A Conversation with Massimo Bottura, Superstar Intellectual Italian Chef
The chef in his laboratory of tastes and ideas. Photo by Erica Firpo.
Our continuing adventures during Chefs Travel week takes us to Italy for a converation between contributing editor Erica Firpo and Massimo Bottura, the chef whose flagship, Osteria Francescana, has three Michelin stars and sits at #3 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list — about his new cookbook, about food and art, about the importance of Playboy to the young boy's mind.
MODENA, Italy – Every time I think about the time I had lunch at Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura's three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, I smile. Who else would create a transcendental dish dedicated to parmesan and call it The Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano? And who would sit you in a restaurant decorated with his personal art collection which includes pieces by Vezzoli and Cattelan?
To make a long story short, a few years ago I treated myself to Bottura's tasting menu at his restaurant in Emilia-Romana. The next thing I knew, I was driving around Modena with Bottura to meet his wife Lara Gilmore and to say hello to pieces by Maurizio Cattelan, David Salle, the Chapman brothers, and Marcel Dzama, among others. I told them I loved every piece and therefore I loved them. They told me they were writing a book.
Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is his new conceptual cookbook, a beautiful tome that looks gorgeous on the coffee table. It's filled with Bottura's stories — transporting tales through head, heart, and stomach. As a reader, you take the journey with him. Bottura is a creator: His dishes are edible, personal stories that traverse travel, tradition, perspective, and, to some, patience. They are as much about art and word play as they are about culinary experimentation. We recently had a chat about all of the above.
What was the first piece of art you purchased?
One of the first contemporary works we bought was Turisti by Maurizio Cattelan. We saw the taxidermy pigeons at the Venice Biennale in 1997. By December, once the exhibition was dismounted, ten were in our apartment in Modena. We didn't dare put them in the restaurant at the time, but today some of the pigeons are hanging from the rafters of Osteria Francescana. We installed them after a renovation in 2012. The rest of them sit quietly on a bookshelf in our living room, observing us from above.
What was the last? What's next? What else do you collect?
I just bought, after years of desiring and hunting, two Joseph Beuys pieces. The first is his classic felt suit — one of the most important works in his career — and a material that became a signature for him, the way Parmigiano-Reggiano and traditional balsamic vinegar are for me. The second is a La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi, a print that shows Beuys walking with his determined gait, iconic hat, and safari vest, a comment on the many social sculptures initiated in Italy in the 1980s.
The first film we ever made for OF was an attempt to describe our creative process through the close examination of two different recipes. We called it We Are the Revolution after Beuys' conceptual premise. We still don't know if these new works will be hung at home or at the restaurant. We always say, "We don't find the art. It finds us." And in that same breath we add, "The art knows where it needs to go."
How would you define your creative process?
My inspiration comes from living in the present and from not getting too caught up in the day-to-day. I daydream a lot. I probably would have been put into the category of ADD when I was a kid. Thank goodness no one noticed or corrected this trait. I let my mind wander as often as I can and I travel through my memories, my experiences allowing my eagerness to taste life guide me. Whenever I find myself in a new place, I eat locally and seek out simple authentic food. That is how I understand a place, through my palate. When I was in China, I learned the technique of making dumplings. In Sri Lanka, curry, and in Thailand how to balance spices. All these experiences are added to my cultural baggage. They become part of me and part of my kitchen. They tell stories about my travels and experiences. I am very interested in personal cooking; not in national or regional cooking. I want to feel that the chef is there, somewhere, in that recipe, speaking to me, asking me to change my point of view.
I always suggest that young chefs read, travel, and dig as deep as they can into their culture to understand who they are and where they come from. Then and only then can they discover their true motivations, passions, and inspirations. This is what I have done over my 28-year career.
So, to answer your question, my creative process begins with the world around me, who I am, and where I come from, but everything I have read, listened to, watched, cried over, tasted, and dreamt. I often say, "learn everything, then forget everything." It is so important to fill one's suitcase with culture, books, music, literature, and art, travels, and then kitchen experience. Cooking is not manual labor but a thinking man's job. I mean, creativity is creativity. It's not throwing a piece of meat into a skillet. That is cooking. What we are trying to do requires jumping into that pan with your soul. One of the most valuable ingredients or tools in the kitchen, and one too often left behind, is the mind. If you really think about it, the only zero kilometer cooking is that which is taking place in our minds. I can dream anything or traverse continents without leaving the kitchen.
Your dishes are conceptual and playful in nature and in name. They're Duchampian — inspired by art and experience. Would you elaborate on that?
I am actually reading a fantastic biography of Duchamp and I love the Calvin Thomas book Afternoons with Duchamp. He had his finger on the pulse long before many others. The language and the titles of my recipes are intrinsic to the ideas and stories behind them. There is Duchamp in there, but also Boetti. Words play such a big part of our world today, and maybe have since the bible, since Gutenberg's printing press. Many artists have used words as visual signifiers for other things — culture, consumerism, and identity. If you call a poached turbot with faux grilled marks "Is this a grilled turbot?" you not only create a curiosity among the diners but you begin to address other issues: How should turbot be cooked? Why is it always grilled on the Adriatic Riviera? Isn't it time we question that?
Food is nourishment not only for the body but also for the mind. Stimulate the appetite, but feed the hungry soul. Language has played a role in my kitchen since the first savory potato and onion Cappuccino, then Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich, and so on. A little bit of irony goes a long way, especially if you think about how serious and set in stone the Italian kitchen can be, which is an oxymoron in itself because the Italian kitchen is based on improvisation, yet everyone wants to write down the absolute truth. Well, it just doesn't exist. Bollito, not boiled. There you go.
What's your favorite name of one of your dishes? And your favorite name for a piece of art?
I love the way Alghiero Boetti's mind works. "Immagine e somiglianza" is the title for a series of works by the artist, but the expression also refers to most of Western art. As for my recipes, it's hard to pick just one. They have become companions over the years. Oops! I dropped the lemon tart talks about imperfection and Millefoglie di foglie addresses the importance of finding poetry in the everyday. I love the recipes because I love the ideas behind them as well as the flavors, not just the word play.
You mention Notari "Come to Italy with Me" and "tearing up the pages of the Silver Spoon." You're an Emilian chef who both throttles Italian cooking traditions for not encouraging creativity and grabs hold of other regions to shake them up. What does tradition mean to you?
Tradition is everything. It is our geography — every bell tower and church dotting the countryside. Tradition is an accumulation of human gestures. And when it comes to traditional food, then one is also addressing agriculture, artisans, territory, and identity. I do not deny traditions but work through them, never assuming they are right but always trying to respect their origins. My kitchen is probably (and ironically) the most traditional in Italy today, even if it doesn't look that way. The only way to safeguard our traditions is to let them breathe and grow and move out of the comfort zone. When they become comfort food, then there is the inevitable decline. The critical (and constructive) mind is distracted by sentiments and nostalgia, and consequently the ragu looses something magical in the process. It just becomes another routine instead of a solution to a question, an active gesture, an attempt to revive not just repeat.
You've made the Emilia Burger for Shake Shack. What are you saying about Italian food and your cuisine to Americans?
If you make an Emilia burger at home, then you will know what I am saying about American food. Good idea, but poor followthrough. What is the great weakness of any hamburger? The patty is always dry. That is why we added ground cotechino and Parmigiano-Reggiano: flavor, gelatin, and texture. Try it and see what happens to your hamburger. By adding a dollop of salsa verde instead of insipid lettuce or a pickle, we've added acidity and chlorophyll in concentration. The touch of balsamic mayonnaise rounds out the flavors and lends depth to the palate. I love America. And I love street food. Eating a hamburger in a park is one of the great joys of being in a city like New York, but if you add a little Italian zing, then wow! Wise contamination is a good thing.
Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is wonderful — a hybrid coffee table/family history/cookbook that focuses on three-dimensionalization of an idea. It's not just a cookbook or a culinary history. Where do you want to see this book?
I'd love to see the book leave the shelves and migrate to elementary schools and libraries and museums, or find a secret community under the beds of a teenage boys, like the once-coveted issues of Playboy we all collected as kids.
Many of your dishes, like Pollution, have a message. What is your overall message?
I honestly see each recipe in the context of what I learned from it or what we as a restaurant learned from making it. So recipes are little life lessons for chefs and for restaurants. I am still making them up, so I probably won't know the final message until it is too late. The career of a chef is like a puzzle. Over time the pieces fall into place and you begin to see a picture, but often it is not what you thought it would be. I began wanting desperately to be avant-garde, to break the rules and live dangerously. The more I grow and learn, the more our kitchen whispers rather than shouts. I like this reversal because I'd rather engage an audience in an idea, a flavor, a string of thoughts than shock them. Our kitchen leads you inward like a labyrinth to a place called flavor — which at times can be familiar and at times alarming. We hope unforgettable and enduring. That is what we aim for. But the real message of the book is directed at the next generation: Be like a tree. Grow slowly.
TIME TO START COOKING
Buy Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, by Massimo Bottura
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
18 New Cookbooks to Inspire Your Wanderlust
I Left My Heart at Don Alfonso
Fathom Milan Guide