or even a piece of cake. These were enormous drawings with many different colors that ended up looking like tapestries from a distance. When you got closer, you saw he was trying to fit everything from his life into a painting. The beauty of it is that everything, or tutto for him, was a metaphor that art can express everything, and it's just a matter of perception.

When we created our new tasting menu, we had many requests from diners who had seen the Chef’s Table episode and read my book and wanted to taste some of those classics. Dishes like “Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart” that are normally on our à la carte menu are also on tasting the menu once in a while. We included them on the Tutto menu along with very contemporary dishes so those who have read or seen them can also experience them. It is fun because it keeps the kitchen working on their contemporary dishes while the generous menu allows the 15-year-old dishes like the Parmigiana dish to still be experienced. These dishes are still delicious and contemporary.

 

You have said, "The secret is leave a little space in your everyday life open for poetry in which you can jump in and imagine everything." If your life was a poem what would it say?

Poets like Giovanni Pascole and others describe the big poetry of life but, hmm... Right now, in a world like this, in which everything is passing by so quickly, everything is fueled by the hunger of eating chewing and spitting out everything quickly. We contemporary chefs are so exposed and in a very tough spot. Everything we create is chewed up and spit out very quickly and then it’s on to the next. Everything is ephemeral and passes by in a flash. 

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