Massimo Bottura’s Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana may have slipped to No 2 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant 2017, but the Italian chef is already moving onwards and upwards with his non-profit foundation, Food For soul.
Words Adam Robb Photos Callo Albanese & Sueo
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 84, June 2017
In the hours leading up to the revelation of this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, held in Melbourne writing on the wall. In a central Melbourne alleyway, outside the buzzy Thai restaurant Chin Chin, a celebratory mural was unveiled honouring five of the most innovative chefs working today; Bottura, Ben Shewry, Joan Rosa, Daniel Humm and Heston Blumenthal. The prescient image foreshadowed the results of the night ahead, with the hunched shoulders of Humm, co-owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, leaning out in front of Bottura.
He had been feeling the pressure all day. His three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena northern Italy, took the number one position in 2016 and the need for a repeat win had haunted Bottura overnight. Unsubtle messages of encouragement and outsized expectation from friends and colleagues across Emilia-Romagna tallied up, and good-luck handshakes from total moment he stepped outside his hotel. Even the great Japanese fashion designer Hiroshi Fujiwara hit him up for a selfie. While that evening’s results demoted Osteria Francescana to the number two position, behind Eleven Madison Park – with the consolation of being named Best Restaurant in Europe – Bottura’s reign lasted long enough for him to answer the question, “What comes after number one?” And a chance to go out with some style.
While most chefs wouldn’t let their childhood best friend dress them for such an occasion, most didn’t spend their teenage years raising hell with the future CEO of Gucci, Marco Bizzari. Thanks to their long friendship, Bottura has become a prominent face of the luxury fashion house over the past year, hosting intimate celebrity dinners and even starring in a fashion film. “Our maths teacher was always pointing a finger at us and saying you two are never going to make it in your lives, and we always remember that,” recalls Bottura.
Instead the two found success in their respective fields by embracing the futurism and romanticism of their native Modena. “When I first saw Alessandro Michele’s Gucci Collection, I saw it reflected on the past in the same way I do with Italian cuisine – looking at the past in a critical way, not a nostalgic one.”
It’s that philosophy that led Bottura to develop iconic dishes like An Eel Swimming Up the Po River, an edible allegory about an eel that swims against the current, navigating the flavours of the region that lacquer it; The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna, which places a depth of hearty flavour on the barest surface; and Bread of Gold, a minimalist but highly textural dessert comprised of stale bread, milk and sugar, which evokes a nostalgic treat from his own childhood, and serves as a reminder that no leftovers ever need go to waste.
Bread is Gold is also the title of a new cookbook Bottura will release this autumn. “The book will talk about how you can clean out your fridge and be creative about it,” he says. It’s a collection of 150 recipes culled from six months of dinners that Bottura hosted alongside the world’s best chefs at Refettorio Ambrosiano, a soup kitchen he founded in Milan’s Greco neighbourhood during Expo 2015.
While a world’s fair of food took place one part of Milan, Bottura transformed a dilapidated theatre, Teatro Greco, into a permanent commissary to feed the hungry with dignity, nourishing them with a sense of culture and pride that extended beyond the plate. Bottura cultivated contributions from the brightest minds of the culinary; art and design communities, from Alain Ducasse to Gaetano Peace. Chefs from around the world flew in for cooking demonstrations at the Expo, but at night, they’d transform the leftovers into lasting memories in the refettorio.
The exterior of the theatre features a work by artist Maurizio Nannucci: “No More Excuses” illuminated in blue neon. While opening his second soup kitchen, Refettorio Gastronomitiva, during the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Bottura had those words tattooed on his arm. By then his commitment to the greater good had grown to a sustainable opportunity. With his American wife, Lara Gilmore, as its president, he formed the non-profit foundation Food For Soul.
As lunch at Chin Chin wound down, and Cher Benjamin Cooper brought out signed cookbooks for the table, Bottura whispered the good news he would celebrate with his wife that night, win or lose. Not only was he opening a new refettorio in London, in June, where already 150 chefs have requested to cook, with Ducasse once again the first to make the call, but also Food For Soul was awarded a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Two new refectories would be coming to the United States in 2018 and 2019.
Yes, Eleven Madison Park might have taken Osteria Francescana’s spot to become the best restaurant in the world, but Bottura has founder higher ground.
|My Favourite Things with
1. First five words that come to mind?
Culture, knowledge, consciousness, sense of responsibility
It means breaking with the past. I prefer the word evolution, which means bringing the best of the past into the future.
3. Why is Italian food so good?
Italian food is the distillation of centuries and centuries of tradition. Those flavours have been filtered through generations, and the ones that have survived are very powerful.
4. What dish is most emotional for you and why?
Tortellini will always be the dish that brings me back to my earliest memories of food and is therefore the most emotional. As a kid, I hid from my older brothers under the kitchen table, where my grandmother rolled out the pasta dough. I would steal raw tortellini from the tray and chew them like gum. That combination of savoury and sweet inside warm egg pasta dough still makes me cry. Now my son, Charlie, is making tortellini with a group of autistic teenagers like himself and I often catch him eating the “less than perfect” ones…
5. What do you love most about pasta?
You can eat pasta every day and at any time of day. There is nothing that brings people together like a big bowl of spaghetti eaten at midnight. This is a classic Italian gesture; a little big of folly and a lot of deliciousness, especially after a last night out or to close a great wedding party.
6. One culinary tip…
Keep it simple and buy the best and freshest ingredients that you can. Buy less and buy often. Don’t ever fill the refrigerator.
7. Where, and what time of the day, do you think best?
Basically, when I am not “thinking”, Mostly when I am in the car, driving around town doing errands, I’ll have a flash of an idea. I will pull over and jot down some notes or call Lara, my wife, on the phone and say, “write this down…”
8. What is a contemporary chef’s biggest responsibility?
To put ethics next to aesthetics