Michelin Starred chef Massimo Bottura is a modern food hero in every sense, here we discover a little about his deep-rooted, culinary journey.
Italy’s culinary culture has nurtured literally hundreds of notable chefs and this fertile epicurean homeland continues to produce inspiring and creative food innovators by the score.
Many Italian cooks and food producers passionately champion the key messages of seasonality, quality and simplicity. Selecting the finest ingredients and treating these with intuition and creativity can lead to genuine alchemy in the kitchen. This elemental approach to food has led Modena based Michelin starred chef Massimo Bottura to win acclaim on an international level. His understanding of and connection to his ingredients, has driven him to achieve the perfect fusion between food, beauty and humanity. Bottura’s approach to cooking reflects his up-beat approach to life, “Live your life as a dream, if you can dream it, you can make it”.
Bottura’s personal culinary journey started in his home town of Modena in the province of Emilia-Romagna. Here, he first learned the staples of home cooking under the table in his grandmother Ancella’s kitchen. He discovered all about Italy’s different seasons, the importance of regionality and the secret to making extraordinary meals from very ordinary ingredients.
I grew up under the kitchen table at my grandmother’s knees. That is where appetite begins for me, stealing raw tortellini and hiding from my brother.
His professional career started in1986 when he established his first restaurant, the Trattoria del Campazzo on the outskirts of Modena. Here he worked with ‘rezdora’ Lidia Cristoni who shared the art of authentic pasta-making, where humility and simplicity form the essence of this ancient craft. This period in Bottura’s life was not without challenges and the restaurant struggled at times. He says, “If you learn from your mistakes you’re going to be grounded and have an incredible experience all at the same time”.
His positive spirit and determination saw him through and led to another chapter where he enjoyed valuable time working alongside innovative and skilled chefs, developing and exploring his own unique approach. Serving an apprenticeship with French chef Georges Coigny he steadily built a solid culinary foundation, carefully blending regional Italian cooking with the classic techniques of formal, French training. In 1994 Massimo took the decision to further broaden and refine his approach to cooking, moving to Montecarlo to work with Alain Ducasse at Louis XV. Following this period of culinary consolidation and rediscovery, he returned to Modena and opened the now famous, Osteria Francescana. Of course, Massimo’s culinary journey is never-ending and in 2000 he also spent time with Ferran Adria at the experimental restaurant El Bulli in Spain.
After years of travelling, seeking and experimenting he says, “The biggest challenge after years of working in the kitchen is to be able to keep a small window open for poetry… poetry of the everyday. Inspiration comes from the world around me – from art, music, slow food and fast cars. Catch the flash in the dark because it only passes once. Expect the unexpected.”
We are not feeding empty bellies in Osteria Francescana but feeding the eager mind.
Osteria Francescana seamlessly melds contemporary art and fine food, here, wild and witty dishes capture the essence of the region where ingredients are harvested from the plains surrounding the River Po. Organic agricultural farms and traditional food producers supply the finest ingredients for Bottura’s bold menus. His plates are works of art that feed the body and nourish the soul. His playful adaptations of classic dishes bring a smile to diners who feast on fairytale dishes such as ‘An Eel Swimming Up The River Po’ and ‘In The Countryside’, a homage to local, simple ingredients such as snails, hare and herbs. Massimo explains, “We are not feeding empty bellies in Osteria Francescana but feeding the eager mind”.
With three decades of culinary wisdom under his belt, Massimo Bottura is recognised globally as a visionary, artist and alchemist. His most recent projects have further pushed the boundaries by addressing the rather uncomfortable yet very real issue of food waste.
Recently, he has been evaluating the role of the contemporary chef, calling for a higher level of social responsibility among the culinary industry. The most pressing topic being that of restaurant food waste. During the International Fair Expo in 2015, he created an off-site project called the Refettorio Ambrosiano to address the problem of hunger. During the event over 60 chefs from around the globe joined forces to cook good food for the homeless and needy. Following the success of this ground-breaking project, Massimo founded the non-profit association Food for Soul. Since the opening of the first Refectory he has since opened others in Rio, Modena, Bologna and London.
He has published two books Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef , which documents the past 20 years of his cooking at Osteria Francescana. His second book was launched in 2017 and celebrates the simple yet, life-changing action of making extraordinary meals from ordinary ingredients. Bread is Gold is the first book to take a holistic look at the subject of food waste, presenting recipes for three-course meals from 45 of the world’s top chefs, including Daniel Humm, Mario Batali, René Redzepi, Alain Ducasse, Joan Roca, Enrique Olvera, Ferran & Albert Adrià and Virgilio Martínez. Massimo puts it quite simply, “These dishes could change the way we feed the world, because they can be cooked by anyone, anywhere, on any budget. To feed the planet, first you have to fight the waste.”
Bottura’s cooking ethic walks a sophisticated line between tradition and contemporary innovation. His dishes explore the deep roots of the Italian kitchen while making references to history, art and philosophy. Year on year, his work is credited with accolades and awards, not least his third Michelin star for Osteria Francescana. With such an abundance of fresh ideas and his never-ending vitality, it’s no surprise that Bottura’s second restaurant, Franceschetta58, is also such a success. A light, elegant Osteria just a short walk from the centre of Modena, it offers a relaxed experience in a contemporary setting where local and seasonal ingredients take centre stage, the perfect gathering place for friends. “If you live an incredible moment of happiness, that happiness is much, much more deep and big if you share it with others.”
In 2018 saw Bottura’s food empire broaden further with the opening of Osteria Gucci located within the glorious Gucci Garden at Palazzo della Mercanzia in Florence. Osteria Gucci offers “an entirely new menu” influenced by Bottura’s travels. “Traveling the world, our kitchen interacts with everything we see, hear and taste,” the chef says, “With eyes wide open, we look for the unexpected and next éclat.”
The 50-seat restaurant includes classic Italian dishes such as Parmigiano Reggiano tortellini and mushroom risotto, but also Peruvian-inspired tostadas and pork belly rolls, all for around 20-30 euros per item. “The restaurant is a reminder that Florence has always been a centre of cultural exchange, particularly during the Renaissance,” Bottura says.
A veritable modern food hero, Massimo is the true voice of change in the global restaurant industry. His passion and creativity are inspiring, as is his simple yet clear message: ‘Feed the body and nourish the soul”.
Not everyone can be a truffle. Most of us are potatoes. And a potato is a very good thing to be.