Italian cuisine

Massimo Bottura: The chef who reinvented classic Italian cuisine

(CNN) — When rumors emerged late last year that chef Massimo Bottura was considering moving his three-star Michelin restaurant Osteria Francescana from Modena, Italy, to London, the Italian city’s mayor panicked.
“The Osteria Francescana will remain where it is, in Modena,” he told local media, after calling the chef himself to find out if the rumor was true.

The mayor’s panicked reaction came as no surprise to residents. Bottura is to Modena what the Colosseum is to Rome.

Osteria Francescana in 2015

Courtesy of Mattia (MO)

His Osteria Francescana, which opened in 1995, is a culinary icon in this city of 180,000 people in the heart of northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, a region famous for its fast cars and its balsamic vinegar. It ranks third on the current list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and receives more than 120 reservation requests every day from hungry customers vying for one of its 35 seats.

All this hype begs an obvious question: in a country already renowned for its culinary excellence, what makes this 52-year-old chef so special? To put it simply, he dared to do what few chefs have been confident or skilled enough to do: reinvent classic Italian cuisine.

Edible artwork

Massimo Bottura Food Art Kitchen Style_00012408

Bottura is fascinated by contemporary art and is an avid collector

Dubbed a monastic-looking visionary chef, Bottura defines his cuisine as “traditional, but seen from 10 miles away.”

Like an alchemist, he elevates Italian cuisine to the rank of art by associating its essence with painting, music, philosophy and literature. The result is a blend of tradition and irreverence that touches all the senses – an experience akin to admiring the works of Jackson Pollock or Mario Schifano, the master of Italian pop art.

A sampler dish, called “Five Steps of Parmigiano Reggiano,” turns the cheese king by transforming its hard surface and interior into a sublime mousse.

“Pasta and Bean Squeeze” transforms a humble peasant dish into a multi-layered masterpiece of cream, baked red chicory, cream of beans, a thinly-cut pasta-like Parmigiano crust, and rosemary mousse.

Then there are the dishes that would probably shock your Italian grandmother, like “The eel that goes up the Po river” and “The snails under the vine”.

Spirituality permeates Bottura’s creations.

Dishes such as “Tribute to Thelonius Monk” are concept plates based on meditation, listening and tasting in the dark.

“Ever since I was a kid, I was a troublemaker”

massimo-osteria-pigeon

The Osteria Francescana “Pigeon Hunt” dish includes pigeon breast, beetroot juice, turnips, porcini mushrooms, apples and truffles.

Courtesy of Paolo Terzi, Modena

Although Bottura has achieved worldwide fame, being innovative in the country that gave the world pizza, lasagna and pesto is not easy.

“For us Italian chefs, we grew up with such an important heritage, it’s so important to focus on that,” he told CNN.

“So in another way, in your mind, you think tradition is oppressive…it’s so hard to be creative with such a heavy legacy.”

Bottura says he looks at history in a critical – not nostalgic – way “to bring the best of the past into the future”.

“Ever since I was a child, I was a troublemaker – I escaped from my older brother under the kitchen table and from there, where my grandmother defended me, while waiting, she rolled pasta “, explains Bottura.

“I was looking at the world from another point of view. This is what we do every day at Osteria Francescana.

“We look at the world from another point of view and we compress all our passion, music, art, our past, our experiences, our memories, into edible bites.”

Can’t Stop This Skinny Italian Chef

“Oops! I skipped the lemon pie!” — both a dish and the name of a chapter in chef Massimo Bottura’s book.

Courtesy of Paolo Terzi, Modena

Despite all he has accomplished, Bottura is not content to rest on his past successes.

For Expo Milan, which kicks off in May, Bottura will open the Ambrosian Refectory, an initiative to feed the homeless with daily leftovers from the event. Last year he looked back on his 25-year career with a book called “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef”, which features 50 recipes and stories highlighting his life, motivations and cooking techniques.

The chapter titles are as quirky as the names of his dishes, including “Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich” and “Oops! I Ditch the Lemon Tart!”

He recently exported his passion to Istanbul with the opening of Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura, his first adventure abroad. Franceschetta 58 is the new spin-off brewery from Bottura, which can be defined as a more humble take on Osteria Francescana.

Located outside the medieval center of Modena, its aim is to introduce locals to dishes from other Italian regions.

“I’m a food traveler. I close my eyes and want to understand where I am,” says Bottura.

“Cooking is emotion, it’s culture, it’s love, it’s memory.”

Franceschetta 58, Strada Vignolese, 58, 41124 Modena MO, Italy; +39 059 309 1008

Silvia Marchetti is a freelance journalist based in Rome. She writes about finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian.