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The world’s best restaurant

Massimo Bottura uses his imagination to reinterpret Italian traditions and ingredients. That’s why his restaurant has been voted best in the world

brunch Updated: Oct 28, 2018 00:53 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
World's best restaurants,Massimo Bottura,Osteria Francescana
A dish made from local guinea fowl that explored ways in which the flavour of the bird balanced itself between poultry and meat

There are few objective ways of judging chefs. But a couple of things are clear. Technical skills are not enough. At every great restaurant, the chef will not cook your meal, one of his juniors will. At best, he will stand at the pass, checking dishes as they go out. Imagination and creativity are more important. Great chefs create dishes. The best invent their own style of cuisine.

I was reminded of this last week when we went to Osteria Francescana in Modena for a family meal. Italian food poses a challenge for chefs which we, in India, will understand. French cuisine is a collection of techniques that allows a chef to explore various ingredients and create new dishes. Italian food, like Indian food, is a collection of recipes and dishes.

So a man who makes the best lasagna or the world’s finest risotto is still, at the end of the day, no more than a cook. It is the same with Indian food. A guy who makes a perfect dosa or a great biryani is not a great chef. To get to that level, you have to go beyond the traditional recipes and do something new and creative.

Osteria Francescana, Bottura’s three Michelin star restaurant, is currently number one in the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ( Getty Images )

In the old days, the top Italian chefs recognised that cooking superlative traditional food was not enough to reach the top, and would Frenchify their food and presentation in the hope of meeting the approval of the Michelin inspectors. The same thing happened with modern Indian chefs till a few broke with the Frenchifying trend and used Indian flavours and ingredients with some originality. (That’s why, for instance, Gaggan Anand is rated so highly globally.)

A dish based on the crunchy part of the lasagna, which is every Italian’s favourite part of the dish

While there have been many talented Italian chefs who have created great food, I don’t think anyone has ever reinvented the cuisine as brilliantly as Massimo. When we went for lunch, we had the tasting menu, which had nearly all of his classic dishes.Some of the food was clearly Italian-derived. But mostof it was a cuisine that sprang entirely from Massimo’s imagination.

We ate too much for me to recount the whole meal but a few dishes will give you some idea of what makes Massimo’s food so special. Among his most famous creations is the crunchy part of the lasagna. The idea is simple enough: whenever an Italian child is served lasagna at home, the part that is always fought over is the crunchy bit where the crispy pasta combines with the ragu and the béchamel sauce.

Bottura based a whole dish on only the crunchy part. This is more difficult than it sounds because to get it right, he has to make a perfect béchamel and a perfect ragu. The pasta sheets have to be top quality and he has to decide how long to cook the dish to get just the right level of crunch.

Then there was Wagyu No Wagyu. Most people who understand Wagyu beef and the Japanese style of cooking it are appalled by the bogus “Wagyu” steaks and hamburgers being served around the world. This so-called Wagyu is sourced from countries other than Japan, put to purposes it should never be used for and defiles the special delicacy of Japanese Wagyu, where the fat is the star.

Massimo Bottura has reinvented Italian cuisine with his own touches

Bottura was so annoyed by all this bogus Wagyu that he resolved to create a dish that brought us back to the texture that should characterise Wagyu. But Italian beef is not right for this purpose. So he ‘invented’ his own “Wagyu” using pork from the neighbourhood. (Italian pork is outstanding.) He uses the belly and other parts of the pig to make thin strips of meat, which he serves in a Japanese-inspired style of broth. It’s a dish that captures the spirit of Wagyu without using any beef.

Modena, where Bottura has his restaurant, is famous for its Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (what we call Parmesan; which makes locals very angry). The cheese is one of Italy’s greatest creations and like fine wine it ages and matures so that each ‘vintage’ (for want of a better term) tastes different with each passing year.

Bottura created a dish called Three Ages of Parmigiano using different ‘vintages’ of the cheese cooked in different ways (a souffle, a crisp, etc.) The latest version of the dish is called Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano with five ‘vintages’, five styles of cooking and five temperatures.

The Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is one of Italy’s greatest creations ( iStock )

Then, there is a tribute to Paul Bocuse. Bottura told us that when he took his mother to Bocuse’s restaurant, she insisted on ordering everything. (She was keen on old-style French haute cuisine.) Bocuse’s most famous dish is the truffle soup. This is essentially a consommé with strips of foie gras, vegetables etc.along with a healthy quantity of black truffle. It is covered with puff pastry (like a purdah biryani) and finished in the oven.

One area where the Italians score over the French is in the use of umami

When the soup is served and you puncture the pastry topping, steam rushes out, infusing the air with the heady smell of truffle.

It is a great dish but it relies on the truffle steam for its power. Bottura reinvented it, but added his own touches. There was less consommé and less foie gras. The focus was on more earthy ingredients like local snails. But the greatest innovation came with the crust. One area where the Italians score over the French is in the use of umami which the French still don’t fully understand.

So Bottura dispensed with the pastry topping and made the top with Parmesan cheese. After you broke the crust, you were encouraged to mix the Parmesan with the soup.

It is a dish with no gimmicks: no truffle steam etc. And it is the perfect updating of Bocuse’s 1970’s dish for this century.

There was more, of course, including a dish made from local guinea fowl cooked three ways, which explored the ways in which the gamey flavour of the bird balanced itself between poultry and meat, but I’ll save all those variations for another time.

After the meal, when Bottura sat with us, we discussed his cuisine. It was about Italian ingredients and Italian traditions (such as the lasagna) pushed through the chef’s imagination and turned into dishes that nobody had thought of before. It is strange, for instance, that in the home of Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the world’s most famous cheeses, nobody had thought of a dish that explored the cheese’s versatility and its ‘vintages’ till Bottura had created the original “Three Ages”.

I won’t pretend that we had the typical Francescana experience. We sat in the private dining room. Bottura served most of the dishes himself and discussed them as we ate.

Bottura reinvented truffle soup as an ode to chef Paul Bocuse

And we had a long chat afterwards about his future plans. There’s a Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura in Florence, which serves a casual version of his food. Another will open soon in Los Angeles. A new project at the W in Dubai is in the works; he wants it to evoke the spirit and glamour of the golden age of Italian cinema by the Dubai beachfront.

His real passion are his initiatives to make good food available for the poor and he does not seem particularly motivated by money. Osteria Francescana is cheaper than most three star restaurants in Paris, for instance.

You can’t judge service from a private dining room but wandering around the restaurant’s three small main rooms (Osteria Francescana takes under 30 covers and has 60 staff members), I could tell how smoothly the restaurant was run. Bottura himself went to every table and cheerfully posed for photos.

Osteria Francescana is currently number one in the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and it has had three Michelin stars for ages. Bookings open three months in advance and all the tables are sold out in less than an hour. Most of the guests we saw there had come from around the world to this small Italian town only to eat at the world’s best restaurant.

I enjoyed talking to Massimo. I enjoyed the food. But what impressed me the most was that he had the imagination, confidence and brilliance to create a cuisine of his own: one that owed everything to Italian ingredients and yet was nothing like traditional Italian food.

From HT Brunch, October 28, 2018

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First Published: Oct 27, 2018 22:32 IST