Talking to Massimo Bottura

Words: Crush

With over 25 years of being in the business, it is no surprise that Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, has received 3 Michelin Stars. The restaurant, which is situated in Modena, Italy, has been listed in the top 5 at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards since 2010 and last night (13 June 2016) was awarded the coveted number 1 spot! The only Italian restaurant to have been awarded this accolade so far.

Osteria Francescana has only 12 tables and serves 12 courses, with the style of Bottura’s cooking being a combination of contemporary art and avant-garde cuisine. We just had to find out more about him.
© Photography: Paolo Terzi, Modena

Crush had the chance to peek into his world and ask the award-winning chef a few questions about his cuisine, his thoughts on South Africa and more…

Where did it all start? Was it at the foot of a typical Italian grandmother?

Yes. As a kid, I was always under the kitchen table. It was my refuge from three older brothers’ torments and threats. I found peace at my grandmother’s feet as she rolled out the dough for tortellini, among the smells of broth and roast meats and silenced by the constant chatting of my grandmother, mother and aunt who prepared meals for the ten of us every lunch and dinner.

Then I entered the kitchen as a young man with little training but lots of energy and passion. I learned the hard way – by buying an old trattoria and making it my own. These were the good old days. I look back on them fondly as every moment was crucial for my growth as a chef and a person. I was fortunate enough to have great mentors like Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià who shaped my ideas and kept me with my feet on the ground. Little did I know when I began back in 1986 what an adventure I was on!

The majority of us on the tip of Africa have never experienced a 3 Michelin Star restaurant – is it perfection on and around the plate?

It is a great responsibility to have three Michelin stars, as it was with two, or even one. I always remind my staff that our guests are coming from all over the world for a once in a lifetime experience. We do everything we can to ensure it will be one they will never forget.

We believe that the dining experience is a magical combination of hospitality and service but also surprises and emotions. We strive for perfection in every gesture and engage with our guests during the meal to invite them into our world. Our plates are concentrated on flavour and storytelling as there is so much gastronomic heritage in Italy to be tasted and explored.

With 12 tables, we are able to offer intimacy and personal attention to each diner at Osteria Francescana. There are many dining possibilities, from the 6-course Traditional Tasting Menu to the Classic 8-course Menu to the 12-course Sensations Menu, in addition to the à la carte menu.

The titles of your recipes have a simple, poetic feel about them such as ‘a potato waiting to become a truffle’ rather than over- the-top, chef-speak? Why is this?

Narrative is a big part of the dining experience at Osteria Francescana, as each dish has a history and story behind it. Food is storytelling with flavours. We are concentrated on flavour in the kitchen – flavours that evoke emotions and forge new memories. Some of our plates are landscapes, others childhood memories, others treasure maps. We like to keep our guests on their toes – never knowing what to expect next.

I think the narrative dialogue that runs through my cuisine comes from growing up in a big noisy household with five brothers, aunts and uncles and my grandmother at the table everyday. Sometimes there were fifteen 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 works the dough.

© Photography: Paolo Terzi, Modena

Does an idea for a new recipe come to you as a clear, complete idea or is it a process? Do you start with an idea and then test, correct and build on it – rather like a painter adding layers and textures to a painting?

I think through everything – sometimes the process begins with a great product or ingredient – like Parmigiano Reggiano – and the plate ‘Five temperatures and textures of Parmigiano Reggiano’. A plate like that is a monochrome in white, a meditation on the qualities of a product and a plate that has been fifteen years in the making. There was no conceptualizing – only the desire to think deeply and profoundly about one ingredient and see how far I could run with my imagination and culinary technique.

Other times, the process begins with a feeling, an emotion that I want to capture with a food experience, like the Zuppa di Lumache – or Snail soup. With this plate I was aiming to capture the essence of winter above ground but express the life and earth below the surface. It took a lot of experimentation, patience and time to get the complicated layers of flavors just right.

Most of all it, cooking takes passion – that is – determination not to stop at the first thought that comes to mind or idea about a combination of flavours, but to look into yourself to find the answers to the question you are asking.

I always think of a new plate as an architect thinks about a building. Why am I making this? For whom? With what materials? What does this mean? How will it make people feel? What does it say about the future? And how will it change our landscape?

Do you consider the environment when you create dishes? By this I mean sourcing local ingredients where possible or limiting wastage or would this limit the end product?

I am constantly amazed at the quality and variety of products we have locally here in Italy. Working with local suppliers allows you to establish a human relationship that betters not only your food and your restaurant but also helps support a future for these artisans. A great part of our success is thanks to the heroic farmers and cheese makers who provide us with such exceptional products. We would be nowhere without them.

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.

Is there an ultimate team that you wish you could have in your kitchen? Who would they be?

I admire anyone who makes the hard choice to become a chef. I don’t think there is any ultimate team – there is just the team you have and you need to value every single player on that team – from the most experienced to the youngest of the staff. Everyone has something to give. There are no easy paths to success in this business. As Picasso often said “success is 10% talent, and 90% hard work.”

The most important qualities I look for in a chef are humility and passion. 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.
© Photography: Paolo Terzi, Modena

Top 50 restaurant, 3 Michelin stars and numerous other awards – what an incredible achievement. What inspires you to stay at the top?

For the past 25 years we have worked towards three Michelin stars. Now that we have achieved this goal we can say there is still a lot of hard work to do everyday. The work keeps you honest. It keeps you with your feet on the ground but it is important to let your head float around in the clouds so that you can still dream. Maybe the bottom line is that I love my job and can’t imagine doing anything else.

I am on the board of the Basque Culinary Centre and will be doing some teaching this spring. It is very exciting to pass on your small nut of information to the next generation. Someday I’d like to open a school locally – to create a new model where chefs are working hand in hand with agricultural students, creating new systems together and exploring our rich culinary heritage with an open vision toward culture and art as well as gastronomy.

I often say, “In my future, I see more future.”

Is travelling to other countries and tasting new cuisines an important part of being a chef?

I love travelling… I do it often for business and not enough for pleasure. I always try to take something back from my travels – usually it is not something physical but a lesson I have learned from another chef, a new ingredient or even just a new perspective. I recommend to all the young chefs to travel and see the world, to be curious, to read and explore. Experience is the best school of all.

What do you think is the next food trend?

For me, the next decade will be dedicated to our artisans – the cheesemakers, the butchers, the heroic farmers – and those who provide us with the raw materials for our craft. The relationships we develop with our agrarian brothers are everything to our future. 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 their country. The more we focus on territory and 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 the Slow Food movement and how it has changed a generation of chefs. This is the trend for the next decade, and maybe forever. Someday instead of celebrity chefs, there will be celebrity farmers and that will be a great day indeed.
© Photography: Paolo Terzi, Modena

What are your interests outside of the kitchen?

I love to listen to vinyl records on my Transcriptor turntable after work. Sometimes jazz, sometimes electronica and sometimes, old, classic rock that takes me back to the good old days. The experience of listening to music, especially when you turn out the lights, gives me space to think. I am beginning to share my passion for music – I have over 10,000 vinyl records – with my 16-year-old daughter. This is amazing. She is just blown away every time I take out an album.

The restaurant is closed on Saturday for lunch so I try to have lunch with my 89-year-old mother. I don’t have a lot of free time, but the time I have I like to spend with the people I love.

On Sundays, my day off, I take long walks with my dog and my son, Charlie. Our dog is always getting into trouble, jumping in canals and chasing rabbits and we are always running through the mud to bring her back. Half the fun is cleaning up after. Life in the restaurant is very stressful so I look for activities that help me to relax.

Have you been to South Africa or do you have a trip planned?

I travelled to South Africa for the first time in November 2012 to attend the Eat Out Conference. It was a short trip that left me eager to return and explore more.

I visited Margot Janse at the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français and Luke Dale Roberts at the Test Kitchen. Both are exceptional chefs with a real sense of pride in South African products and heritage. South Africa has a very bright future with the extraordinary products at hand and quality wines coming out of the country. I saw tremendous potential for growth and a set of inspired young chefs with great aspirations.

Osteria Francescana has just been announced as the number 1 restaurant in the world for 2016 by the World’s 50 Best, the first Italian Restaurant to have been honoured with this placement.

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