Turning surplus food into soulful recipes
The chef Massimo Bottura talks about his battle against waste, the product of a world that no longer recognises quality, restraint and beauty
What becomes of the rule when it becomes confused with life? And what is life if every gesture, word or silence coincides with the rule? These thoughts rush into my mind while preparing to meet Massimo Bottura, who was voted the world’s number one chef some weeks ago, and not for the first time. My thoughts are prompted by The Highest Poverty, a little gem of a book about Western monasticism. It was written by Giorgio Agamben, one of the most original authors of our time, in response to the concerns of a globalised world that is dominated by financial capital. Ranging from Pachomius to St. Francis, Agamben is a virtuoso of theory, much as Bottura is a maestro of the simplest and most natural gesture: preparing food. From Osteria Francescana (the “Franciscan Tavern”) to Refettorio (the “Refectory”), Bottura has created places for dining – better than anywhere else, according to the 1,040 experts on the jury – but above all experiences of social life, in which monastic inspiration tussles with its antithesis of luxury. Perhaps the story of this 55-yearold from Modena, a star of the global jet-set, and his food is wholly inscribed in this dichotomy: simplicity and surfeit, abstraction and the flesh, austerity and faith in the imagination. It is the eternal enigma between rule and life that Massimo Bottura is trying to resolve with an exercise of dexterity. Starting by being a star who dresses, talks and lives like a true anti-star. Walter Mariotti Wherever you go, the vocation of a monk appears. From the names – Osteria Francescana, the Refettorio – to the schemes to recover waste food at Milan Expo and Il Tortellante, a school of food education for disabled children. Massimo Bottura Thank you, but let’s not exaggerate. I cook. WM You’re an exceptional marketing man, then. MB No, not that either (laughs). WM Who is Massimo Bottura? MB Someone who thinks about food as the key to resolving dichotomies. WM Which ones? MB Poverty and wealth, to start with. And then ethics and aesthetics. WM So you’re a philosopher. In actual fact, some people do say that chefs are the maîtres à penser of our time. MB No, cooks are cooks, believe me. WM What does cooking mean to you? MB I believe contemporary cuisine only makes sense if it has a close relationship with artisans, farmers and market gardeners. In other words, what goes onto the plate must be directly related to the supply chain of value and quality. WM That sounds like a slogan. MB No, it’s substance, because behind it there’s a concept of value, a battle for authenticity and against waste. Waste is the product of a world that can no longer recognise quality, restraint and beauty. And the loss of restraint is also a loss of sense. It’s the absence of a rule, to quote monasticism. WM Is that why you called one of your restaurants the Refettorio? MB Yes, but it’s not a restaurant. It’s a cultural project, a non-profit association that helps communities counter social isolation by recreating a sense of dignity around the dining table, while promoting values of art and beauty, solidarity and ways of saving food, space and people. WM Food for the soul. MB Food is always for the soul. Apart from contributing tons of food recovered for people who need it, we develop the value of ideas that allow chefs to turn surplus food into good, healthy, soulful recipes. We also raise the value of hospitality at food kitchens by serving at the tables, recognising people, talking to them, restoring their dignity. And finally we enhance beauty by creating comfortable settings with proper lighting, wooden tables, comfortable chairs, cutlery and china. WM But you’ve changed your habits, too, after growing up in a wealthy family. MB Not really. I grew up in a family that could be called well-off, but let’s try and understand what that means. My mother was a teacher and my grandfather had a cheese factory. My father had a small business. First he dealt in coal and timber, then oil and kerosene. On 8th December each year, we used to slaughter a pig, which we’d raised on our own land. But nothing was ever wasted because my parents taught us that the animal gave its life for us to live. So every single part had to be celebrated and respected. Otherwise it would have been sacrilege. WM Isn’t this the culture of Italy’s provinces? MB It was our culture, all over Italy, but then it was lost. WM When? MB In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, when our mothers and grandmothers
stopped forbidding us to leave the table until the meal was over. In those years people thought poverty was finally a thing of the past. But it was also when a healthy lifestyle was l ost, with readymade meals and snacks appearing in kitchens. WM At high school one of your classmates was Marco Bizzarri, CEO of Gucci. MB “You two will never get anywhere in life,” a teacher told us. WM Was that the far-sightedness of schools at the time? MB The schools were excellent. It was just that our teacher took herself too seriously. WM You did a project with Gucci in Florence. MB One day Marco came to see me with Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director. “You two ought to do something together because you’re just like each other,” he told us. WM Was he right? MB Totally. I do in the kitchen what Michele does in fashion. I look to the past for the sake of the future. WM The nostalgia trap. MB Not at all. I overcome nostalgia by salvaging feelings and updating tradition, which is eternal and so always relevant. I serve Chianina beef as a hot dog and Cinta Senese pork in an Oriental style. WM But you love Italian products, too, which often define luxury. That’s the opposite of simplicity. MB My earliest experience of the kind of luxury you’re talking about was when my father bought his first Mercedes, back in 1974. Later he got a Maserati. My mother was angry: “We’ve got five children!” she yelled. “What’s got into you?” WM And what did he say? MB He said that Maserati was the dream of Modena and you can only change reality by living the dream. Because the dream is the ideal that pushes you to do better. WM But when you told him your dream was to be a cook, he didn’t talk to you for two years. MB He was old-fashioned. He was very severe, like the characters in Ermanno Olmi’s film The Tree of Wooden Clogs. But then he understood, and we ended up being the best of allies. WM Let’s go back to luxury. How do you reconcile it with the essence? MB I’ve been travelling the world for years explaining the essence of my cuisine. And I only understood the “Italian System” when I started travelling. Gucci, Maserati, Ferrari, just to mention three names. This is Italy, the excellence of craftsmanship that becomes essence, style and value. But it’s not just in Italy. At present I’m working with Grundig, which I see as the historical memory of radio, but today it’s rethinking its relationship with the home, with the Internet of things. With Grundig I’m imagining a new use of the kitchen that values the essence of our time. WM How is that going? MB It’s going very well, because Grundig brings together very high quality, essential style and values – everything that means luxury as I see it. How’s that for an explanation?