Massimo Bottura has awakened Italian cuisine from its gentle slumber – we visit the star chef, who also likes to play it for laughs
In the summertime, Modena is a tranquil sort of place. Through its streets of crooked houses that have stoically endured for centuries, Vespas travel at only half the speed they do in Naples and Milan. Modena is in the Emilia-Romagna region and it’s a place where people mature cheeses for up to 72 months and age balsamic vinegar for two years before sampling it for the first time.
Into this Italian tranquility burst Massimo Bottura, today considered Italy’s best chef. His restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena was awarded three Michelin stars in 2011. Bottura is a fast-paced sort of person, a wiry little man, who drives a Maserati. His hair is graying and his feet always seem to be in a pair of sneakers. His hands, body and mind are in constant motion. He has hardly sat down before a new idea has him back on his feet. Bottura opened his restaurant 20 years ago. At first the townsfolk were outraged at his concept. They criticized the microscopic size of his portions and the brutal changes to traditional recipes. “Totally loopy” was their conclusion. But his neighbors do like Bottura as a person. The postman hands the chef his mail as he rides past on his Vespa. The people walking past the pink building that houses the Osteria greet him warmly. What the residents of Modena did not take to was his style of cooking.
His dishes have names like “An eel swimming up the Po River,” “How to burn a sardine,” and “Oops, I dropped the lemon tart.” For some Italians, everything he does was pure heresy. In Bottura’s kitchen, nothing is the way Italians are accustomed to it being. Every time-honored Italian recipe is perfectly in tune with the region’s produce – wild Sicilian oregano, lemons from Sorrento. It took the Italians centuries to create these recipes, and every child knows them. The recipes are guarded like family secrets by their grandma and handed down from generation to generation. Five hundred years for the perfect lasagna. Who would dare to suddenly play around with such perfection?
»Memory of a mortadella sandwich«
Bottura is a man of action. He says he wants to drag Italian cooking into the 21st century, and to change its shape without damaging its soul. The lobby of his restaurant, the Osteria Francescana, boasts a work of art by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei: a modern candy jar filled with the dust of a 2,000-year-old vase. “This vase symbolizes my past. The ashes of my ancestors are close to me, but they don’t define me,” says art aficionado Bottura.
I proposed to Lara and she understood that she was marrying a restaurant
He preserves the tradition of Italian cuisine in his own way. Based on the memory of the sandwiches he used to take to school in his childhood, he created a small, angular stack of bread garnished with pink foam. “Memory of a mortadella sandwich” is the name of the dish. It evokes the story of a 14-year-old, soccer-crazy Bottura, who was always rushing off to school late. His mother would run after him and slip the sandwich into his satchel. It took Bottura a lot of thinking and several experiments before he was able to transform these memories into award-winning contemporary cuisine. First, he had to convince his suppliers to stop using synthetic intestines and starting putting the boiled meat into pigs’ bladders again. If it improves the taste, tradition is allowed – mortadella in a plastic skin just does not taste right.
»The potato that wants to be a truffel«
He began his career as a chef with an act of defiance. Bottura dropped out of law school, which he had originally entered to please his father, and spent the next eight years hidden away in a trattoria on the edge of town, the Campazzo. It was a bar, tobacconist’s shop and bistro all rolled into one. No mortadella foam or foie gras on a stick. It was there that the legendary star chef Alain Ducasse discovered him more or less by accident. Ducasse took Bottura with him to Monte Carlo and introduced him to the world of top chefs. When Bottura returned to Modena, he wanted to become one, too. “I proposed to my wife Lara on the day we opened the Osteria Francescana and she understood that she was marrying a restaurant.” In the end, the Michelin guide awarded Bottura the sought-after stars one by one, the third in 2011. Having been among the top five “best restaurants in the world” since 2011, the Osteria today occupies the number two spot, only outdone by the El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. Even those who care little for the maxims of the Michelin guide must suspect that Bottura’s dishes are something very special. A lettuce leaf served with a few petals and a little bit of dressing is called “Caesar salad in bloom”. It’s like running through a summer meadow with your mouth open. Pure, intense flavors that even nature would find impossible to produce. What did this man do to the food, and how did he do it?
Bottura’s cookbook with the self-parodying title “Never trust a skinny Italian chef” provides all the answers. It is a cookbook, but the recipes have been banished to the back of the book, in a sort of glossary. The book is really about the ideas behind the recipes. Bottura tells the stories of what inspired him to create dishes like “Chicken chicken chicken, where are you?” The humorous accounts underline Bottura’s passion for free thinking, for art and for food. Many of the recipes are connected to childhood experiences, some are short philosophical musings. One of the dishes is called “The potato that wants to be a truffle.” It tells the story of a man who became a chef instead of becoming a lawyer. Bottura comments wittily: “I know my abilities because I know myself. I am not a truffle but a potato, and that’s how I like it. I love being a potato.” These are the kinds of things he says when giving interviews. And when he is allowed to talk about himself and his ideas, he actually manages to sit still for a while.
»Oops, I dropped the lemon tart«
“We don’t do normal here,” says Alessandro Laganà, his assistant. Acting as an intermediary between Bottura and the rest of the world takes some effort. Bottura recently wanted to climb onto the roof opposite the Francescana during a photo shoot for the food magazine Fool. On the photo, you only see a small bit of the restaurant and one of his sneakers. A rope connects his foot to the ground, while his sous-chefs are clinging to the end of said rope and try to stop their boss from floating away. It was agreed that a fake leg would be used for the photograph, in order not to expose the master chef to too much danger. What is it like to work with such a visionary? “No problem,” says Laganà simply. That’s because Bottura is not just a thinker, but a doer. He is definitely someone who lets his employees have their say. “We are a creative team that develops ideas together and shares them with everyone. It’s not just about the quality of the ingredients, but also about the quality of the ideas,” says Bottura.
And the star chef is always open to ideas, especially crazy and extravagant ones. When one of his colleagues accidentally drops a plated dessert, and it shatters on the floor, Bottura does not see a pile of broken crockery, he sees the beginning of a new creation. “Developing a recipe is an intellectual act. You don’t stand in the kitchen, cut and chop ingredients, and then serve up the finished dish. It works like this: You accidentally drop the lemon tart on the floor and squat in front of the upside-down dessert. At that moment, there’s a flash in the dark, and you catch it like a ray of light,” he says. So in every memory and in every feeling, there are new recipes for Massimo Bottura to uncover.