Volume 48, Number 2
[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]y his own admission, Massimo Bottura is obsessed with everything and intensely passionate about food. The 52-year-old Italian chef, who owns and operates the three-star Michelin Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, was in Toronto recently to take part in the Cities of the World series of culinary festivities at George Brown College, where he had a chance to talk with F&H.
As a young man growing up in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, Bottura was set to become a lawyer. “My dad had it all planned,” he recalls. “One of my brothers was going to be an engineer, the other an accountant and me a lawyer.” But partway through his law studies, Bottura realized his heart wasn’t in it. He opted for a chef’s toque instead, buying his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, in Modena.
“I come from a place that is so into food. It’s very important and deeply ingrained in our DNA. I have balsamic vinegar running through my veins and Parmigiano Reggiano in my muscles,” quips Bottura, recalling that his love of food came from spending time with his nonna who used to make tortellini by hand.
Bottura’s food philosophy is shaped by a desire to “break with tradition and make way for a new Italian kitchen.” While labelled by some as a modernist, he dispels that definition. “First I’m an Italian chef. I’m very deep into the Italian culture, but I don’t get lost in nostalgia. I look at my past in a very critical way, not in a nostalgic way, to bring the best of the past into the future.”
The cerebral chef’s inventive cuisine is influenced by everything around him, from cars to art. He creates to stimulate and sometimes shock the senses with a menu that speaks to playfulness. His uniquely named dishes include The Five Different Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano (the Italian staple is presented as a foamed, crisped and souffled dish), Memory of Mortadella Sandwich (a rosette of mortadella foam) and the “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart.”
For Bottura, “creativity means knowing everything and then forgetting everything,” with the end result being that you create something new. “If traditions are put under glass, they stagnate,” he warns. His creativity is fuelled by a probing mind. “I always question myself about everything, and the answers to these questions are my plates. I use technique to sublimate ingredients, not to sublimate the ego of the chef.”
As for attaining the pinnacle of culinary excellence, Bottura is proud to have remained steadfast to his beliefs. “I got the three stars 16 years after I opened my first restaurant; it took a very long time, but I arrived at three stars with no compromising. The food I’m cooking now, with three stars, is the food I was cooking before, and it’s not French food; it’s deeply Italian and deeply emotional.”
He’s equally proud of the message his success imparts. “By giving my restaurant three stars, Michelin sent out a very important message. It means a young Peruvian chef who wants to do Peruvian cuisine or a young Japanese chef who wants to do crazy Japanese cooking can get three stars. It’s no longer about French food; it’s about good food.”