DE­STROY TO CRE­ATE

Mas­simo Bot­tura on break­ing – and re­build­ing – tra­di­tion and per­cep­tions.

The Peak (Singapore) - - Contents -

Mas­simo Bot­tura on break­ing and re­build­ing per­cep­tions.

Most cook­ing de­mon­stra­tions start with an in­gre­di­ent showand-tell. Mas­simo Bot­tura, in Sin­ga­pore last month by in­vi­ta­tion of Amer­i­can Ex­press, starts his by show­ing Drop­ping a Han Dy­nasty Urn, a trip­tych de­pict­ing con­tem­po­rary artist Ai Wei Wei shat­ter­ing a 2,000-year-old arte­fact.

“You have to break tra­di­tion to re­build it for the fu­ture,” says the 55-year-old chef be­hind three-Miche­lin-star Os­te­ria Frances­cana in Mo­dena that topped the World’s 50 Best list in 2016, and again this year.

Like Ai, Bot­tura has courted his fair share of con­tro­versy. Though con­sid­ered one of the best chefs in the world th­ese days, the El Bulli alum­nus was once harshly crit­i­cised for try­ing to modernise Ital­ian cui­sine. “The peo­ple wanted me cru­ci­fied at the pi­azza like a witch, be­cause I was mess­ing with my grand­mother’s recipe. That, along­side the Pope and the soc­cer team, are things you don’t (fool around) with in Italy.”

To­day, his avant-garde fare, what he calls “ex­treme Ital­ian food, fil­tered through a con­tem­po­rary mind”, is lauded as the fu­ture of Ital­ian cui­sine. A lasagne is not served as a steam­ing, messy plate, but as a crisp wafer – a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his mem­ory from child­hood, when he and his brother would fight to snag the crisp bits on top of his nonna’s dish.

And to show­case parmi­giano as a liv­ing in­gre­di­ent, he created “Five Ages of Parmi­giano Reg­giano in Dif­fer­ent Tex­tures and Tem­per­a­tures”: a mul­ti­tex­tured dish that uses the cheese at dif­fer­ent lev­els of ma­tu­rity as its sole in­gre­di­ent.

“Twenty years ago, when that dish was first made, the cheese mak­ers were not happy, be­cause age­ing the cheese for longer than the usual 18 months was not good for busi­ness.”

But in 2011, the 150th an­nual Ital­ian Gas­tro­nomic Con­fer­ence named this trou­ble-mak­ing item Dish of the Decade for Ital­ian gas­tron­omy. Sim­i­larly, the lynch mob that was af­ter his head decades back are now thank­ing him for bring­ing the sleepy town of Mo­dena back to life.

Out­side of Italy, Bot­tura is no less in­flu­en­tial. To­gether with his New Yorker wife Lara Gil­more,

he set up Food for Soul in 2016. The non-profit as­so­ci­a­tion has a dual mis­sion: com­bat­ing food waste and em­pow­er­ing the un­der­priv­i­leged through so­cial in­clu­sion. To this end, he has set up art­fully de­signed com­mu­nity kitchens in Rio de Janeiro, Mi­lan, Bologna, Mo­dena, Lon­don and Paris, where culi­nary megas­tars like Rene Redzepi, even Fer­ran and Al­bert Adria, might be cook­ing with dis­carded food items for a com­mu­nity that has no idea who they are.

Food has be­come a means for Bot­tura to show his love for a larger com­mu­nity. “Cook­ing is an act of love, that is what the food of my grand­mother taught me,” he says. So, while his food might be the prod­uct of a com­plex cre­ative process, it is – first and fore­most – de­signed to de­liver de­li­cious­ness and give plea­sure.

And, while he might cite Ai and Joseph Beuys as sources of in­spi­ra­tion, Bot­tura in­sists that his dishes are not es­o­teric art pieces. “As chefs, we cre­ate food, like how an ar­chi­tect de­signs build­ings and an en­gi­neer cre­ates fast cars. The po­etry of Joseph Beuys and the art of Ai Wei Wei are free, but not the work from us. Our food is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of our thoughts and ideas, but we are ar­ti­sans, not artists.”

BOT­TURA’S LASAGNE A clas­sic Ital­ian recipe is up­ended, in­spired by the chef’s mem­ory of cov­et­ing the burnt cor­ners of this pasta dish.

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