To understand Massimo Bottura better, sit an arm’s length away. The Italian chef, 59, punctuates with hand gestures. When he discusses Osteria Francescana, his three-Michelin-star restaurant serving modernised Italian favourites, the arms sweep expansively. To demonstrate his single-minded focus on the future, he steers imaginary ships. For everything else, the fingertips of one hand pinch together in a motion so Italian, there’s even an emoji for it.
Osteria Francescana, which opened in 1995 in Modena, a small town in northern Italy, has three Michelin stars and topped the list of World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 and 2018. It’s placed in the top 10 for more than a decade. Customers from around the world travel to Modena largely for Bottura’s cheeky interplay of contemporary art and cooking.
He draws on paintings by Damien Hirst, installations by Maurizio Cattelan, album covers by Andy Warhol. The 12-course tasting menu, with dishes titled Tortellini Walking on Broth and Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart, will set you back €320 (about ₹26,500). That’s not the most difficult part. Its 30-odd seats sell out so fast, you’d have to book next month to dine there in November.
For some, that hurdle was cleared this week. Bottura visited Mumbai to cook two pop-up dinners in collaboration with food-consulting firm Culinary Culture. The meals cost almost twice what they would in Modena, but seats sold out in 15 minutes, with 91 diners waitlisted.
For Bottura, that’s merely a sign that the world has caught up with ideas he’s been working on for three decades, and that the years to come might be even sweeter. Excerpts from an interview.
Even good chefs have off days. Great ones, for whom customers wait months, must grapple with the pressure of delivering a once-in-a-lifetime experience to every diner. How do you manage it?
Bob Dylan is one of my idols. His secret to success is simple: Wake up in the morning, go to bed at night, and in between, do what you have chosen to do. What have I chosen? To compress ideas from everyday life; to filter art, music, history through a contemporary mind; and turn it into a culinary experience. I’m never nostalgic – I’m looking back critically to carry the best of yesteryear into tomorrow. And for that, I have to keep my ship focused on the future, keep the creative light on. My job is the theatre of flavour. My team and I, we go out on stage every night, rehearsed, prepared to give it our whole selves. That’s how to create an experience, make that reservation worthwhile, and get people to return.
1995 was a great year for you: you opened the restaurant, married your girlfriend and creative partner Lara Gilmore. But how did you know that what you were doing would succeed? Did you have a crystal ball?
I didn’t! What I had was Lara. She taught me to look at contemporary art in a completely different way. I’d studied art, but believed contemporary art was over after Marcel Duchamp in the 1930s. With her, I started to think deeper about ideas, digging, digging, digging until I got to the essence of a thing. It made me look at food differently.
The essence of homemade lasagne, its best parts, are the toasted corners. It inspired my signature dish, The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne, in which every bite tastes like the corner piece. Or serving six tortellini separately from the soup – you consider them one by one. With the first, you connect. With the second, you understand the skill. A third gives you pleasure. The rest, you savour the knowledge. A dessert called Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart, which is deliberately made to look like it fell, reminds you that mistakes are part of life.
Any regrets, all these years on?
Not many. I did struggle from 1995 to 2000 to keep a modern Italian restaurant open in my small hometown. I knew I’d regret it terribly if I didn’t make it a success. But I did.
People have thought me crazy for working with food waste, for changing grandmothers’ recipes. I make a cod dish called If I’m Wrong I’m Right – it could be the title of my life.
I regret not having cooked more for my mother because I was so busy and so focused on my career. As for my father, he wanted me to take up law in the 1980s and I wanted to be a chef. He didn’t speak to me for two years. We made up, and he was happy when I got successful, earned my third Michelin star. But we were never 100% and I regret that. As a father to two kids, I let them do whatever they want.
You’ve been ahead of your time, you’ve stayed contemporary. In the pandemic, you’ve cooked live on Instagram with your family in Kitchen Quarantine, which won a Webby. What kind of future do you see coming?
Of my 1.5 million followers on Instagram, about 40% are people under the age of 40. You can tell from the comments that they’re not there for the Michelin stars. They care about social responsibilities and the planet. The right farmer, cheesemaker and fisherman matter. They understand that. It makes me optimistic about the future.
I’m not a radical. But I am also dreaming of a place in Bethlehem, where so many ancient faiths coexist, where we can have a dinner table at which Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu can sit in peace and share a meal. I’m hoping to have it ready by the end of the year, a present for my 60th birthday.
In addition to Osteria Francescana, Massimo Bottura runs Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura restaurants in California, Tokyo, Florence and Seoul. He also runs the casual restaurant Torno Subito (Italian for I’ll Be Right Back) in Dubai.
His life and work were the subject of a 2016 documentary titled Theater of Life. He also featured in the inaugural episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table (2015), discussing his food and philosophy.
Bottura’s non-profit, Food for Soul, raises awareness about food wastage and hunger. His charity eateries, called Refettorio Ambrosiano, have won accolades for turning supermarket surplus and foods rejected by commercial kitchens into inventive meals for the unhoused.
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