To say that the best dining experiences are no longer about good food alone may sound like a gratuitously narcissistic platitude—and for the most part, it is. But when one of the world’s most in influential chefs tells you he doesn’t cook to create good food, but good ideas, one can’t help but pause to revise one’s initial reaction.
One would also have to consider the calibre of the source—in this case, the culinary artisan that is Massimo Bottura, chef-patron of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, which was crowned World’s Best Restaurant last year; it first topped the lauded list in 2016. Granted, Bottura has garnered both praise and criticism since opening his restaurant in 1994 in the town he grew up in, mostly for his wildly imaginative reinterpretation of Italian cuisine, which has caused some to describe his cuisine style as “extreme”.
And yet it only takes a step back to consider the likes of Spain’s Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, Brazil’s Alex Atalaof D.O.M, and Denmark’s René Redzepi, the chef and co-owner of the iconic restaurant Noma—among many others—to appreciate the virtuosity behind Bottura’s vision of modern Italian gastronomy.
(Related: 10 Things We Learned From Massimo Bottura)
“You travel from all over the world to eat this kind of food that is totally different from just good food,” says Bottura as we catch up during his visit to Singapore late last year at the invitation of American Express to mark the relaunch of its Platinum Card, which rewards members with one-off dining experiences like this one with the Italian master chef.
“Of course it’s amazing food; it has three Michelin stars. But more than that, it’s about eating great ideas,” he posits. For those who have had the opportunity to dine at Francescana, the dishes are undoubtedly contemporary, even playful, yet a little nostalgic. The cuisine isn’t Italian fare as many of us know it, but it’s still relatable. His famously endearing The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna, for example, is a deconstructed ode to his favourite childhood dish, featuring his favourite bits.
“People are travelling [to Francescana] to eat emotions,” explains the charismatic 56-year-old chef. “They don’t need to eat a big pan of lasagna [like the ones] their grandmothers would bring to the table, as it was done 100 years ago. They just need to eat as the kids eat, stealing the crunchy parts—that’s the emotional part, the crunchy part on top of the lasagne.”
He adds that when lasagne is prepared for the staff meal, he still rushes to steal the crunchy bits. “They don’t keep it aside for me—I have to go for it!”
That is, of course, if Bottura has the time. The top chef has a number of projects on the side and a few more in the pipeline; last October, he opened Torno Subito (which means “I’ll be back soon”) on the beach in Dubai, and might even open a bed and breakfast. But the projects he’s currently prioritising involve a different personal ambition. “Once you arrive up there, it’s important to give back,” he says. “There are people interested in money and building empires, and there are other people who are more interested in helping others.”
The Il Tortellini project in Modena, from example, was launched as a means of teaching special-needs children life skills, taught by actual “rezdores”—housewives and grandmothers who traditionally hand-make their pasta ahead of the feast days. “Of course, it’s about Charlie—and my son always keeps me grounded with his genetic issues—but it’s also about keeping traditions alive,” explains Bottura.
Most notably, Bottura is seriously passionate about growing his refettorio—or Food For Soul—soup kitchen initiative, which was launched in Milan in 2015, and through which surplus food is recycled to make meals for the poor and defeated. (It also picked up the award for Ethical Thinking at The World Restaurant Awards' inaugural edition this month.) To open a refettorio every day in every place in the world that needs one is a dream of the chef ’s; currently, it’s opened in Brazil, Modena, Bologna, London, Paris and soon, in Naples. He’s also looking to launch a refettorio in Mérida in the Mexican state of Yucatán.
“It would be very important to open in the United States—like in San Francisco, Denver, Detroit and New York,” says Bottura, reiterating the fact that the decision is determined by the people in the place they want to open. “It’s extremely important to have people who understand the project and can really help us in the daily operation; it’s all about creating a community.”
Here, Bottura tells us more about the passions that drive him: