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.

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