Italian chef Massimo Bottura: making the invisible visible

The pioneering Italian chef Massimo Bottura shares his thoughts on why he considers tradition a starting point, the importance of big dreams, and where he sees the future of food.

Chef Massimo Bottura’s revolutionary interpretation of traditional Italian cuisine has won him a dizzying number of accolades, including first place at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards in two of the past three years. At his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena, the Italian serves up imaginative dishes such as “An eel swimming up the Po river” and “The crunchy part of the lasagna”.

But it’s not only his restaurant guests who get to enjoy Bottura’s culinary creativity. In 2016, his pioneering spirit led him to found a non-profit association called Food for Soul. The organisation works hand in hand with local communities and uses food both as a vehicle for social inclusion and to empower communities to reduce food waste.

So where does he find inspiration for his many projects? Bottura shares his thoughts on why he considers tradition a starting point, the importance of big dreams, and where he sees the future of food.

What made you want to become a chef? Did you have a special inspiration or relationship with food when you were growing up?
I didn’t choose to become a chef; I’d rather say that the profession chose me. I don’t know if, given the choice, I would become a chef. The hours are terrible, you have to make many sacrifices, and there are no guarantees. I certainly wouldn’t advise my children to enter into this profession, but I cannot imagine doing anything else. I could have never imagined I would face so many challenges, or make so many sacrifices to survive tough times. But also, I could have never imagined I would have received so much in return: recognition, awards, and the opportunity to keep dreaming.

Why did you decide to do a completely new take on Italian cuisine instead of, for example, striving to perfect existing Italian culinary traditions?
Tradition is your starting point; it is knowing who you are and where you come from. To me, traditions are like the points on a compass giving me a sense of direction, and from these points I can take off on great culinary adventures, off the beaten path, and yet never feel lost. I like to imagine the kitchen of Osteria Francescana as a laboratory or an observatory, because it allows us to look at tradition from 10 kilometres of distance, and to think about it in a critical, not a nostalgic way.

What were some of the biggest hurdles you had to overcome as a result of this decision?
We have always been a small restaurant with big dreams. Italian cuisine is so popular and loved, but that also means that nobody wants it to change. After struggling for so many years to demonstrate that our intention was not to destroy it, we are finally able to show the world that the Italian kitchen can evolve and become even more than what people expect. That’s what we try to do every day in our restaurant: we open our world and invite guests in to see things from another point of view. We squeeze our passions,
stories, and ideas into edible bites.

What role do music and art play in your work?
I usually take inspiration from everything I see and experience around me; creativity comes at the most unexpected times. I would be watching a film or listening to a record on the turntables. Art and music are able to transport me to another place and time. I make connections that are sometimes obvious and sometimes unconventional or quirky, sometimes abstract and other times very concrete. I love metaphors and look for them constantly. After all, we are not here to fill empty bellies but to feed eager minds.

What do you think the future of food is? Will we see a renaissance of more traditional cuisine?
The role of a chef is to take the best from the past into the future and filter it with contemporary techniques and ideas. So I say that ‘Cucina Povera’ will be back in vogue. Recipes from our grandmothers and old cooking techniques will help us look at our pantry with different eyes and make every ingredient resourceful from nose to tail

What is your advice to chefs who are starting out and want to do pioneering work in a kitchen of their own some day?
My advice to them is the same my father-in-law gave me nearly 20 years ago: “Be like a tree – grow slowly.” They need to find out their true motivations, passions, and inspirations, and to do it they have to keep a small window open for poetry: read, travel, look at art, listen to music, and dig as deep as you can into your culture to understand who you are and where you come from. And never forget that talent is only 10 per cent – the remaining 90 per cent is all hard work.
 

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