Interviewed May 2012
Massimo Bottura is chef/patron of Osteria Francescana, which in 2012 was awarded its third Michelin star. His cooking applies modern techniques to tradiional Italian cooking.
Q – How long have you been cooking professionally?
Professionally, since 1986 when I opened Trattoria del Campazzo. Unprofessionally… since I was a kid hiding from my brothers under the kitchen table. My grandmother had me rolling pasta and folding tortellini since I was 6. I grew up in a large family with lots of brothers and lots of women around - my grandmother Ancella, my aunt Anna, my mother Luisa and our housekeeper Inez. I was the baby of the family so I spent a lot of time with them in the kitchen. That's where my passion for food began, at my grandmother's feet, under cascades of flour and grated parmigiano.
Q – Where did you train to cook?
I trained officially at my first restaurant - Trattoria del Campazzo - or you could say, I trained by cooking for friends. I've always had my hands occupied in the kitchen. For me it was only a question of time before I opened a restaurant. My father wanted me to study law. After two semesters, I knew that was not my calling. The chef at a trattoria outside of Modena wanted to return to being a mechanic, my brother Paolo needed him, and from one day to the next, there I was. Fortunately, my mother came in to help and I met soon thereafter Lidia Cristoni. She taught me all the basics of running a restaurant kitchen. I then apprenticed myself to Georges Coigny in Piacenza who was a classically trained French 2 Michelin star chef who was working with local traditions in the hills above Piacenza. There I really learned how to cook and also how to dream. After that experience I went onto Hotel de Paris in 94 with Ducasse. And later I had a wonderful experience cooking in Ferran's kitchen at El Bulli.
Q – How would you describe your style of cooking?
I would say that my food is conceptual and playful. It is minimalist in the sense that I am trying to be very specific about flavour, but it could also be considered maximalist in the sense that I am making references to many things at the same time - art, music, history, literature. What I am concentrating on is deep flavour and meaning. Plates that are inspired by tradition but see tradition from 10 kilometres away - with plenty of room for interpretation and experimentation. Five temperatures and textures of Parmigiano Reggiano is a perfect example of my cuisine. It is a monochrome in shades of white. It is specifically about one ingredient and one idea explored in depth with different techniques. This dish is grounded in terroir and yet projecting into the future. At the end of the day, the evolution of ideas is what counts for me. Only then do I feel that I am contributing to rich culinary traditions I come from.
Q – Is there a secret for a successful restaurant?
The secret in my opinion is a unified staff - both in the kitchen and the dining room. When the staff is in harmony, when they are motivated and passionate about their job, the experience for the dinner is so much better. Keeping that kind of balance and energy is the most difficult part but also the most satisfying. I played on a soccer team for many years before becoming a restaurateur. This has given me a great advantage because the two are very similar. It takes everyone on the team to win a game.
Q – Do you have a “signature dish” or favourite dish you enjoy cooking?
I would say that the compression of pasta and beans is the plate that is closest to me. It is a parfait of my gastronomic history in a shot glass. The bottom layer is a 'crème royale' which represents my classical French training from Georges Coigny to Alain Ducasse. The top layer is 'rosemary air' a tribute to my experience with Ferran Adria. In the middle there are three layers: radicchio and pancetta, the parmigiano crust pasta and the bean puree. This is the 'traditional' part of the dish - that which is closest to my heart. In fact, the pasta is not egg pasta but thinly sliced parmigiano crust that recreates the pasta experience. This is the heart of the pasta and beans because I, and many other Modenese, grew up with parmigiano crust in many of our grandmothers dishes. I believe it is important to have an emotional part in every dish - something that connects you to who you are and where you come from, even when you are aiming for the moon. This is the emotional part of the dish - what connects me to my heritage and my memories as a child of eating melted parmigiano crust in minestrone or grilled on the stovetop - this is my grandmother, with her ingenuity and good sense to never throw away anything... not even the crust!
Q – Do you have a favourite ingredient?
Parmigiano Reggiano. This cheese is really something incredible. We use several ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in the restaurant from different local producers. The most amazing cheese I have ever worked with in the kitchen - and an integral part of our terroir.
Which restaurant do you most enjoy eating at on your night off?
I love eating at the new bistro Franceschetta58 in Modena. The atmosphere is ultra casual and the selection of Italian traditions is vast. The food is welcoming, comforting with very well sourced ingredients. It is also just around the corner from my house. My second favourite place in Italy is Dal Pescatore in the Mantovan countryside. This elegant 3 star Michelin has been around for three generations. Antonio and Nadia Santini are like family. Here is where I usually bring my mother for her birthday or my wife on our anniversary. In nearby San Giovanni in Persiceto, there is the rustic Osteria Mirasole. Franco grills excellent cuts of Italian Piemontese beef on grill in the restaurant. His selection of reds pairs perfectly with the food.
What is your most interesting or fun experience from your time in restaurants?
I am not only passionate about food but music. I have a floor to ceiling bookshelf that holds my vinyl 10,000 record collection. The most thrilling experiences for me at Osteria Francescana is when there are musicians and artists at the table. Jackson Brown, David Byrne, Lou Reed, and REM have dined at Osteria Francescana. All my signed records testify. There are so many parallels between food and the arts.
What would be your “last request” dish?
My last request would be a bowl of my mother Luisa's tortellini in broth. There is nothing like 'coming home' to a meal your mother made for you as a child. If I were on a deserted island, this would be my one request.
Is there another chef that you most admire?
I admire anyone who makes the hard choice to become a chef. There are no easy paths to success in this business. As Picasso often said “success is 10% talent, and 90% hard work. I have many chef friends around the world. The ones I admire the most are those who are trying to do what is in their hearts - not just as a business - but as an art form. Living your dreams is the hardest thing you can do. All my respect goes out to those chefs who dare to make a difference in their community and country.
Any advice you would give to someone wanting to become a chef?
I always give the same advice to young chefs. Firstly, get out of the kitchen and learn something about the world. I didn't begin my culinary career until I was 22. Thank goodness I had time to study, learn, play soccer and travel. Secondly, follow your dreams. Don't ever give up on them. Thirdly, be humble. There is always something new to learn. If you aren’t humble, then you aren't open to new experiences. I am learning all the time. Be passionate about what you do. Without passion the kitchen is a hot place and the work exhausting. Don't lose yourself in the everyday routine. The everyday keeps us grounded but it is our dreams that keep us alive.
Any final thoughts you’d like to add?
In several weeks the new Osteria Francescana kitchen will be ready. We have been working on it since January. It was the first thing I decided to do after receiving my third Michelin star. After 15 years of making do with a very small space, it is the best 'thank you' I can give to my dedicated staff. The new kitchen not only give us more working room but we will also be able to enlarge the dining room (by September) to add a few more tables... from the 10 we have now, perhaps we will be able to have a total of 15. As for new developments inside the kitchen, we are experimenting with new ideas all the time. The newest plates are seasonal expressions that last for about a month at a time. For example, as Sambuca flowers are in bloom now in Modena, we are collecting them and making different kinds of granitas and desserts. Calendula and camomile flowers are bursting with colour and life now and they are finding expression in the kitchen as well. All of these seasonal dishes can be found on our "sensations" tasting menu that changes from week to week.