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Tradition Through A Contemporary Lens: Interview with Chef Massimo Bottura

“Following an important script, that is tradition. Follow the script, buy the perfect ingredients, you can make the dish.” Tradition in cooking is important to Chef Massimo Bottura, who speaks candidly about how his upbringing instilled in him a passion for food. “My mother was obsessed with the quality of ingredients – that kind of obsession stays in your mind.

However, perhaps what has earned Chef Bottura his many accolades (his restaurant Osteria Francescana has three Michelin stars, and has been in the top five of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Award since 2010), is the fact that he uses tradition as a first draft which he has edited and revised. He says, “But if you want to write your own music, that’s a different thing.”

Chef Bottura was born and raised in Modena, in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. The tastes and textures of his home guided his love for cooking growing up, though he was driven to explore new ideas. He studied in Monte Carlo, where he learned to add French techniques to Italian cuisine. Travelling, working and cooking in different countries and continents, gave him a new approach to the world of food. “It’s important to grow slow like a tree: big roots into the earth. You grow like that, you have the ability to express yourself.”

Chef is deeply connected to the culinary traditions of his homeland. “Italy is a place kissed by god, in the middle of the Mediterranean, protected by the alps so the harsh winter doesn’t hit, with soil that is the definition of biodiversity”; a place that produces foods perfected by generation after generation of farms, cheesemakers, fishers. And the range of territories, from Piedmonte in the northwest to Sicily in the south, produce different specialties. “We’re sitting on centuries and centuries of tradition — it’s about the product, about your terroir, the flavours that are transferred by centuries to our days, filtered through a contemporary mind.”

Although inspired by the past, Chef Massimo’s focus is definitely contemporary. He is clear that traditions and a modern outlook are entirely compatible. “It’s important to look at the past in a critical way, not a nostalgic way. Nostalgia feels good for a moment, but a critic can look to the past and bring forward what’s best. It’s not easy to break tradition and stay respectful, but it’s the only way to recreate tradition.”

For Chef, respect for tradition includes the need for evolution, to take what you’ve learned and move forward. As part of his ongoing attempts to recreate tradition, he began bottling his family’s balsamic vinegar in 1995. Where he comes from, “Parmagiano makes up your muscles, balsamic vinegar makes up your blood.” The company name is Villa Manadori, and they now sell several types and flavours of balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and essential oil all around the world.

Connection to the wider world is part of his personal ethos, as is surrounding himself with his passions, chief among them music and visual art. His well-renowned collections of music and art fuel his creative fires. “As Picasso says, stealing from others is necessary; copying yourself is a sterile exercise.” But it’s not only the rarified that inspires him: Chef and his team recently created a dessert called ‘Winter Is Coming In Sicily’ which contains top-notch elements all sourced from Sicily: almonds; bitter orange; capers; bergamot; which features a melting iceberg — and yes, it is a direct reference to the Game Of Throne series. “Sicily is exactly the opposite; the spirit of these people is so hot.”

Chef is philosophical about the process of recipe development. “It can be one step; it can be twenty. You may have to try many times; there can be walls in the creative process.” But those walls can provide opportunities. “Even when you make mistakes, they can be very helpful.”

And inspiration can come from anywhere. Recently, Chef and his team created a brand new menu, inspired by the album ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. “The ideas were so smart, so beautiful. We took two weeks to transform everything into edible bites.”

A mind so creative and passionate and hardworking could have found the lockdown imposed by COVID-19 unbearable. Instead, during Italy’s first shutdown Chef Massimo and his daughter launched ‘Kitchen Quarantine’ online, a web show filmed on an iPhone. The goal was to share the joys and difficult moments of a family cooking together. Not a masterclass, but something more personal and approachable. “The whole world was the same as we were. How to manage the fridge that you have in your home, how to buy and shop for a family, not a restaurant. And how to not waste anything.”

Eliminating food waste is another of his major passions, one which has implications for the entire world. As a species, he explains, “we produce enough food for 12 billion; we waste 33 per cent of what we produce. 860 million people have no access to that food.” The scale of that waste motivated Chef to try something new and daring. For the World Expo in Milan in 2015, Chef Massimo and his team of more than 65 chefs created a refettorio, a place where the most vulnerable communities could come together for a superb meal created from produce donated by the Expo pavilions that would otherwise have been discarded. The idea continues to expand today; there are now seven refettorios around the world. 

For his activism and his efforts to combat food waste on an international scale, Michelin created and awarded him the first Green Star in 2020, and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) has appointed him a Goodwill Ambassador. Chef hopes it will inspire other chefs to examine their own practices. “Though restaurants are not the places we waste the most: that’s at home. Restaurants know food waste is bad business.” 

Chef’s own restaurant Osteria Francescana is a distillation of all his passions: food, art, music. “They come not just because of the good food. They want to come because of the creative process, because of the emotion. We feed people with emotion.” Though many are eagerly anticipating the end of the shutdown (their email waiting list is 232 thousand emails long) of all the people waiting to get back to Osteria Francescana, Chef Massimo is foremost. “I can’t wait to hug people. I’m Italian: I have to move my hands and I have to hug people!”

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