Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana): Helping Make the Visible Invisible

Two-time winner of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants award, Massimo Bottura, Chef of Osteria Francescana, a three Michelin Star restaurant in Emilia-Romagna, shares his passions that good food becomes food for good and that there is “no room for excuses” in the way food can be used to help save our Planet.

 

You wanted to be a professional football player. You studied law. How in the world did you end up in a kitchen?

 

I didn’t purposely choose to become a chef, it just happened. I’d rather say that the profession chose me. I have been very lucky to have several culinary mentors, who motivated me along the path. Some are more famous than others. I don’t know if, given the choice, I would have become a chef. The hours are terrible, you have to make many sacrifices and there are no guarantees. I certainly wouldn’t advise my sons to enter this profession, but I cannot imagine doing anything else now. I could never have imagined I would face so many challenges or make so many sacrifices to survive tough times. But also, I could never have imagined that I would have received so much in return!

“I didn’t purposely choose to become a chef, it just happened. I’d rather say that the

profession chose me.” 

Maria-Luigia, Rezdora Lidia Cristoni, Lara Gilmore… Do women play a big role in your life?

Women have influenced my professional life in such a deep way. First, my grandmother, Ancella, when she convinced me to stop playing football and continue studying instead. Then, my mother, Luisa, who looked at me one morning and said: “Massimo you are not happy. You have so much energy. You have to channel that energy into something that you are passionate about. If you think that being a lawyer is not the right thing for you, then find something else.” I was 22 years old at the time. And soon afterwards I began my adventures in the kitchen at Trattoria Campazzo, in the Modenese countryside. Then there was Catia, my girlfriend, who I met when I was 16 years old, who studied architecture and interior design in Florence. She helped me appreciate design, architecture, and beauty. Then there was Lidia Cristoni, who lived just behind Trattoria del Campazzo, who taught me everything she knew about Emilian culinary traditions and how to run a restaurant kitchen. One day, this nearly blind woman knocked on the door of Trattoria del Campazzo just months after we had opened in 1986.  She told me that she had 35 years of professional experience but her vision was not good enough to drive to town to work. I said, “Well, Lidia, what are you waiting for? Put on an apron and show me what you can do.” She entered the kitchen and never left. She was like a second mom for me. And then Lara of course, who opened up the world of contemporary art for me and taught me how to see the ideas behind the artwork, to go deeply into concepts, beyond what you see on the surface and to understand the thought behind a specific aesthetic choice. All these women have been a crucial part of my life and career and they continue to help me make the visible the invisible.

 

Your favorite tool in the kitchen is the mental palate. How can you sharpen it?

 

The mental palate is the capacity of absorbing flavors to the point that they become part of your memory, part of you. My suggestion to young chefs is always to travel, physically but also mentally. It is so important to fill one’s suitcase with culture, books, music, literature and art, travels and then, kitchen experience. Travel the world, eat everything, know everything, then forget everything. Accept who you are. Go back to where you came from and dig as deep as you can into your culture to understand who you are and where you come from. At that point you can start creating, using only your mental palate. The mind, the mental palate, is one of the most valuable ingredients or tools in the kitchen because cooking is not only manual labor but also a thinking man’s job.


What did you learn from Georges Coigny, Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adrià and Rezdora Lidia Cristoni? 

 

My first mentor was George Coigny, a French chef living in Piacenza. He taught me the foundations of French technique, the technique that I then applied to the ingredients from our local terroir in Emilia-Romagna, creating my own, personal cuisine. Then came Lidia Cristoni, a true Rezdora – Modenese for grandmother - who taught me everything about traditional cooking, how to make pasta professionally and how to run a clean and efficient kitchen. Then came my encounter with the one and only Alain Ducasse, in Monte Carlo, who taught me the meaning of farm-to-table, the value of using locally sourced ingredients and establishing trusting relationships with artisans, farmers, fishmongers and so forth. These lessons at Le Louis XV were very valuable to me and helped guide 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 Buli. He pushed me over the edge and taught me not to be afraid of my ideas, and that’s what I have done since then. He let the cat out of the bag, you could say!


Art plays a key role in your restaurant and hotel. How important is beauty in food?

Beauty is the thread connecting everything I do. It is the driving force behind my work, that at the end of the day, is feeding people, be it at Osteria Francescana or one of Food for Soul Refettorios. 

We believe that man cannot live on bread alone. We believe in the power of beauty and art. And there is no beauty without an ethical purpose. Because beauty has the power to communicate at a higher level, it can be perceived by anyone and can move people's spirits. The good and the beautiful are two sides of the same coin, they complete each other at the point that beauty without good isn't beautiful at all, and good needs beauty to convey its message.

The power of beauty is one of the core values guiding Food for Soul, the no-profit organization and cultural project my wife Lara and I founded to fight food waste and social isolation. The main idea behind the project is that real beauty is seeing the value in something that might not seem to have any value at all. Something recovered is something gained. Seeing the beauty in surplus food destined to become waste, grasping the potential in banana peels, in stale bread, in overripe tomatoes, is a way to fight food waste and heal the Planet. But also seeing the light in the darkest place, in an abandoned theatre in a suburban neighborhood. When you can see beauty even through obstacles, the invisible becomes visible. Individually each of us can make a small difference; together we can make a change. And through beauty, good food becomes food for good.


In a masterclass, you replaced pine nuts with breadcrumbs in a pesto. I tried. It works really well! How do you combine tradition and innovation?

The main idea that has been leading my work and that of my team in the last 20 years is the one of Tradition in Evolution. We conceive the kitchen of Osteria Francescana as a laboratory, but even an observatory that has a distinctive and unique advantage: being able to look at tradition from 20 kilometers of distance in villages close by. 

We always look at the past in a critical way, not a nostalgic one. This doesn’t mean to deny our tradition and throw it away; instead, it implies a deep knowledge of it. Our work is not about forgetting the past but finding the most appropriate way to share it so that it can keep living through time in a constant work of evolution and resilience. We take the best the past can offer and bring it into the future. Recipes are not there to be followed literally, they are stories, not photographs of a precise time and space in history. I take recipes as a starting point from which I begin the path of creation. Then inspiration comes from what’s around me. Being a chef means being able to find inspiration in everything, in simple things as well as expensive ones. It means leaving the door open for poetry, for imagination. It means making a pesto with breadcrumbs when you look around and can’t find pine nuts. It means using all you have in the fridge, giving new value to humble ingredients. 

Apart from slow food and fast cars, Emilia-Romagna has a unique culture of sharing. Can you explain?

I grew up in a big family. Brothers, sisters, aunts, parents, grandparents. We always found ourselves together at the kitchen table. Playing, fighting, making peace. Dreaming, planning the future together. Talking about business, soccer, school. But always sitting at the same table and eating together.

One of my happiest memories is that of my grandmother placing the pan of lasagna in the middle of the table at Sunday lunch. I remember my brothers and me fighting over the crunchy, lightly burnt, delicious corners. That was the most interesting part of that big pan for all of us. 

The Crunchy Part of The Lasagna was born to recreate that precise emotion and to make as many people as possible try it, feeling the same way a kid feels in front of a lasagna. I wanted to rebuild that delicious crunchy corner and this time be able to share it with everyone who comes to Osteria Francescana. Just that piece, with the perfect ragù and an amazing bechamel. That dish, that emotion, expresses the whole meaning of family, love and conviviality for me, in the form of an edible bite.  

Out of the same need for sharing, we opened Casa Maria Luigia, the extension of Osteria Francescana idea of hospitality. It was completely natural for us to want to share with guests not only our passions but all the best our home can offer. We wanted it to be a home away from home for all the people who come to visit us and experience our world.


Can you explain how tortellini are helping children with special needs in the Tortellante association?

My hometown is famous worldwide for tortellini, which is also my favorite food ever, the one I could not live without. The tortellini tradition dates back to the sixteenth century and the recipe leaves no room for improvisation. Making tortellini requires technique, artistry and focus. It’s an art that has to be kept safe and passed on. 

That is why in 2018 we opened Tortellante, a non-profit association and a unique cultural and social project, where young adults with special needs are mastering the art of tortellini-making, helped by the expert hands of a group of rezdore (Modenese for grandmothers), the gatekeepers of the secular knowledge of this culinary tradition. We wanted to transfer this important tradition and professionally train this group of young adults to give them a future. At Tortellante, anyone from the community can be part of something extraordinary – by volunteering their time or just by buying our tortellini to support the project. Here we witness every day the meaning of the expression I often use: cooking is an act of love. 

“You got a Tattoo in Rio that says, “No more excuses”. What is this about?”

It is what the neon sign outside Refettorio Ambrosiano by the artist Maurizio Nannucci says: NO MORE EXCUSES. The opening of the first Food for Soul Refettorio in Milan marked the moment in which we realized there was no more room for excuses. We decided to act, to intervene, to dirty our hands and roll up our sleeves for the future of our Planet. Under one roof and under the motto that there are “no more excuses,” we began imagining other Refettorios around the world. Today there are 11, and the number is growing. Refettorios are places in which I condensed my whole self, cuisine, art, social commitment, solidarity, ecology, no-waste: a thousand leaps for a single jump, not into the void, but forward.

The tattoo is a message to myself, a call to action. It reminds me of the impossible missions we made possible. But also reminds me that chefs can no longer content themselves with cooking in their restaurants. They are so much more than the sum of their recipes and have a responsibility to the future of global food security.

Cooking is a call to act: a recipe after all is a solution to a problem. Choose to be part of the solution by cooking and sharing a meal around the table.