Stepping into the mind of Massimo Bottura should come with a warning.
It entraps, captivates, and seconds later, you're lost in reverie; that is his fantastical sphere, questioning whatever you thought you knew about food. Declaring Bottura as one of the world's greatest chefs has escalated to being a firm statement, instead of an assumption. His restaurant Osteria Francescana in the small town of Modena has been steadily hovering at the peak of the World's 50 Best Restaurants for a while now, and this year, the gem of Italian gastronomy is back to claim the number one spot.
But at this point, does it even matter? Not for a man like Bottura. The man is an artist who cooks for a living.
"Last year, we were No.2. And we worked like crazy. I know that whether you're No.1 or No.2, nothing really changes," the silver-haired Italian chef remarks.
Bottura is sitting across me, sharply dressed in a navy cardigan, white tee, black skinny jeans, as his eyes widened through his Gucci frames. He is here for a special Amex Platinum Cardholders event, where members are exclusively invited to witness a cooking demonstration as well as an eight-course dinner cooked by himself and his team. Being chef-owner of the haute restaurant in Modena, is only one of the many hats Bottura wears. He is also the founder behind Food for Soul, an important non-profit organisation that feeds the hungry and raises awareness on food wastage and social isolation in the world.
We're in an opulent presidential suite at The St Regis Singapore, which is coincidentally where Kim Jong-un stayed in during the recent Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. That was of course, the least of my concerns — Bottura is now deeply engaged in one of his maniacal thought processes, revisiting an existing dish at Osteria Francescana that heeded inspiration from his childhood.
"You come to Osteria Francescana to eat emotions."
"Every single kid in Emilia-Romagna [where Massimo grew up] knows that the best part of the lasagne is the crunchy part from the big, old pan cooked by our grandmothers. I was fighting over that part with my older brothers. But in 2018, who cares about eating from the old pan? We need to stay focused on emotions! You come to Osteria Francescana to eat emotions. If I show the locals that I can cook better than my grandmothers, I can break tradition and rebuild in a contemporary way." The dish titled, "The crunchy part of the lasagne", is an iconic signature of his 3-Michelin star restaurant — incarnating the lightness and concentration of the bolognese sauce in an unrecognisable chip. This is a tale that Bottura has probably retold over and over again, whether it be to wide-eyed journalists (like myself), customers and food critics — but it was reiterated to me like it was for the first time.
Like many of Bottura's creations, age-old traditions are broken with the conceptualisation of a dish. This was a controversial direction that almost broke Bottura, before he was even made. "People wanted me crucified," says Bottura while breaking out in laughter. But he wasn't joking. Back in 2001 when the vision of Osteria Francescana was first established, the Italian community wasn't too thrilled about their grandmothers' recipes being altered. Especially when tortellinis weren't meant to be served in a line of six on a plate; they were meant to fill up spoonfulls of ten. The restaurant was close to winding down before a notable food critic wound up in Osteria, and gave a glowing review that turned things around drastically.
"I'm breaking my tradition but I'm not defeating my tradition. I'm breaking my past to rebuild through a contemporary mind."
"If you're an artist like Ai Weiwei, you are involved in modern-day social matters and breaking tradition at the same time. There's a photo of him breaking a vase that's 2,000 years old. I'm breaking my tradition but I'm not defeating my tradition. I'm breaking my past to rebuild through a contemporary mind, " he muses.
It's a complex mind you have there.
(Laughs) But it's my mind.
So much of it comes down to your love for art and culture. How do these ideas all happen?
I'm trying to look at things in a deep way. As Picasso says, "Never copy yourself, always copy someone else." Because with more ideas, you can really make it yours. So I steal the ideas from the artist, compress these ideas into edible bites, centre them in the history of Italian cuisine and filter all that through the contemporary mind. It looks and sounds complicated, but it's normal for me to look at things like that.
That's probably what makes Osteria Francescana the World's No.1 restaurant...
These are the ideas, because the truth is that people have very complicated minds. It's not just about good food, it's about good ideas. These ideas make a difference from a normal restaurant to one, which you want to travel to, from everywhere in the world. They are here [at Osteria Francescana] to try the mind of the chef.
What was one idea that really made an impact in your career?
The expression of the coming-of-age process in Emilia-Romagna. My daughter, who is 21 years old, hasn't tasted the vinegar that my grandmother prepared for her when she was born. Usually it's a tradition passed down from grandmothers to the younger generation — which they can only taste once they're 25. That inspired me to create five different aged parmigiano cheeses in five different textures and temperatures. This eventually became the plate of the decade for Italian gastronomy. All it took was two ingredients — parmigiano and time for the cheese to age; in this case it was 24, 30, 36, 40 and 50 months respectively. This dish is unique and made in Modena.
What are you currently working on at the moment?
My world is a world of many different opportunities; we're going to open Food for Soul in Naples to develop a soup kitchen there on 30 September. At the end of October, we're opening a restaurant in Dubai. It's going to be a circus on a beach. It's going to be fun. At the same time, we're opening this new foundation in which we are putting together teenagers with different special needs and abilities to give them a future in making handmade pasta. This gives inclusivity in society.
"We understood that by being together, we could be a louder voice. So I started to use words like "we" instead of "I". It's not my project, it's our project — because the team is the most important thing."
Food For Soul has been a long-standing project initiative for you. Was this the vision you had when you first became a chef?
That's a big question. When I first decided to be a chef, I didn't know what I was doing. Because I was giving up a very easy life to follow one of my passions, out of my interests of music and art. I chose food but maybe I didn't choose after all. Perhaps it was the door of gastronomy that opened for me and at that moment, I walked in. The area that I live in has always been very socially inclusive. We understood that by being together, we could be a louder voice. So I started to use words like "we" instead of "I". It's not my project, it's our project — because the team is the most important thing.
"Don't be pushy, just grow slow. And when your ideas are very mature, people will realise that. You're going to be ready to influence others and be the leader of your generation."
What is your favourite part of being a chef?
It's a very creative line of work. Being a chef in 2018, you have a big responsibility. When you're up there, people are looking at you so you have to be an example. And I became a chef at the right age, but my growing process was very slow, like a tree with big roots. I wasn't a foolish guy who did crazy things, but instead, I became an expression of something bigger than a chef. A chef that's a leader of a group of 60 people in Osteria, another 10 in Franceschetta, and another 10 in Food for Soul.
This is a very good message for the young generation: don't be pushy, just grow slow. And when your ideas are very mature, people will realise that. You're going to be ready to influence others and be the leader of your generation.
Three people (alive or dead) you would cook for?
It would be my mum. That would be amazing, because I lost her and I'm still looking for her. There's so many... I would make the best fried chicken for Charlie Parker because he was crazy about fried chicken. Bob Dylan, as he was one of my greatest inspirations, or maybe Picasso...
Where in the world would you travel for food?
Everywhere. In the most remote place in Africa, or in the biggest city in the world. I always keep my mind open to the unexpected. I always discover something amazing when I'm travelling. For instance: Singapore, it's unbelievable how fast the food scene has grown and evolved. You just have to be open-minded to realise that you can have a true prize everywhere, even in the darkest corner of the world.
What is your personal definition of success?
The key is waking up in the morning, and going to bed at night. And in the meantime, doing what we have chosen to do. So to quote Bob Dylan, that is the key to success. When you choose to do something, you're going to put all of yourself [into it] because it's your passion.