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It’s been a busy, busy year for Massimo Bottura. On June 14th, 2016, in New York City, the charismatic chef held back tears at the news his Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena, Italy, was number one on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Just minutes after the announcement, thrusting an Italian flag above his head for all to see, Bottura posed, a little dazed, as camera flashes popped from every angle and questions fired from every acronym: CNN, BBC, FDL.
It was a night of elation, for Bottura; his wife, Lara; for his entire crew back in Italy, whose party had to eventually be closed down by a local policeman.
There are many stories, some myths, some soon to be legends from the huge after party that followed Bottura’s win. One we can happily verify is that Alain Ducasse – a confidant and mentor of Bottura, and also one of the food world’s most serious chefs – did arrive, unannounced, at Eleven Madison Park and was seen, on more than one occasion, wildly spraying people with champagne, a smiling Bottura at his side.
These stories of celebration will be told for many years, but the story of what happened just after the win, the year of hard work, new projects, hundreds of thousands of air miles travelled, hours of speeches given, and endless nights working on new ideas - that story will be told now, below, in Bottura’s own words.
“It was hard to believe it was happening. We had been on the cliff for a while. Number six, then four, then five, then three, then three again, then two… My god! The stress."
"When El Cellar De Can Roca was announced number two, I hugged Joan Roca. When Osteria Francescana was announced number one, my legs went weak. I could barely make it to the stage, so many people were hugging me."
"I called Lara up and that felt like the moment, like we had arrived on the top of Mount Everest. It was really like: ‘Wow, we did it – we never gave up on our dreams’."
"I felt the Italian pride thing kick in and took out my Italian flag scarf to show the world that Italy matters. This one was for the Team."
A Knock from The Police…
"The restaurant crew were in Modena celebrating all together at Franceschetta (one of Bottura’s other restaurants in the town), our daughter Alexa was with them too. They made such a racket that the police showed up. When they asked what was going on, Davide (head-chef) said, ‘we are the number one restaurant in the world!’ The policeman said, ‘Yeah right! Close down the party!’"
"The team just moved the party to the Osteria Francescana kitchen. There is a great photo at 3 am on the street in front of the restaurant with everyone there."
Your Celebrations in New York
"I did the interviews and a little press conference but I couldn’t wait to get out of there and go to the party at Eleven Madison Park."
"When I arrived, Ducasse was there and said, 'I am here for you'. What a guy, what a gesture. He was one of the most important teachers for me and the one who believed in me the most."
"Daniel Humm, Ducasse and I sprayed champagne on people dancing - we were all acting like the teenagers. At 4am, the restaurant was completely trashed, I didn’t know how they would open for lunch the next day."
Back to Massimo
“Lara walked me back to the Nomad (Hotel). It took me 30 minutes to walk three blocks, I didn’t want the night to end. I was so drenched with Champagne and beer, Lara put me in the shower completely dressed, shoes and all, so much for that Gucci suit! We laughed, put the wet clothes in a laundry bag and went to sleep."
The next, rather hazy, day…
"I woke up early the next morning with hundreds of messages from friends, colleagues, and the team back in Modena. The fist person I talked to was Beppe Palmieri (the restaurant manager and sommelier). We had said just two words the night before but that morning we really talked, almost cried together on the phone. He was at Osteria Francescana getting ready for lunch service – business as usual."
"My second thought was: how proud my mother would be."
"Third: I’m really lucky to have Lara beside me."
"I slipped down to breakfast and made a cappuccino for her. Nothing like coffee in bed with the world’s number one restaurant chef, right?"
"Then Charlie our son called me. He said: “Papi sei numero uno davero?” (Dad you are number one, it’s true?). He was so proud. Then I took a million calls all day long!"
"The night after the awards, we went to Eleven Madison Park for a beautiful dinner. Daniel Humm and Will Guidara had organised something incredible in the kitchen. They called us in mid-way through the meal and, as we entered, we saw Italian flags – big ones with the number one taped to them – hanging in the kitchen. The Fratelli d’Italia national anthem was playing. It hit me then and there. My chest tightened and I broke down. That was the real thing!"
"We brought the flags back to Modena and hung one outside the restaurant from the window above the door – we kept it up for a month and now its in the staff dinning room."
The Return to Italy…
“We got back to Modena two days after the awards. We were picked up by Luca, a friend and occasional driver. Beppe and the rest of the crew were waiting for us to arrive, the restaurant was open. Guests were waiting for us after lunch. When we pulled up and got out of the car – gavetoni – buckets of water were thrown on us."
"That is the way we celebrate at Osteria Francescana – water and tears. There were hugs with everyone, my brother arrived, the restaurant guests arrived. It felt like the whole town was there."
That First Week after Winning
"The first week was magical but not because there were journalists knocking at our door- the energy in the restaurant and the dining room was unbelievable and lasted all summer …actually it still hasn’t faded. It felt like we were floating on air. The town was celebrating with us, cheering us on, congratulating us."
"Nothing changed but everything was accentuated and intensified. But nothing really changed. We have been in the top 10 for over seven years and everyday we feel we are playing a final of Champions League football. The award was a confirmation that all our hard work was worth the sacrifice. We were proud of ourselves, but more than that, we are proud of the team. We held our Italian flag even higher."
The Soup Kitchen in Brazil...
"This is where I spent my summer vacation, working to open a soup kitchen in Rio and then once it was open, working in a soup kitchen in Rio."
"It was the best antidote to stress, to the overwhelming sensations, to everything that had happened. I brought the family and Alexa was in the kitchen with our team for the first time in her life. Charlie helped serve the tables. Lara kept me calm and smiling."
What was the most difficult part of Rio?
"Everything. It was an impossible mission that we made possible. There wasn’t one moment of calm or peace. Nothing worked. The day we opened there was no electricity, no running water, and no gas stovetops. We smoked banana peels in the courtyard for a banana peel carbonara pasta cooked on a campfire gas burner for 100 + guests. It was amazing and surreal. The day before we opened I got the tattoo – 'No More Excuses' – on my arm, so that I would never forget this time in my life."
What was The highlight of Rio?
"Transforming a neighbourhood, a piazza and a plaza from ugly and abandoned into a beautiful, active space for the community. Instead of homeless people and drug dealers in the piazza, there were children playing. The RefettoRio Gastromotiva is designed like a light box, it glows, and shines in all of its simplicity and humility. When I left Rio, I felt like I had really left it a better place, at least in this small corner of the city, we had brought some light."
What did you learn for future Food for Soul projects?
"I learned that two is not enough. I learned that we have lots of growing before we can say that we are on our way. Its like we are on the yellow brick road heading to OZ and have only met two of the characters: the scarecrow and the tin man. Our journey is still a long way to go."
The newest soup kitchen will open in London, June 2017.
Have you noticed a change in attitude towards food waste?
"I think that our greatest contribution is not making the Refettorios but pushing the topic and giving it a new spin. We showed how to put words into action – how to make a difference by doing, mobilising, asking for help, and creating synergy among the arts, culinary, architecture, design, etc."
"There are so many amazing projects out there working with food waste. Our contribution is to help reduce waste while bringing better food to the people who need it the most. I have always said that we don’t need more soup kitchens but soup kitchens that do more. Because they can."
"The gesture of breaking bread together, sitting down to a healthy, warm and delicious meal surrounded by people, it much more than the sum of the ingredients. It is a gesture of love."
How Many Countries Have you Visited Since the Win?
"Japan (three times), Brazil, Russia, USA (3 times), Mexico, UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany."
What discoveries, new dishes, techniques did you make this year?
"We have some new plates, some really fun ones, some serious ones and some work that began years ago that we are continuing to develop. We are constantly working on new dishes, and finding new ways to express ourselves. New Techniques, not really; new Ingredients, not exactly; finding ways to take an idea and turn it into an edible bite, that is what keeps us going."
The NY Times listed you as a “creative genius” who defined culture in 2016. How did that feel?
"Amazing. Lara, a native New Yorker was raised on the NYT . Her mother, Janet, almost cried when she saw me on the cover of the magazine. Jeff Gordinier wrote a moving piece that put into perspective everything we have been doing over the past 10 years. It was such an honour to be among Lady Gaga, Kerry James Marshall, Zadie Smith, Michelle Obama, and the other greats. This is one of the highlights of my life."
Why was this so important to you?
"For the sole reason that they got the whole thing about culture being the baseline and motivational force behind our kitchen at Osteria Francescana."
"We are not inspired by nature, a sunset or a tree, or some mushrooms. We are inspired by human thought, reflections on nature. Like J Beuys Capri’s battery… he saw a lemon in a totally new way. He took a lemon and plugged it into a light socket – to ask questions about nature and technology and our shared need and desire for light."
"So, if he sees nature like this, then I see his work, how does that enter the kitchen, where nature, technology (technique) are put together in edible bites to talk about identity, history, anthropology, poetry and memory? All for what? To find small moments of emotional connection through food. Deborah Needleman, the Editor of the magazine, got that. Most people don't"
What’s been one of your top public events, presentations or talks?
"I never think about the best talk because each time I give a speech or presentation there is always something to take back with me. I usually leave gourmet festivals with more than what I came, even in the case of Food on the Edge which due to a scheduling conflict, meant that I arrived at 3 am and was on stage at 10 and off to the airport at 12 noon. That was the shortest and longest trip I have ever taken to give a speech – 12 hours travel for a 45 minute talk – but I look back on that event as one of the most emotional ones. It was the first time I told the story of my tattoo, No More Excuses, and the adventure of opening the Refettorio in Rio. All the emotions from those intense days in August came to the surface there on stage. An amazing experience! Next time I hope to stay a bit longer."
The Honorary Degree from Bologna university - how did that feel?
"It felt important. I felt smart and recognised from people who don’t know anything about gastronomy. It was an award for creative business management, how we took a small Osteria and turned it into a laboratory of culture and ideas through food, food as a medium for a message, food as a signifier for identity, food representing a nation."
"I dedicated it to my mother who always was on my back about studying, which I rarely did. I liked playing football and hanging out with my friends. I never finished university so to have a degree 30 years later means more to me than to most people."
"It is acknowledgment that I have contributed in a positive way to Italy, to Modena and to the Italian kitchen."
Were you surprised to be given this?
"More than me, my high school friends, the ones that have known me the longest, were surprised and really proud. They made t-shirts with my face on it that said, “from now on call me Dottore.” (from now on call me doctor)."
Coming Soon: Bottura will open a soup kitchen in London, June 2017. He will cook at the OzHarvest dinner on April 2nd in Sydney and on April 5th in Melbourne he will find out if his Osteria Francescana restaurant will remain top of The World's 50 Best Restaurants list - we will there on the night bringing you a livestream of all the action as and when it happens - don't miss it!