Meet Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura

One of the world’s most celebrated chefs opens up about the highs and lows of his life, with some flavourful anecdotes.

brunch Updated: Apr 23, 2017 13:36 IST
italian food,indian food,chef
Massimo Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana, has been in the top five in the last few years and earned the top spot in 2016,(Paolo Terzi)

When Massimo Bottura was a child, he would hide under his grandmother’s kitchen table and sneakily eat raw, folded tortellini.

“If I had to eat only one food for the rest of my life, it would be tortellini,” says Bottura, the world’s No. 1 European chef in the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. “My kitchen could never be anything other than Italian because it is in my blood and in my bones.”

It took Osteria Francescana over five years to receive its first Michelin star. (Paolo Terzi)

With food constantly on his mind, it’s no wonder Bottura grew up to be a chef. His Michelin award-winning restaurant, Osteria Francescana, has been in the top five in the last few years and earned the top spot in 2016. On April 5, he lost his number one ranking to New York-based Daniel Humm. But that doesn’t take away any points from this Modena-based chef who’s been creating magic in his kitchen for over two decades.

Bottura credits his success to his mentors and values the years he spent working under many talented chefs from all around Europe.

“My first mentor was George Coigny, a French chef living in Piacenza,” says Bottura. “He taught me how to apply classic French techniques to the ingredients from our local terroir in Emilia-Romagna. Then came Lidia Cristoni, a true Rezdora (a homemaker in local Modena dialect), who taught me everything about traditional cooking and the basics of running a clean and efficient kitchen.” He adds, “My encounter with the one and only Alain Ducasse taught me the value of using locally sourced ingredients and establishing trusting relationships with artisans, farmers, fishmongers and so forth. These lessons at Louis VX, Ducasse’s restaurant, were very valuable to me and contributed towards my decision to open Osteria Francescana. My last mentor was Ferran Adrià. During the summer of 2000, I was able to cook with his incredible team at El Bulli.”

5 tips for budding chefs from Massimo Bottura
  • Read. Travel. Listen to music.
  • Know where you come from. Know who you are.
  • *Be a citizen of the world, not just of the kitchen.
  • *Be humble. Be a team player. Help others.
  • *Be like a tree. Learn to grow slowly.

Building the dream

Ferran Adria taught Bottura not to be afraid of ideas. Bottura vividly remembers the day they opened Osteria Francescana in 1995. That morning, while getting the kitchen ready, he called Lara, his girlfriend who was busy attending to her ill father in New York.

“I asked her to marry me, then and there, on the phone; because I knew what I was starting was going to be my future. She said yes and together we have made Osteria Francescana our dream, our future, and our family,” he smiles.

It took Osteria Francescana over five years to receive its first Michelin star. “Those were the most difficult and agonising years of my life,” says Bottura. “I was determined to bring authenticity and value to a new and more contemporary Italian kitchen. Could I do this and get a Michelin star?”

“We did not want to be a cookie-cutter Michelin restaurant. We wanted to express our Italian identity and our love for contemporary art and design”

Osteria Francescana had contemporary art on the walls, but no fancy curtains or silver trays. “Our style was clean and minimal with personal touches added by my wife and me,” says Bottura. “We did not want to be a cookie-cutter Michelin restaurant. We wanted to express our Italian identity and our love for contemporary art and design. Our first Michelin star was a sign that we were on the right path. The second star (2006) was even more important to our growth as a restaurant and as a team. It meant we had worked hard, but it also meant we had more hard work to do. And when the third Michelin star arrived, I dedicated it to my team, my family and my town, and to the Italian kitchen. To bring that kind of prestige to a small town like Modena was very important.”

Bringing creativity back to the kitchen

Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures; fish soup; the crunchy part of the lasagna and a neel swimming up the Po river. (Paolo Terzi)

Like every other chef, Bottura also finds himself lost in the complacency of a recipe. This reflects in his advice to younger chefs and his focus on bringing creativity back to the kitchen

“The biggest challenge after years of working in the kitchen is to be able to keep a small window open for poetry…the poetry of the everyday,” he explains. “You drop a lemon tart and realise that you’ve found your next recipe. You are listening to a Thelonious Monk album and catch a flash in the dark, and create a dish that is black on black and expresses the darkness in your soul. You are thinking about your childhood and remember eating fish on the Adriatic. That memory leads to a recipe such as Mediterranean Sole in which you combine three classic cooking techniques into one recipe,” Bottura explains.

“My experience with Indian food is very limited...I imagine that every region of India has its specialities, different techniques, spices etc.”

Travelling is another way to keep the creative juices flowing. Bottura has never been to India, but visiting the country is on top of his list, because Italy has very few Indian restaurants, and Modena has none.

“My experience of Indian food is very limited. I have eaten it in New York and in London, and perhaps the best Indian food I ever ate was in the Maldives (cooked by a chef from Sri Lanka), but I am sure none of these experiences compare to eating Indian food in India,” he says.

When he does visit India, it’s bound to be a long trip, because Bottura wants to try everything. “I imagine that each region of India has its specialities, different techniques, traditional recipes, spices, etc,” he grins. But more than anything else, he’s keen to explore traditional spice mixes, passed down via generations of families.

“These traditional recipes need to be preserved,” he says. “Protecting culinary heritage is something I am passionate about. It’s even more important to share this knowledge and let chefs bring those traditional recipes into our contemporary world. Whether we realise it or not, culinary traditions are constantly being broken. What is a traditional recipe after all? Most likely, it is an experiment or an improvisation that was successful, surprisingly delicious, using seasonal local ingredients, and often with kitchen scraps and leftovers.”

“Traditional recipes need to be preserved. Protecting culinary heritage is something I am passionate about.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Bottura is so keen on exploring Indian cuisines is the rising number of Indian guests he serves at Osteria Francescana. Cooking for Indians, he says, was a challenge. “The most common request is for a vegetarian tasting menu,” he explains. “But the Italian kitchen, and especially the northern Italian kitchen, is pork heavy, and meat is often used to flavour sauces, ragouts and soups. Our Indian guests stimulated us to work on a 12-course vegetarian menu. Working on this menu has been very exciting and we have found unexpected flavours, textures and colours. We have our Indian guests to thank for this.”

Cooking for a cause

Bottura is an author as well as a chef. His best-selling book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, tells his life story through recipes and the evolution of Osteria Francescana.

“It was more painful than I thought to look back and tell the story from the beginning,” he says. “Fortunately, my wife helped me. I am lucky I have a partner like her because she is really tough, but at the same time my biggest fan. We are a good team.”

A new book is out soon, titled Bread is Gold, where he talks about his experience cooking for homeless guests. Currently, his energy and that of his wife, is focussed on their new project, Food for Soul a project targeted at cutting down food wastage and global hunger issues.

More proof that a happy chef is good news not just for the guests of a restaurant, but for the world at large.

From HT Brunch, April 23, 2017

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First Published: Apr 23, 2017 13:36 IST