APPETITE FOR LIFE
The world’s number-one chef and Gucci favourite talks with Josephine McKenna about ping-pong, passion and how chefs can change the world.
Massimo Bottura, the world’s number-one chef and Gucci favourite, talks ping-pong, passion and how chefs can change the world.
Massimo Bottura says he could have been a ping-pong champion if he hadn’t become the world’s number-one chef. It’s not quite what you might expect to hear from the man whose Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana topped a list of the world’s 50 best restaurants in 2016 and again this year. But the energetic 56-year-old is full of surprises.
The streets of his charming medieval city are deserted when he meets me on a steamy summer’s day before the doors open at his threeMichelin-star osteria. Seated inside the restaurant’s wine cellar, he removes his black-framed glasses and reflects on what it takes to stand out from the crowd. And that’s when he reveals his secret passion for ping-pong. “I was 12 or 13 and I was very good. But I had to choose soccer or ping-pong and I decided on soccer, because it is a team sport,” he says. “I always thought the joy of winning with others was much bigger than any individual joy. Even when I speak about Osteria Francescana I use ‘we’ and not ‘I’, because it’s all about the team.”
Bottura was born and raised in Modena, a northern Italian city that is well known for its rich gastronomic traditions. He was surrounded by women and inspired by his grandmother’s cooking. And his mother’s, too. His father wanted him to be a lawyer until his mother convinced him to let a young Massimo do what he wanted. “I think I pushed myself to show my father that my mum was right and he was wrong,” he says.
Bottura opened his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, on the outskirts of Modena in 1986. Along the way he served an apprenticeship with French chef, Georges Coigny, and went to work with the acclaimed Alain Ducasse at Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo. “The most important thing I learned from him was organisation and an obsession with quality,” he says.
When he opened Osteria Francescana in 1995, Bottura combined his knack for culinary innovation with his love of contemporary art. He credits his American wife, Lara Gilmore, with transforming his perceptions of art.
“I have always had a passion for art, music and food since I was a kid. Lara taught me how to look at contemporary paintings and artistic expression. She was the one who really opened my mind.”
Bottura eagerly jumps out of his chair to show off the stunning works by Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan and Michelangelo Pistoletto that line the walls of his restaurant. Yet it is his unique interpretation of cuisine that made him an international name with dishes like ‘The Crunchy part of the Lasagne’ or ‘Oops! I dropped the lemon tart!’ And he loves the reaction they provoke. One of his most precious possessions is a book created by 10-year-old Sydney schoolkids who presented him with drawings of their interpretation of the dish when he spoke at the Opera House.
“Osteria Francescana is a laboratory of ideas. It is where we create culture. Every single dish has a meaning, a story behind it. We don’t just
cook to cook good food. We cook to transfer emotion. That’s what makes the difference.”
The accolades speak for themselves. Bottura received his first Michelin star in 2002 and a second followed in 2006. He received the Grand Prix de l’Art from the International Culinary Academy in Paris in 2011 before gaining his third Michelin star.
“The secret of our success is waking up in the morning and going to bed at night and doing what we have chosen to do,” he says. “We have people who come from all over the world to share this experience. For us it is a dream.”
Bottura has a second restaurant in Modena and will soon open an exclusive country inn outside the city. He also produces cookbooks and has his own product line of award-winning balsamic vinegars and olive oils, Villa Manodori.
In an exciting development he recently collaborated with Italian fashion house Gucci and its creative director, Alessandro Michele, to launch Gucci Garden, a delightfully quirky restaurant in the heart of Florence.
“Michele has the same philosophy as we have,” says
Bottura. “We look at the past in a critical way to bring the best from the past into the future. But we are not nostalgic.”
Located inside a 14th-century palazzo that includes a
Gucci store and museum, the whimsical restaurant is decorated in a vibrant shade of green, lined with green velvet sofas and has a leafy pattern painted across the floor.
Inspired by his international travels, Bottura uses traditional Tuscan ingredients like Cinta Senese pork and Chianina beef in an unconventional menu that includes a pork belly bun, hamburgers and hotdogs. “The idea is saying: ‘Come around the world with me.’ All the tourists come to Florence and I take them into the world using Tuscan products.”
But Bottura’s greatest passion is expressed through Food for Soul, the non-profit organisation he and his wife created to fight food wastage and social isolation. The concept evolved from a community kitchen he created at the 2015 Milan Expo to feed the poor. Now there are branches in London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, with more on the way. He has even shared his vision with Barack Obama at the United Nations in New York. “Can you believe that chef can do that?” he says.
Bottura is convinced that chefs can make a difference and have an obligation to contribute to sustainability. “The most important ingredient for the chef of the future is culture, because culture brings knowledge,” he says. “Knowledge helps you to open your consciousness and the step is very short from consciousness to a sense of responsibility. That’s why we created our project.”
As eager clients wait outside for the doors to open, Bottura puts on his crisp white chef’s jacket and heads to the kitchen. “When I am in Modena I am here every day, I don’t miss one service. I go out and say thank you to everybody. It is so easy to please them, because they are so open to understanding. It’s amazing.”
Opposite: Massimo Bottura at home in Modena. Artworks hang all over his house and include works by George Condo, Sandro Chia and Maurizio Cattelan. Opposite, centre: in front of an artwork on the ground floor of his home, wearing a custom Gucci chef’s jacket. This page, far left: Bottura in his music room with his extensive record collection, cutting the spindle on a rare Bob Dylan record with a kitchen knife. Centre: the chef in the kitchen with the family dog, Mezzaluna. Above: the music room.