Massimo Bottura - Making Thoughts Edible
When Chef Massimo Bottura agreed to an interview before my meal at Osteria Francesana a couple of weeks ago, I was thrilled. I had read a lot about the star chef and his three star Michelin restaurant, and was eager to get a peek inside his extremely creative mind! So after a 2 hour drive from Forte Dei Marmi to Modena, I arrive at the restaurant at 6pm sharp, and Chef Bottura graciously escorts me into his private office at the back. Before I get into my questions, he gives me a little bit of background about the concept of this restaurant.
Chef Bottura: Osteria Francescana is an expression of my mind, which changes regularly, as every day I get exposed to new things. I try to learn from each of these experiences in order to become a better man and a better chef. It is important to always live in the now and take in as much as we can from each moment.
Sumati: I completely agree with you and I hope we can both take something out of our conversation today. By the way, we have something in common. We both went to law school and later transitioned into food. Can you tell me a little about your decision to quit law and go down this path?
Chef Bottura: Yes, going to law school was a crazy experience for me. My father was always pushing me to do that. I was miserable, and every time I envisioned my future, I saw myself staying miserable, so I knew I had to do something about it. My mum and older brother pushed me to follow my passion, so I bought a little trattoria 10km from here in the middle of nothing, and that’s how I started. I was only 20 years old at the time.
Sumati: And now you have become one of the best chefs in the world. Can you share your thoughts on vegetarian food in general? Do you enjoy eating vegetarian food?
Bottura: Well, I don’t like to discriminate between vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. For me, all food is the same. When I have something in my hands, whether it is asparagus, red beet, buffalo mozzarella, or even duck, I talk to it, caress it and try to understand it, and then I create something as a result. In fact, my American wife always cooks vegetarian food at home and no one ever questions this or even notices that it’s only vegetarian. Good food is good food whether it’s meat or vegetarian.
For example, the plate of 5 different aged Parmesan with 5 different textures and temperatures has been rated the plate of the decade. And that happens to be a vegetarian dish.
Sumati: Well, I’m really happy to hear that. Do you get a lot of guests coming here that are vegetarian? What percentage of your guests would you say are vegetarian?
Bottura: Actually, no, not that often. We have 60 guests at the restaurant every day – 30 at lunch and 30 at dinner. Of those, we only get about 1-2 vegetarians every 2 days. It’s a very small percentage. We do, however, regularly get people with food intolerances, but when they are here, they generally eat everything anyway as they want to experience it all. For example, people that don’t usually eat fish will still make an exception when they dine here. I have a feeling this may happen with vegetarians as well.
Sumati: When I spoke with your colleague he mentioned that you don’t specifically have a vegetarian tasting menu. Do you think you will ever have one?
Bottura: Actually, we do have one. Well, it’s not specifically written down, but that’s because vegetables are seasonal. The same is the case with our Sensation menu (the creative menu); there is no written menu, but you can choose to have it. Our only written menu is our Tradition and Evolution menu. This consists of plates that have become known as classics at the restaurant. In fact many of those are vegetarian dishes. Even if you come to our restaurant without telling us you are vegetarian ahead of time, you will still have plenty of options to choose from. In fact most of the dishes you are going to eat tonight on your tasting menu are on our regular menu as well.
Sumati: I know you spent some time with Alain Ducasse. Is that someone that gave you inspiration?
Bottura: No, Alain Ducasse is a great guy, and a very good Chef. But for me, he is a friend. What he really taught me, however, is obsession about quality. He is obsessed with quality and he transferred that obsession to me. That’s the main thing.
Sumati: Do you travel a lot? What are you favorite countries to travel to?
Bottura: Yes, I travel a lot. My favorite country is always the next one, because I am always going to learn something. For example, I have never been to Kenya or Uruguay. They have invited me over there to give a speech. It’s going to be challenging, but I love challenge. That is my main outlet for learning. I like to steal a little piece of culture from each place I visit.
Sumati: I know you visited Dubai recently, what are your thoughts?
Bottura: Yes I love Dubai! We did beautiful dinners over 2 days, which were super successful and completely sold out. It was last year in the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi and another one at a location in Dubai. I loved the cappuccino with a gold leaf on it at the Emirates Palace – it was so cool! It reminded me of the risotto with the golden leaf by Gualtiero Marchesi in 1980.
Sumati: Is there a story behind each and every one of your dishes?
Bottura: Yes, absolutely. That’s the most difficult thing for everyone to understand when they have to cook for me. We are not cooking just to create good food. You are not coming here all the way from Dubai to eat good food. You can eat good food in Dubai. You are coming for a cultural experience. And that’s why we have to give you something extremely deep in every dish.
Sumati: So would you say the Pargmiano dish is your favorite vegetarian dish?
Chef Bottura: No, my favorite vegetarian dish is Polenta and rice served as a pizza. It’s North that wants to be South. We compress milk from Buffalo mozzarella and use it to cook the rice as a risotto. We then prepare a double concentrate of tomato that serves as the pizza base. We add some spices like oregano to it and we put the risotto on the top. We then dehydrate cooked polenta in the oven to make it crunchy and put it around the risotto so it acts as the crust of the pizza.
In Italy, everyone usually prefers the North, whereas the South is often misunderstood and spoken of in a negative way. So in this case, the risotto is the expression of the South as polenta is the expression of the North. When North travels South and starts to experience all the flavors, they fall in love. So this dish is about love and looking deeper into things rather than just focusing on your pre-conceived notions and being superficial. Look deeper, and one day a potato will be better than a truffle. That’s the point.
Sumati: Wow, I am blown away and can’t wait to try the dish! I understand that a lot of your cooking is also inspired by art. So I suppose it’s a given that you like vegetables as they bring different colors to the plate?
Bottura: Well the colours are mostly around in the summer. However, in autumn there may not be as much colour. Since we are now in the summer, you are going to try the Beautiful Psychedelic Spin-Painted Beetroot, which has so many splashes of colour. In autumn, however, you would have had a chestnut parfait with chocolate, where the splashes on the dish are going to be autumn tones, like leaves on a field.
The photo on the left is a spin painting by Damien Hirst (photo by @aleforbes via Instagram), which was the inspiration of Bottura's beautiful psychedelic spin-painted beetroot dish pictured on the right.
Sumati: This conversation is definitely going to make me enjoy my meal more!
Bottura: Oh, you are going to love the meal, trust me. By the way, where are you from? I can tell you are Indian as I can feel the spirituality of an Indian woman in you, but I am also getting a western outlook – it is obvious you have been exposed to the world, which is reflected in your incredibly good taste.
Sumati: Thanks! Now that’s a fantastic compliment coming from the 2nd best chef in the world (so of course I had to include it )! Before we conclude, I’d like to address a very important issue and that is food wastage. What do you do to address the problem?
Massimo Bottura: Now, that’s an extremely important question, and I’m really glad you asked! Over 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year. One fourth of that would be enough to feed the people that don’t have anything. So my answer to the Expo Milan 2015 “Feed the Planet” theme was to do just that! I approached the Church with the idea and they loved it. We found a beautiful theatre in the suburbs of Milan, which was dark, abandoned and dirty. The best architects, designers and artists in Milan jumped in on the project to re-build and recreate it. And the world’s best chefs have all agreed to come and cook all the waste of the Universal Exposition.
So every day we serve food to just poor people and children. It’s a very active project that gives true meaning to the words “Feed the Planet”. Some of the best chefs in the world have cooked and will continue to cook every day until 31st October. A delegation from the White House came to see that and now want to bring the same project to the US!
Sumati: That’s amazing, and it also brings a new meaning to “Making thoughts edible.” I have one final request. Would you be willing to share a recipe with me?
Bottura: Absolutely, and I have something perfect, which is quite simple. Well, creating the plate artistically is a little complicated, but otherwise, the dish is easy to make. It’s a savory dish called “Think Green”. The dish relates to cows. It’s about what the cows eat and what the cows give you back. So first of all it’s what they eat. Grass…
Sumati: This is perfect for my blog, which is all about my Grassy Perspective! So it’s a fun way to bring things together. Thank you so much! (Stay tuned for the recipe!)
After spending a good 45 minutes with Chef Massimo Bottura, I still have an hour to kill before my dinner reservation at 8 so I walk over to a nearby café and grab an aperitif as I wait for what could possibly be the best meal I have ever had till date. I’m trying not to kill it with my expectations, but I can’t help it!
Does the meal live up to the hype? Click here to read about the experience!Sumati Menda
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