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Massimo Bottura Is Struggling to Unite Italian Cuisine

"We create an Italian kitchen that is not centered around regions, but is about all of Italy," says the chef. "We unite our own culture."

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Jun 13 2016, 8:00pm

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Osteria Francescana

Massimo Bottura collecting "leaves" that taste like the crunchy top of a lasagna. Photo by the author.

It is an unusually cold spring day in Modena. When I arrive at the tiny office in Via Stella, in the historic center of the northern Italian town, the greeting isn't much warmer. Massimo Bottura sits at his desk, surrounded by coworkers, answering e-mails and phone calls. All the conversations seem to be about him.

Massimo is a superstar. He is the gastronomical equivalent of Bono. As the brain behind one of the world's best restaurants, Osteria Francescana, he is so much more than the sum of his three Michelin stars and numerous awards. He is committed to his community and he thinks like a poet. He is inspired by Thelonious Monk, he sees the beauty in a dropped lemon tart, and he has published a cookbook with the no-nonsense title Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.

"Buongiorno," he responds without looking up from behind his characteristic black-rimmed glasses, before handing out Italian instructions to a young woman. We are surrounded by wine bottles on either side of a huge wooden table in a chilly room. The dish "Caesar salad in bloom" is placed in front of us, displaying delicate leaves folded in a type of bouquet. It is an aesthetic masterpiece and I almost don't have the heart to eat it.

"It is an abstract way of approaching culture," says Massimo. "Fifteen years ago I was at a restaurant, and I found myself asking why I refused to taste the Caesar salad. It was nice, but the salad itself played no part in the dish. It was a critical, creative process to analyze it. I analyzed the situation and saw everything from miles away. Then I could see clearly."

Caesar Salad in Bloom.

Caesar salad in bloom. Photo courtesy of Osteria Francescana.

"I began reconstructing the dish based on four aromatic elements: mustard, Parmesan, egg yolk, and anchovies. Then I rebuilt the dish using a number of different mustard leaves. You bite the chlorophyll, the Parmesan is crispy, and the anchovies represent the water that the Romans used as a salty stock. That was my first level of evolution for the Caesar salad. Five years later it has become a minimalist salad with mustard leaves. All the elements were inside the salad. On top, you had chlorophyll. Green on green."

The taste is light and ethereal: delicate flavors mixed with something sweet. It is a dish that in no way reflects Italian cooking—Italian cuisine is known for deeper notes. It is more of a nod toward Vietnam. I smile instinctively and raise my eyebrows. This tastes incredible.

"Yes, it is extremely good," says Massimo and laughs. He is a bit like a child, feasting off acclaim. I tell him about my Vietnamese impression of the dish.

"That is correct," says Massimo, and it feels like getting praise by Jimi Hendrix for your guitar solo.

Massimo shakes himself under the blanket that he's wearing to protect his bronchi, bruised from several ailments. He is tired and sick, he explains. The day before, he returned from a trip to Indonesia. Being a top chef is no longer just about standing in your kitchen.

Before we sit down at the table, I walk around the sacred halls of Osteria Francescana, which consists of three sparsely decorated rooms with meticulously set tables and contemporary art from Massimo's group of friends, who all belong to the art world elite. Three doves sit on a branch, pooping on a black plastic bag. The doves are taxidermied and the plastic bag is made of iron. Not exactly the type of installation you would expect at one of the world's finest restaurants.

Osteria Francescana

Photo by the author.

The story of Massimo is the tale of a rebel who dared to innovate Italian cuisine—not just in the culinary world, but in the entire cultural and political field that surrounds the chef, his restaurant, his city and his country.

That becomes even clearer when a new chef brings in the next creation. "Pumpkin from Mantova to Ragusa" is both captivating to watch, smell and taste

"Aesthetics have no value without content," says Massimo. "Showing beauty alone has no value for me. The value has to be inside. This dish is about breaking the boundary between the north and south of Italy."

Grand words. But what Massimo has done is revolutionary, breaking with the foundation of Italian cuisine where everything has to represent the region you are in. The more local, the better. But Massimo wants to unite Italy. Both on the plate and in the real world outside Via Stella, he wants to abolish the abysmal boundary between the rich, industrialized North and the penurious South, where the inhabitants have suffered a seemingly endless stream of corruption, hopelessness, and unemployment.

Fighting tradition is no easy task. It has been like fighting giants with a toy sword. "Until ten years ago, our actions were considered witchcraft. We were to be burned on the stake for destroying the grandmothers' recipes. Now they call me maestro," says Massimo, throwing up his hand in a proud salute.

Osteria Francescana

Massimo Bottura testing a new dish in the kitchen. Photo by the author.

Here you find the main difference between Massimo's project and that of René Redzepi, his close Danish friend whose restaurant noma defined the Nordic food revolution.

"You can't compare it," says Massimo. "It is night and day. The Danish way of thinking [about] food has just begun. Before noma, there was nothing. In that sense it has been easier for René. He had to create something brand new. People in Denmark viewed food as something you need to survive. But for us... We have 2,000 years of food history. We live to eat.

"It is the opposite of Denmark. Roman families demonstrated their power through the parties for the senate. It is part of our culture. We do everything at the table. We do business, we dream, we create things, we fight."

Osteria Francescana

Pumpkin from Mantova to Ragusa. Photo courtesy of Osteria Francescana.

The dish "Pumpkin from Mantova to Ragusa" is separated into two elements: pumpkin ravioli, which is sweet and has a bite, and a filled cannolo.

Massimo explains: "I take this classic ravioli and fill it with pumpkin the way my grandmother made it. It is extremely sweet. It is ravioli from Mantova. The cannolo reminds me of the south, because the south is almonds and sugar. It is classic flavors that reminds me of Sicily. It is sweet and sour. We create an Italian kitchen that is not centered around regions, but is about all of Italy. We unite our own culture." Massimo is on a roll now. Away from the sickness and the back room where you can almost see your own breath, his face has color again and his hands are increasingly lively. He is not done with the Caesar salad. Once he gets an idea he doesn't seem to let go. Massimo is not a man who does anything in halves or leaves any unfinished business.

"The Caesar salad was a development of a development of a development of a reflection. Our cooking is about finding our own expressions, and our dishes are about being true to ourselves. You can spot the dish from miles away and realise: 'That is Osteria Francescana.'"

The next dish is presented: "Sometimes mallard, sometimes partridge and even bollito." I ask how to begin and Massimo just puts his fingers right in, collects everything, and gives it back to me. It is a taste explosion of pure happiness. Massimo beams and laughs knowingly.

"Cooking isn't art. We are craftsmen and our goal is to create good food, just like the designer has to create beautiful clothes or Ferrari has to create a fast car. The artist is allowed to do whatever he wants. We buy the idea of the picture or the sculpture. It is important. We are not artists, but we are in close dialogue with people's taste."

Osteria Francescana

The waiters relax for a few minutes shortly before the lunch rush hour at Osteria Francescana. Photo by the author.

But the best craftsmen and the artists do have something in common: the personal expression.

"Picasso was always searching for his own style. We are the same way. Our style is Osteria Francescana and Massimo Bottura. When you see a dish from here you know it is us."

The master chef is impossible to control, impossible to stop. He doesn't dwell on his successes. He is constantly evolving.

"I live in the present," says Massimo. "I'm always riding the wave. I never look back. I don't want to be part of the past. I feel I'm extremely positive about everything. I have an understanding of everything I have done. But that's not the point. I don't care about what I have done. I want to set up a food university in Modena. It is not enough to have a high school of agriculture. We need this. It is part of a process.

"The city council came to me and asked for help ensuring the future of the farmers. We need a cuisine, and the farmers need to understand flavor. They need to understand how to make Parmesan, but also how to make lasagna. We are still digging deeper, finding a balance between the seasons, nature, the relationship with the manufacturer—and from there we can challenge Italian cooking in so many ways."

Massimo heads to the kitchen immediately after the interview, so I go along with him. He is already somewhere else. I wander around with my camera and have no idea what will happen next. Luckily Massimo does not forget. He reminded me several times that an osteria is a family business. Osteria Francescana is no exception, success or not. Here, no one is forgotten. When I beckon to leave he gives me a hug before exclaiming: "No, wait. I have something for you." Two minutes later Massimo is back with a special Parmesan cheese from Emilia-Romagna's rare white cows, along with his homemade balsamic vinegar.

Massimo says "arrivederci" and I sincerely hope to meet him again. That's not likely to happen anytime soon, though, because it takes a long time to get a table at the little family-run osteria in Via Stella.