It’s the morning after the night before and chef Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore are heading to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in a taxi for a quick goodbye to the chef friends gathered there, before heading back to Modena, Italy for the mother of all parties. “I’m not very eloquent this morning,” says Gilmore.
Husband and wife can be forgiven for over indulging and for planning to again. The previous night, when some of the quotes in this interview were taken, their Osteria Francescana restaurant in the small Emilia-Romagna town had claimed the title of World’s Best Restaurant for a stunning second time, at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna in Bilbao. For Gilmore it was confirmation that they were on the right track with everything they are doing in and outside of the restaurant.
“Before the ceremony began I took a picture and sent it to our team, and I said, ‘I don’t know how things are going to go, but however they go, you’ve done your best, you know you’ve worked your hardest,’ she says. “This is confirmation: We’re doing the right things, the kitchen’s never been better, the team’s never been stronger, our vision of gastronomy is hopefully something we’ll pack away for a brighter and more ethical future for our children, so it’s great to be able to have this voice again.”
And that voice is the strongest emanating from the food world right now. In fact, Bottura has transcended that world: he is perhaps more famous now for his campaigning work, along with Gilmore, to cut down on global food waste and hunger, simultaneously, than for his cooking atOsteria Francescana, amongst the general public, most of whom have never and will never eat there. He calls the coming together of the food world behind his cause, the chefs who have contributed inventive surplus food recipes to his recent book Bread is Goldand cooked or volunteered at his Refettori, the gourmet soup kitchens using supermarket surplus that have sprung up in Milan, London, Rio and Paris under the Food for Soulbanner, and the growing army of recruits to his crusade outside of the industry, a “revolution.”
“Step by step, we’re changing the world... I know it and I feel it,” says Bottura. “Using the spotlight that you have to make the invisible, visible is very important. But my dream would be ‘normality’ – for it to be normal to open a soup kitchen like [the Refettorio], full of art, of beauty, rebuilding people, fighting waste, involving all the community of chefs.”
“It’s a cultural message, it’s about waste in general and the waste of human lives, not giving them the consideration they need,” says Gilmore. “Our Refettori are all about beauty, culture, art – making them the most beautiful spaces ... We’re doing that with the help of chefs from around the world: our friends, our colleagues, and the people who support us. Everyone is supporting our project because they believe chefs are so much more than the sum of their recipes, they represent the ability to change things and transform not only an ugly banana into a delicious ice cream, but also transform society through food.”
Perhaps winning The World’s 50 Best Restaurants again goes some way to answering this, but: with so much going on – “the more projects we have, the better people we become,” says Gilmore - have they found it hard to focus on Osteria Francescana?
“No, the restaurant is our heart and soul. Without the restaurant, we wouldn’t have been able to create one Refettorio, even come up with the idea,” she says. “What goes on in the kitchen and dining room and the ideas are what give us the fuel for everything else we do.”
And Massimo, does he still see himself as a chef first and foremost? “I’m a cook. Because when you think about the hours of staying in the kitchen and thinking about the next recipe and looking at the ingredients and working with the team, that’s your gym, your fitness, that’s what keeps your mind, your body, your eyes open. Once you have your kitchen skills, you can go out and say something,” he says.
Back to those ‘other’ projects then, which include an 18th century Modenese villa they’re renovating into a 12-room boutique hotel, and Il Tortellante, an initiative that teaches young people with learning disabilities how to make pasta, also in Modena, where they have recently been given the keys to a new site, opening in September, which will house a lab and a shop where the pasta can be sold.
Then there’s the upcoming edition of the Basque Culinary World Prize, which will be announced in the Northern Italian town, the town of Bottura’s birth, and will be followed by a special symposium hosted by the chef (he’s also on the Prize jury) on the subject of Social Gastronomy. It’s fair to say that Bottura and Osteria Francescana have transformed the town.
“It really changed Modena – there was no tourism in Modena. People stop to thank me,” he says. But: “It’s not just about Modena, it’s about the whole of Italy. [Chef] Enrico Crippa said to me 'I was praying for you to be number one again, because it was so helpful for us to see so many gourmets from all over the world coming back to Italy and trying our food.’ Because it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us.”
And another book perhaps? “Maybe Bread is Gold chapter two, or maybe Rice is Gold, if it’s in Asia? That could be interesting...” he says.
Should the Michelin Guide continue to award stars to Singapore's hawker stalls? Do Singaporeans really care what the Red Guide says about their favourite street food? Singaporean food writer Evelyn Chen shares her point of view.