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“There are very few restaurants where you can eat emotions”

Best and Beyond: Osteria Francescana’s Massimo Bottura

This time we follow world-renowned chef Massimo Bottura, whose famous restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy made it to the top of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list last year.

Five of the world’s best chefs are bouncing up and down on a king-size bed like children, swinging fluffy white pillows back and forth in a playful bid to knock each other down. It’s hard to believe that, just a few minutes earlier, the quintet of game-changing cooks stood stiffly in the same hotel bedroom, wondering what to make of the French photographer’s unconventional photo shoot request. But if there’s anyone who can coax a group of grown men into a pillow fight, it’s Massimo Bottura.

The Italian chef, known throughout the restaurant industry for his boundless energy and limitless imagination, is certainly the most hyperactive of the five super-chefs gathered in Barcelona to celebrate the 15th Anniversary of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, presented by Miele. The group includes René Redzepi, Daniel Humm and Joan Roca, but Bottura is the only one who can persuade Ferran Adrià – the legendary 55-year-old cook who is now more frequently found with his head buried in books in his research lab than in the kitchen – to take off his shoes and start jumping on the bedsprings.

Bottura may be light-footed but he’s a heavyweight in the world of gastronomy. With a career spanning over three decades, his restaurant Osteria Francescana in Italy was voted The World’s Best Restaurant last year – an achievement that elicits both pride and gratitude. “Every morning I look in the mirror and I say to myself: you’re so lucky. You’re living such a great life and you have to keep going like that and say thank you every day,” he says.

Ceasar Salad in bloom served at Osteria Francescana

The revolution in Italian cuisine

Osteria Francescana, which nestles in the small historic town of Modena in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, has firmly held a place in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the last eight years. Its chef-owner has been guided by a deep-rooted desire to innovate and push forward as many aspects of gastronomy as he can get his hands on. “I’m a contemporary man,” he says. “I always say that in my future, there will always be future. I keep evolving all the time.” And with him, Italian cuisine evolved too.

Emilia-Romagna has a long history deeply intertwined with that of its famous produce: Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma ham and Tradizionale di Modena balsamic vinegar, among others. These classic Italian products have one thing in common: their recipes have been religiously protected and revered for decades.

But Bottura could not be satisfied with the way Italian cuisine treated its staple recipes – glorifying them and refusing to change a thing. “I always look at the past in a critical way, not in a nostalgic one, to bring the best from the past into the future,” is his motto.

Bottura’s work to push forward the limits of Italian cuisine has been influenced by chefs and food from all around the world. A nine-month visit to New York and an internship at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo inspired the young chef to follow his own path. “Alain gave me this strength of belief in myself because he believed in me,” says Bottura. “Even now, when I see someone talented and with the right attitude, I push them to stand on their feet and to find their own mark and style.” In 1995, Osteria Francescana opened on a quiet street in Modena.

Mediterranean sole – Three classic Mediterranean fish preparations al cartoccio, sotto sale and alla mugnaia combine in one singular recipe. Served at Osteria Francescana.

Art, culture and eating emotions

Eating at Osteria Francescana provides more than a glimpse into Bottura’s soul. En route to the dining room, guests walk through a space punctuated by striking pieces of art, from a lemon light bulb to a large disc hanging from the wall that looks like it is crumbling away.

Bottura’s American-born wife and collaborator, the stylish and vibrant Lara Gilmore, is not only the calming foil to his creative storm, but has also been a key artistic influence on the chef.  As a result, Osteria Francescana is full of contemporary art and Bottura’s favourite records accompany the dining experience. Art is a form of inspiration that spreads into his recipes too.

Dishes are non-conformist but infectious, designed to trigger feelings and sensations, spreading far beyond the borders of Italy and its culinary mores. Maybe what makes the restaurant – and the chef himself – unique is this simple: he is all about emotions. Every dish has a story attached to it, unravelling over the course of several bites, or it may be intended to trigger a specific feeling, a moment or a memory. “There are thousands and thousands of restaurants where you can eat incredible food, but very few restaurants where you can go and eat emotions,” says Bottura.

In 2000, Bottura was invited to work in the kitchen of El Bulli in Roses, Spain, with Ferran Adrià. “Everybody looked at Ferran as the master of technique. To me, the most important focus of what he did is freedom. He gave us freedom to express ourselves in any way.”

Thus, the classic Italian lasagne turns in Bottura’s hands into the futuristic The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne, with triangle-shaped pasta sheets (inspired by a Ferrari’s air jets) accompanied by layers of béchamel and meat ragù. Diners are invited to break the crunchy, homemade pasta triangles with their hands and use them to scoop up the sauces; much like a mischievous Massimo would try to do as a kid when his mother wasn’t looking. .

His recipes are firmly based on tradition, but they strive to push that tradition into the future with their innovative taste, provocative presentation, and emotional and cultural meanings. “The most important ingredient for the chef of the future is culture. Once you have culture, you can express yourself very well.”

Pumpkin from Mantova to Ragusa:
On a journey from north to south, this pumpkin transforms from sweet Mantovan ravioli into a savoury Sicilian cannoli served at Osteria Francescana.

The dream of ending food waste

For many years, Bottura waged a silent but relentless war with the Italian media, who didn’t seem ready to welcome his somewhat radical approach. Nevertheless, the effervescent chef kept on innovating with the creation of now-highly-acclaimed dishes such as Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano and Bollito not Boiled, a version of a traditional boiled meat dish where the different cuts are cooked sous-vide and assembled to represent the New York skyline.

When it finally arrived, fame brought out the activist in Bottura. He is involved with national food policy in Italy and, since 2016, he has been working with his non-profit organisation Food for Soul on various projects aimed at reducing food waste, including a series of refettorios (soup kitchens) to feed the homeless and needy. He is always animated and passionate, in typical Italian fashion, but a special commitment transpires when he is talking about his community projects. It’s clear that this is the new challenge he is taking on in his constant search for progress and improvement. “I believe that at this level, we have a big responsibility to show the young generation the right approach for the future,” he says.

Read the full version of this interview on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants website.

--Images Article: © Osteria Francescana / Header Image: © Paolo Terzi