Tradition in evolution: Massimo Bottura reflects on tomorrow’s meal
The man behind Italy’s best restaurant and arguably one of the world’s most influential chefs, Massimo Bottura was in Australia recently to talk about the future of food and foodservice. He shared his thoughts with Danielle Bowling.
There’s a reason why Massimo Bottura is one of the world’s most loved chefs. Of course he’s hugely successful; his restaurant, Osteria Francescana, which he opened in 1995, has three Michelin stars and is rated second best in the world according to San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants List. He names Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adria as being amongst his biggest influencers, and despite locals’ initial reluctance to embrace his unconventional approach to the Italian cuisine, he helped put the town of Modena on the map by offering a menu the likes of which the world has never seen before.
But it’s more than that. Chefs and food lovers across the globe find Bottura’s humility, passion and excitement contagious. He’s constantly thinking about the next step, not just for Osteria Francescana, but for the Italian cuisine and the restaurant industry at large, with a particular focus on the people and produce that make it what it is.
In Sydney for the recent MAD Symposium, a one day food summit hosted by fellow acclaimed chef Rene Redzepi, Hospitality was lucky enough to steal a few minutes of Bottura’s time to talk about his restaurant, his team and his vision for the future.
The theme of the MAD Symposium, held at Sydney’s Opera House, was ‘Tomorrow’s Meal’. Chefs David Chang, Neil Perry, Peter Gilmore and Kylie Kwong joined Redzepi and Bottura as well as other food professionals in discussing the key changes that the foodservice industry will witness over the coming years.
According to Bottura, the best is yet to come for Australia.
“For you, in Australia, it’s exciting. You have so many things to build and so many things to put together. I was reflecting on one of the panel discussions from MAD where we were asked ‘what is Australian cuisine?’ And I don’t think it’s what Rene did here (with his 10 week Noma Australia pop-up at Barangaroo). That’s not Australian cuisine. Those are Australian ingredients reinterpreted by a Danish mind,” Bottura told Hospitality.
“I think what Australia has to do is find traditions. And what are traditions? Traditions are innovations that are well done. When people realise that an innovation was extremely well done, it becomes tradition. Pizza. Pasta. Tortellini. Lasagna … So what I think Australian chefs should do, is get closer to the farmer, the fisherman, the cheesemakers, and start with primitivism. So, for example, cook with fire, then after that you start adding techniques and creating new dishes, or through a contemporary mind, you start reinterpreting some plates that are part of growing up. Like that, you create a new Australian cuisine,” he said.
Bottura lists Ben Shewry (Attica), Peter Gilmore (Quay and Bennelong) and Lennox Hastie (Firedoor) as examples of chefs who are using quality Australian produce to recreate and reinterpret classically Australian concepts.
Back in Modena, tomorrow’s meal is totally different.
Osteria Francescana. Image: Paolo Terzi
“It’s different because we have so many centuries of history that we don’t have to build; we have to break. We don’t have to build a cuisine and tradition, but we have to break tradition to make sure that traditions are going to evolve in the right way,” he said.
That is the very essence of Bottura’s philosophy at Osteria Francescana: to look at tradition with a critical eye, take the best parts of it and present them to diners in a way that evokes emotion and lets the quality of the produce speak for itself. Some of the most popular examples from his menu include the dessert Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart, the result of a happy accident in the kitchen where one of the restaurant’s chefs dropped a lemon tart just prior to its service, prompting Bottura to completely reassess how the classic dish should be enjoyed. Another is Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich, the traditional version of which Bottura had every day as a child, and which took him four years to recreate at Osteria Francescana, eventually serving up a mortadella foam with a gnoccho fritto, pistachio and garlic cream.
“If you look at the past in a critical way, you can see the wrong parts of tradition and change it to get the best parts and bring them into the future. If you see the past and you look at tradition in a nostalgic way, you don’t evolve.”
Oops! I dropped the lemon tart
It’s so important to Bottura that his dishes evoke emotion in his diners, and while many may see him as completely reinventing Italian cuisine, he says that one of the best ways to connect with Osteria Francescana’s guests is to find creative ways to honour their most nostalgic food memories.
“If you think about the crunchy part of lasagna (another dish at Osteria Francescana), that’s not contemporary Italian. It’s Italian cuisine in its most emotional form. Because serving, on a plate, the crunchy part of the lasagna – you know, it goes directly to the heart. Every kid in the world knows that the best part of the big pan of lasagna is the crunchy part on top. And that’s what I’m doing,” he said.
“To me, it’s about transferring emotion. The crust of parmigiano reggiano that you can chew, sometimes that’s more emotional than a mediocre caviar. So emotion is the most important thing.
“When I see tears in the eyes of people? Yes, that’s success.”
The next generation
So what does it take to run the world’s second best restaurant? Passion and preparation, Bottura said. He looks for chefs and service staff that are as creative and excited as he is, but who are also prepared to work hard in order to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience, day after day.
“If you’re good at something, even if you didn’t practice in the best restaurants, it doesn’t matter. If you’re good and you’re devoted, you’re passionate, you read, you listen, you’re educated – then you’re going to find a family at Osteria Francescana.”
The restaurant currently employs 43 staff for a total of 30 covers per service: equating to 1.4 staff members per patron.
“When I realised 16 or 17 years ago that I had to create a very important team, that was the key moment for the restaurant. Because the team is everything. Yes, I am the chef and I’m the one that keeps everything together; maybe I’m the visionary, but the team is the team. And I’m here in Sydney talking to you and I feel comfortable to leave Modena because of the team and the people that are working with me. They know exactly what I think and how I want things,” he said.
Bottura’s two sous chefs have been with him for 12 years, and his maitre’d for 16. The restaurant gets 1,900 stage applications each year. It’s fair to say that the staffing crisis that so many Australian chefs struggle with isn’t shared in Modena. But that’s not to say Bottura doesn’t recognise the difference between today’s young chefs and those of his own generation.
“Now, a big percentage of young chefs arrive in the industry because of TV, because they want to be part of the cooking scene, but they don’t realise that our job is about hard work. Every day. So 90 percent is hard work, and 10 percent is talent. Young chefs don’t realise that when I say ‘learn everything’, that doesn’t mean moving from Noma to Osteria Francescana, El Celler de Can Roca to Alain Ducasse and crossing them off your list. No.
“The younger generation, they want to do stages. They are very quick, because they think they’ll learn everything (that way). But the most important things are culture, vision, intuition. For a restaurant like ours, it’s not just about good food. It’s also about good ideas. That is extremely important,” he said.
When in Modena, Bottura is at the restaurant all the time, greeting guests and motivating and educating his team members.
“It’s all about passion. I give a speech every week about ideas and vision. And they absorb these kinds of things. I want everyone to read my book because it’s not a cooking book, it’s more like a creative book. They have to understand how every single recipe has been created and why. This is my cuisine. And if you keep stimulating their mind, they’re going to stay close to you.”
The call to act
Throughout Bottura’s presentation at MAD, he continued to repeat the line ‘cooking is a call to act.’ It goes without saying that Bottura has used his profile as one of the world’s best chefs to encourage people to see food as a cultural representation and a creative expression rather than just a source of fuel. But he’s also encouraging chefs to make better business decisions, not for their bottom line, but for the wellbeing of the community.
As such, Bottura has launched the Food for Soul Foundation, which supports the opening of soup kitchens around the world and aims to shed light on food wastage.
His call to action isn’t reserved for high profile chefs or those with a global reach. You don’t need to own a chain of restaurants or have your own wine label. Every single foodservice business can make good choices, Bottura said, even the little pizza store on the corner.
“They can do it. For example, they can look at what kind of flour they choose, what kind of yeast they use. Maybe they can create another yeast and wait at least 36 hours for the dough to rise? Use the right tomatoes, or the perfect mozzarella. And at one point, the life of the pizza will be ready, you’ll serve it and it will be perfect. Then, when there’s pizza left at the end of the day, use a chain to recycle or serve that pizza to the right people, who need it. That’s the right way to act. That’s the call to act.”
He’s adamant that Food for Soul is not a charity organisation, but rather a non-profit cultural project.
During his MAD presentation, he told the audience, “Do we need more soup kitchens? We need more places that revive neighbourhoods. We need more places that restore the body and the soul. If we change the way we think about ingredients, nourishment and community; if we stop throwing away our food; if we revive ethical practices in the kitchen, this can be the start of a new culinary tradition.
“I am a chef and when I think about the future of food, I think about ingredients. What is the single most important ingredient for the future? Culture. Culture brings knowledge. Knowledge leads to consciousness. From consciousness to a sense of responsibility is a very small step.”