Bon Vi­vant

Italian mega-chef Mas­simo Bot­tura is back on top of the world and ready to prove why cook­ing is truly an act of love

T. Dining by Singapore Tatler - - Content -

Mas­simo Bot­tura, the man be­hind the World’s Best Restau­rant, Os­te­ria Frances­cana, tells us why cook­ing is an act of love

To say that the best din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences are no longer about good food alone may sound like a gra­tu­itously nar­cis­sis­tic plat­i­tude—and for the most part, it is. But when one of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial chefs tells you he doesn’t cook to cre­ate good food, but good ideas, one can’t help but pause to re­vise one’s ini­tial re­ac­tion.

One would also have to con­sider the cal­i­bre of the source—in this case, the culi­nary ar­ti­san that is Mas­simo Bot­tura, chef-pa­tron of Os­te­ria Frances­cana in Mo­dena, Italy, which was crowned this year’s World’s Best Restau­rant af­ter first top­ping the lauded list in 2016. Granted, Bot­tura has gar­nered both praise and crit­i­cism since open­ing his restau­rant in 1994 in the town he grew up in, mostly for his wildly imag­i­na­tive rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Italian cui­sine, which has caused some to de­scribe his cui­sine style as “ex­treme”.

And yet it only takes a step back to con­sider the likes of Spain’s Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, Brazil’s Alex Atala of D.O.M, and Den­mark’s René Redzepi, the chef and co-owner of the iconic restau­rant Noma—among many oth­ers—to ap­pre­ci­ate the vir­tu­os­ity be­hind Bot­tura’s vi­sion of mod­ern Italian gas­tron­omy.

“So you travel from all over the world to eat this kind of food that is to­tally dif­fer­ent from just good food,” says Bot­tura as we catch up dur­ing his re­cent visit to Sin­ga­pore at the in­vi­ta­tion of Amer­i­can Ex­press to mark the re­launch of its Plat­inum Card, which re­wards mem­bers with one-off din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences like this one with the Italian master chef. “Of course it’s amaz­ing food; it has three Miche­lin stars. But more than that, it’s about eat­ing great ideas,” he posits. For those who have had the op­por­tu­nity to dine at Frances­cana, the dishes are un­doubt­edly con­tem­po­rary, even play­ful, yet a lit­tle nos­tal­gic. The cui­sine isn’t Italian fare as many of us know it, but it’s still re­lat­able. His fa­mously en­dear­ing The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna, for ex­am­ple, is a de­con­structed ode

to his favourite child­hood dish, fea­tur­ing his favourite bits.

“Peo­ple are trav­el­ling [to Frances­cana] to eat emo­tions,” ex­plains the charis­matic 56-year-old chef. “They don’t need to eat a big pan of lasagna [like the ones] their grand­moth­ers would bring to the ta­ble, as it was done 100 years ago. They just need to eat as the kids eat, steal­ing the crunchy parts—that’s the emo­tional part, the crunchy part on top of the lasagne.” He adds that when lasagne is pre­pared for the staff meal, he still rushes to steal the crunchy bits.

“They don’t keep it aside for me—i have to go for it!”

That is, of course, if Bot­tura has the time. The top chef has a num­ber of projects on the side and a few more in the pipe­line; in Oc­to­ber, he opened Torno Su­bito (which means “I’ll be back soon”) on the beach in Dubai, and might even open a bed and break­fast. But the projects he’s cur­rently pri­ori­tis­ing in­volve a dif­fer­ent personal am­bi­tion. “Once you ar­rive up there, it’s im­por­tant to give back,” he says. “There are peo­ple in­ter­ested in money and build­ing em­pires, and there are other peo­ple who are more in­ter­ested in help­ing oth­ers.”

The Il Tortellini project in Mo­dena, from ex­am­ple, was launched as a means of teach­ing spe­cial-needs chil­dren life skills, taught by ac­tual “rez­dores”—housewives and grand­moth­ers who tra­di­tion­ally hand­make their pasta ahead of the feast days.

“Of course, it’s about Char­lie—and my son al­ways keeps me grounded with his ge­netic is­sues—but it’s also about keep­ing tra­di­tions alive,” ex­plains Bot­tura.

Most no­tably, Bot­tura is se­ri­ously pas­sion­ate about grow­ing his refet­to­rio—or Food For Soul—soup kitchen ini­tia­tive, which was launched in Mi­lan in 2015, and through which sur­plus food is re­cy­cled to make meals for the poor and de­feated. To open a refet­to­rio ev­ery day in ev­ery place in the world that needs one is a dream of the chef’s; cur­rently, it’s opened in Brazil, Mo­dena, Bologna, Lon­don, Paris and soon, in Naples. He’s also look­ing to launch a refet­to­rio in Mérida in the Mex­i­can state of Yu­catán.

“It would be very im­por­tant to open in the United States—like in San Fran­cisco, Den­ver, Detroit and New York,” says Bot­tura, re­it­er­at­ing the fact that the de­ci­sion is de­ter­mined by the peo­ple in the place they want to open. “It’s ex­tremely im­por­tant to have peo­ple who un­der­stand the project and can re­ally help us in the daily op­er­a­tion; it’s all about cre­at­ing a com­mu­nity.”

Here, Bot­tura tells us more about the pas­sions that drive him:

You speak of pre­serv­ing tra­di­tion, yet what you do at Frances­cana is very mod­ern.

Be­cause I be­lieve in beauty! I be­lieve in cul­ture, and cul­ture brings knowl­edge. And knowl­edge brings con­science, and con­science a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. And so the cul­ture of beauty can change the world. When you break things, like I did with my tra­di­tion and my past, you have to re­build; that’s the most dif­fi­cult thing.

What about those who aren’t fa­mil­iar with Italian food and your ref­er­ences?

Ac­tu­ally, I have to say that the peo­ple who travel from all over the world to eat at Os­te­ria Frances­cana know more [about Italian food] than some Ital­ians.

What does this tell you about your food?

When I say that Os­te­ria Frances­cana is a lab­o­ra­tory of ideas, and we feed emo­tions and we feed cul­ture, this is ex­actly what it is.

How does it stay rel­e­vant?

Like the great artist Ai Wei­wei was ex­plain­ing to me, to break a 2,000-year-old vase is to break tra­di­tion, but break­ing it is just a start­ing point, start­ing a new tra­di­tion. It’s not about for­get­ting our past. Look­ing at a coun­try’s past in a crit­i­cal and not a nos­tal­gic way is key to build­ing its fu­ture.

What’s a dish that best de­scribes this point?

I think Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart is re­build­ing, in a per­fect way, im­per­fec­tion. Even the five dif­fer­ent ages of Parmi­giano Reg­giano, in five dif­fer­ent tex­tures and tem­per­a­ture… and the dish Bol­lito Not Boiled—boiled meat that’s not boiled. A new dish we have now is called Wagyu

Not Wagyu—we’re re­build­ing this pop­u­lar meat, its qual­ity of fat­ti­ness and mus­cles... In the end, we re­built wagyu with fake wagyu—mean­ing we cook the pork belly and heart sep­a­rately. And then we slice both very thinly. Then we com­press these in a vac­uum pack for a cou­ple of weeks, so that they be­come stuck to­gether. Then we slice it very thinly onto a plate and serve it with a ponzu sauce made with burnt onions—and we serve it as a dessert. The point is very sim­ple: I’m serv­ing, for a cost of 15 cents per dish, a qual­ity of ideas that cost 1,000 eu­ros. This idea is so strong and il­lu­mi­nat­ing. If you work hard, if you have the right tech­nique, if you have the right cul­ture and you have knowl­edge, one day you can be wagyu beef. It has the same

mean­ing as The Potato That Wants to be a Truf­fle dish.

Is Os­te­ria Frances­cana a restau­rant or a lab­o­ra­tory?

Ac­tu­ally, it’s a restau­rant, be­cause at the end of the day, we have to re­store the soul of the peo­ple that have trav­elled from all over the world. But it’s a very un­usual restau­rant, which ex­presses my mind as three pas­sions. One is food, one is art and the other is mu­sic.

Given your as­so­ci­a­tion with the finest things in life, why is giv­ing to the less for­tu­nate so im­por­tant to you?

I don’t re­ally care about the money. When I re­built the restau­rant in 2012, I re­built it with only 12 ta­bles. And ev­ery first of the month, there are 20,000 peo­ple try­ing to get a ta­ble at Os­te­ria Frances­cana. The choices I make [to part­ner with Gucci and Maserati] are all about qual­ity. It’s Italian, it’s qual­ity and it’s about friend­ship. Gucci’s CEO has been my friend since we were 14 years old; we shared the same desk in high school for five years. And Maserati is part of the Mo­de­nese com­mu­nity. Both are ob­sessed with qual­ity. Both are re­build­ing the fu­ture while think­ing about the past in the same way.

Cred­i­bil­ity is ex­tremely im­por­tant in this life. With­out Os­te­ria Frances­cana, I could never do what I did for Food

For Soul—be­cause it is at Os­te­ria Frances­cana that we are im­prov­ing recipes with left­overs and sur­plus in­gre­di­ents. Foun­da­tions like Car­i­tas and Gas­tro­mo­tiva take care of ev­ery­day life and that’s the char­ity part. Our part is cul­tural—it’s about fight­ing food waste through our knowl­edge. But in that project, we in­volve a larger com­mu­nity of cre­ative peo­ple—like ar­chi­tects, artists and de­sign­ers—to cre­ate beau­ti­ful spa­ces to re­build the dig­nity of the peo­ple we help feed.

What about cre­at­ing food that ev­ery­one can af­ford?

That’s a dif­fer­ent thing. That is a re­flec­tion I had when I cre­ated Franceschetta 58 [a ca­sual restau­rant, also in Mo­dena]. You can walk in and have a great meal for 30 to 40 eu­ros. The head chef now is Francesco, who worked at Os­te­ria Frances­cana for eight years. And he’s host­ing the young gen­er­a­tion, even some lo­cals, who are very in­ter­ested in food... He’s also host­ing the older Mo­de­nese who can’t get a ta­ble at Frances­cana. And they spend much less, so they aren’t com­plain­ing about eat­ing very small por­tions and hav­ing to pay a lot of money, [not re­al­is­ing that] there are 60 peo­ple at Frances­cana work­ing for 28 guests.

Has your work on the refet­to­rio changed you as a chef?

No. When I said cook­ing is an act of love and I write it in the books, it is ex­actly that—an act of love. We cook in the same way, with the same pas­sion in a Miche­lin-starred restau­rant, at the refet­to­rio.

What other plans are in the near fu­ture?

Refet­to­rio is a big project be­cause we are ex­pand­ing into North Amer­ica. Even Franceschetta 58 has amaz­ing po­ten­tial ev­ery­where. Gucci Os­te­ria is so suc­cess­ful in Florence that Gucci has al­ready asked if we are open to ex­pand­ing out­side Europe. We are also restoring this amaz­ing prop­erty, an 18th-cen­tury villa in the coun­try in Mo­dena, and that could one day be 12 to 14 rooms full of beauty next to a park that’s 250 years old; maybe it’ll just be for spe­cial events. I don’t know.

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