Heralded as the avant-garde master of Italian gastronomy, Massimo Bottura has been credited with reinvigorating and reinventing a national cuisine. At Osteria Francescana in Modena, his efforts have been recognised with three Michelin stars and the title of the World’s Best Restaurant, twice. But Bottura’s influence reaches beyond the boundaries of Italian food, and his motivations transcend mere awards and accolades. There is a social and environmental aspect to his work that might have lasting significance in the wider world.
It was in 1986 that Bottura bought his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, on the outskirts of his hometown of Modena. It was here that the young chef, inspired by his mother and grandmother’s cooking, acquired his classical French training courtesy of chef Georges Coigny, and applied it to the traditional cuisine of the Emilia Romagna region. He spent eight years learning his craft and developing his style before he took the bold decision to sell Campazzo to work with the legendary Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Montecarlo. This mentorship had a profound effect on the Italian, and in 1995 he returned to Modena to open Osteria Francescana.
Exploring the rich heritage of Italian regional cuisine, while embracing modern cooking techniques, Bottura’s imagination began to run wild. His ruminations on philosophy, history or art could sit comfortably alongside a practical understanding of locally grown ingredients and simple recipes. It is within this context that Bottura managed to walk a tightrope between innovation and heritage, between the future and the past, and stay on his feet. And he does so to this day.
Ground breaking signature dishes such as Bottura’s Tortellini Walking on Broth signalled his intent as a revolutionary chef. The six pasta parcels placed in a line on a broth set with gelatine was initially met with disapproval by traditionalists in Modena. But it soon gained wider critical acclaim, spurring the chef on to create further imaginative dishes such as the now legendary Opps! I Dropped The Lemon Tart. The deconstructed dessert of zabaione, meringue and sorbet was inspired by a kitchen accident, in which Bottura saw the perfection in the imperfect.
Another dish, The Crunchy Part Of The Lasagne, explored Bottura’s childhood memories of his favourite food growing up. Whether it’s a Proustian reflection on the power of memory, or, as Bottura and every Italian child knows, simply the best part of the lasagne, the important thing is our emotional connection with food.
Osteria Francescana won the ultimate prize with both Michelin and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, and Bottura received the prestigious Grand Prix de l’Art from the International Culinary Academy in Paris in 2011. But away from the bubble of fine dining, Bottura began to focus on wider societal concerns such as food waste and social isolation. His non-profit Food For Soul initiative, run with his wife Lara Gilmore, aims to feed those excluded from society with healthy and tasty food that might otherwise have been thrown away. His Refettorio social kitchen projects in Rio De Janeiro, London, Paris, Milan, Bologna and Modena use surplus ingredients, often donated by supermarkets, to create high-quality dishes, such as spaghetti carbonara with banana skin ‘bacon’, in an inclusive environment.
Food For Soul has inspired Bottura’s latest book, Bread Is Gold, which showcases some of the extraordinary dishes that can be made with very ordinary ingredients. His previous book, the critically acclaimed Never Trust A Skinny Italian Chef, was a cheerful look back at 25 years of Osteria Francescana. He has spoken at countless symposiums and conferences across the world. And he has appeared on several TV shows including Chef’s Table, and in a documentary called Theater of Life (2016). His award-winning Villa Manodori range of olive oils and balsamic vinegars might be steeped in centuries of tradition, yet Massimo Bottura’s guiding philosophy never fails to look ahead with wonder, and imagine a better future.