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

Domus - - ON THE COUCH - Pre­sented by Wal­ter Mar­i­otti

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?

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