Michelin chef Massimo Bottura reinvents Italian food
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Massimo Bottura is committing culinary sacrilege. Preparing fusilli al pesto in his surprisingly small kitchen in Modena, northern Italy, he adds mint, then parsley to the basil. Compounding the affront, he replaces pine nuts, a touchstone of pesto, with breadcrumbs. Millennia of Italian chefs must be spinning in their graves.
Because of his bastardisation of traditional mainstays, Bottura has sometimes been considered a kind of traitor by chefs from his home country, until his three Michelin stars that is. Now one of the world’s most lauded chefs, Bottura saw his restaurant Osteria Francescana, in Modena, lead The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016. It has been in the top three for five years. Whimsical names and concepts are its forte. “I make edible photographs,” Bottura explains. “Oops, I dropped the lemon tart”, created from a pastry chef’s blunder, was reinvented as a “deconstructed” dessert and is the restaurant’s best-known dish.
His home of 10 years is a 1957 Modernist palazzo, built by the architect of 50 cinemas. Inside, Art Nouveau features such as carved wooden doors, rare marble floors and stucco zodiac signs on the ceiling are the backdrop to a showroom of contemporary art, with an A-Z of sculptural chairs. Heraldic tiles in the kitchen resembling wallpaper are a nod to the former owner’s décor.
I hang around the stove accepting scraps of Parma ham, sliced by Bottura from an industrial meat-cutter, and chatting to his American wife Lara Gilmore. As the fusilli drains, Bottura calls for quiet. “Pasta is a serious business.” A religious silence ensues, amid furious stirring. “There is not enough creaminess,” he exclaims.
I almost refuse the pasta, as it’s meant for his son Charlie, but mainly because it’s approaching lunchtime, when I incorrectly assume we’ll be eating at Francescana. But there’s abundant quantities so I accept a half-portion, served in geometric Gio Ponti for Richard Ginori bowls, which turns out to be a prescient decision.
We eat around a square stone table talking about food, like all righteous Italian families. The irreverent pesto recipe was born in Milan in 2015 when Bottura set up the first of his community kitchens, Refettorio Ambrosiano, which serves meals to the vulnerable with surplus food donated by supermarkets.
There was not enough basil, and no pine nuts, so they made do. This version is an improvement, he maintains. Pine nuts are too heavy and oily and the sauce is too granular. “So for me it didn’t make sense. Why do I have to do it that way because they have done it like that for a thousand years?”
After Francescana’s “extraordinary success”, Bottura was looking for a new challenge, when the 2015 Expo organisers in Milan invited him to create a project on their theme, Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. He began to research food waste and was struck by the statistics, he says. “There are 860m needy people, and 1.6bn tonnes of food or 33 per cent of production wasted every day. That is shocking, that is shameful, so I said ‘we have to do something’ ”.
Taking over a theatre in Greco, a disadvantaged suburb of Milan, Bottura asked artists including Mimmo Paladino to create a beautiful space. Each day a truck collects surplus food from the markets and chefs improvise to create a nutritious, ever-changing menu. Volunteers wait on the diners. “We are not a soup kitchen to serve some basic meal to survive, we are here to rebuild dignity,” says Bottura. It’s a permanent community resource, “not a pop-up”, he emphasises.
Osteria Francescana does produce leftover cuts, because of the precision of the preparation, he explains, but everything is reused, often in staff meals. “It might be perfect, just not the part that we are going to serve. But to me it’s not waste, it’s just ordinary ingredients”. It’s up to influential chefs to teach others, says Bottura. “We need to make visible the invisible for everyone.”
His foundation, Food for Soul, has set up more community kitchens in Rio de Janeiro, Toronto and in London’s Earl’s Court. It hasn’t taken the homeless of London long to become used to the new standards. “They have all become food critics. After two weeks they were complaining,” he laughs. A new cookbook, Bread is Gold, details the recipes.
Bottura is quite hectic to be around. He breaks off mid-interview to shout to his interior designer, Catia, a friend, who seems to spend a lot of time here. “Sorry I had an idea . . . ” Is it alright to move a sculpture of a burned-out petrol pump outdoors as it needs more space, he wants to know. The sculpture is symbolic for Bottura, representing his decision to be a chef, rather than work in his father’s oil company. “This is a metaphor; I burned my past.”
His distraction is understandable: there’s a lot going on, domestically. Gilmore has a fever, their daughter Alexa is home from university in DC, with a friend who breaks her foot during my visit. The doctor has to be called. Charlie loses his house keys while walking the dog. Charlie, who is 16 and has a genetic disorder, was the inspiration for a new scheme pairing young people with special needs with local nonnas, or grandmothers, to learn to make Emilia Romagna’s tortellini pasta by hand.
Bottura explains: “We thought, what can these children do after high school? There is nothing for them. These older ladies are the mothers of busy daughters who don’t have time to make pasta by hand. But there is a huge demand for tortellini; last Christmas we ran out.”
Bottura and Gilmore met in New York in 1993 when she was living opposite Tompkins Square Park. A cement copy of a 1930 Brutalist water fountain from the park was bought from an exhibition in New York named, “Oops, I dropped the Lemon Tart”, inspired by Bottura’s very dish. “We bought it because of the connection to the park and our story,” says Gilmore.
By chance they both walked into Caffè di Nonna in Soho and asked for jobs on the same day. Gilmore was working part-time as a curator and the pair share an art and design obsession. A painting by Gilmore in the hallway, with small Cézanne-style brush strokes, shows “Max”, as she calls Bottura, reading in a deckchair. The couple took a break when Bottura went to work for French chef Alain Ducasse. But within a year he decided to buy Osteria Francescana and wanted Gilmore by his side. A Hollywood film producer wants to make a film about their story apparently. Her role “is to go behind Massimo”, Gilmore tells me. Others have credited her as the force behind the restaurant’s success.
Bottura is wearing hipster Persol glasses, a Gucci T-shirt and trainers and what look like Gucci jeans as well. Given Francescana only has 28 covers, one supposes he earns more from lucrative brand tie-ups than the restaurant itself. “I’m not interested in money, I just use it to pay the bills at the end of the month,” says Bottura. But it’s not hard to see where any earnings might be focused. A Tracey Emin light installation, “Those who Suffer Love” is at the entrance, and they have two Ai Weiwei’s. Downstairs, in the former garage, now “the kids’ kingdom”, builders cut a hole in the ceiling for a three-metre-high Ugo Rondinone target.
A collage of photographs of a rubbish dump in Rio de Janeiro is reformed by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz into a classical portrait. “This is exactly what I do with the refectory,” says Bottura. “Instead of garbage becoming garbage it becomes a work of art.” There are light-hearted pieces too, such as two stuffed pigeons by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, balancing on a chandelier of lightbulbs and in the garden, an installation of ice cream cones velcroed to the wall.
A collection of letters hanging from wires illuminates “Massimo’s room”, a man-cave with a wall-to-wall record collection, purchased in its entirety recently, and several turntables including a futuristic David Gammon of the model used in the film A Clockwork Orange. Bottura keeps hopping up to change the record. “I try to compress into edible bites my passions: Billie Holiday, Dylan or Damien Hirst,” he says.
Risotto Camouflage, made with squid, chlorophyll, mushroom and truffle-flavoured rice, is about the landscape of Emilia Romagna: sea, flat land and hills, but it’s also an ode to Andy Warhol’s “Camouflage” works. Does he have a dish about Billie Holiday? “Autumn in New York”, a broth prepared with mushrooms, truffles and spices. There’s little room in the house for new purchases. But the couple have now bought a villa outside Modena which they hope to turn into a B&B, with a “Soho Farmhouse feel”. As lunchtime arrives Bottura heads to the restaurant. A guest from China is planning to propose.
I still don’t know when I’ll get to Francescana — I am told that bookings for November sold out in 30 seconds. Meanwhile, in Milan homeless people “are fighting over the membership cards for the Refettorio”. But I can at least vouch for the creaminess of the fusilli al pesto.
After a few false starts, Bottura settles on a work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a glass urn containing crushed 2,000-year-old terracotta urns. “Sometimes you have to break things to move forwards”. The pulverised terracotta symbolises the ashes of the artist’s ancestors, Bottura says. “It’s brilliant I think. You have to look at your past and have it always beside you. Everything that has happened to me, my story, when I told you I recreate my passions in edible form, that’s centuries of history filtered through a contemporary brain. That’s the metaphor of me.”
Photographs: Filippo Bardazzi/SooS Chronicles