The Italian mega-chef behind acclaimed restaurant Osteria Francescana is back on top of the world and ready to prove why cooking is truly an act of love

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)

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“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!”

(Related: Why The Fat Duck And Osteria Francescana Will Not Be Ranked In World's 50 Best Restaurants)

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:

You speak of preserving tradition, yet what you do at Francescana is very modern.
Massimo Bottura (MB)
Because I believe in beauty! I believe in culture, and culture brings knowledge. And knowledge brings conscience, and conscience a sense of responsibility. And so the culture of beauty can change the world. When you break things, like I did with my tradition and my past, you have to rebuild; that’s the most difficult thing.

What about those who aren’t familiar with Italian food and your references?
MB Actually, I have to say that the people who travel from all over the world to eat at Osteria Francescana know more [about Italian food] than some Italians. What does this tell you about your food? When I say that Osteria Francescana is a laboratory of ideas, and we feed emotions and we feed culture, this is exactly what it is. How does it stay relevant? Like the great artist Ai Weiwei was explaining to me, to break a 2,000-year-old vase is to break tradition, but breaking it is just a starting point, starting a new tradition. It’s not about forgetting our past. Looking at a country’s past in a critical and not a nostalgic way is key to building its future.

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What’s a dish that best describes this point?
MB I think Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart is rebuilding, in a perfect way, imperfection. Even the five different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, in five different textures and temperature... and the dish Bollito Not Boiled—boiled meat that’s not boiled. A new dish we have now is called Wagyu Not Wagyu—we’re rebuilding this popular meat, its quality of fattiness and muscles... In the end, we rebuilt wagyu with fake wagyu—meaning we cook the pork belly and heart separately. And then we slice both very thinly. Then we compress these in a vacuum pack for a couple of weeks, so that they become stuck together. Then we slice it very thinly onto a plate and serve it with a ponzu sauce made with burnt onions—and we serve it as a dessert.

The point is very simple: I’m serving, for a cost of 15 cents per dish, a quality of ideas that cost 1,000 euros. This idea is so strong and illuminating. If you work hard, if you have the right technique, if you have the right culture and you have knowledge, one day you can be wagyu beef. It has the same meaning as The Potato That Wants to be a Truffle dish.

Is Osteria Francescana a restaurant or a laboratory?
Actually, it’s a restaurant, because, at the end of the day, we have to restore the soul of the people that have travelled from all over the world. But it’s a very unusual restaurant, which expresses my mind as three passions. One is food, one is art and the other is music.

Given your association with the best things in life, why is giving to the less fortunate so important to you?
MB I don’t really care about the money. When I rebuilt the restaurant in 2012, I rebuilt it with only 12 tables. And every first of the month, there are 20,000 people trying to get a table at Osteria Francescana. The choices I make [to partner with Gucci and Maserati] are all about quality. It’s Italian, it’s quality and it’s about friendship. Gucci’s CEO has been my friend since we were 14 years old; we shared the same desk in high school for five years. And Maserati is part of the Modenese community. Both are obsessed with quality. Both are rebuilding the future while thinking about the past in the same way.

Credibility is extremely important in this life. Without Osteria Francescana, I could never do what I did for Food For Soul—because it is at Osteria Francescana that we are improving recipes with leftovers and surplus ingredients. Foundations like Caritas and Gastromotiva take care of everyday life and that’s the charity part. Our part is cultural—it’s about fighting food waste through our knowledge. But in that project, we involve a larger community of creative people—like architects, artists and designers—to create beautiful spaces to rebuild the dignity of the people we help feed.

If you have the right culture and you have knowledge, one day you can be wagyu beef
Massimo Bottura

What about creating food that everyone can afford?
That’s a different thing. That is a reflection I had when I created Franceschetta 58 [a casual restaurant, also in Modena]. You can walk in and have a great meal for 30 to 40 euros. The head chef now is Francesco, who worked at Osteria Francescana for eight years. And he’s hosting the young generation, even some locals, who are very interested in food... He’s also hosting the older Modenese who can’t get a table at Francescana. And they spend much less, so they aren’t complaining about eating very small portions and having to pay a lot of money, [not realising that] there are 60 people at Francescana working for 28 guests.

Has your work on the refettorio changed you as a chef?
No. When I said cooking is an act of love and I write it in the books, it is exactly that—an act of love. We cook in the same way, with the same passion in a Michelin-starred restaurant, at the refettorio.

What other plans are in the near future?
Refettorio is a big project because we are expanding into North America. Even Franceschetta 58 has amazing potential everywhere. Gucci Osteria is so successful in Florence that Gucci has already asked if we are open to expanding outside Europe.

Editor's note: When we met Bottura, he also spoke about restoring an 18th-century villa in the country just outside Modena that he posited "could one day be 12 rooms full of beauty next to a park that’s 250 years old". He added that it might only be for special events. We now know it's a luxury inn named after his mother, Maria Luigia, slated to open this spring, according to a recent report by WSJ Magazine. The fact that 12 is also the number of tables at Osteria Francescana might only be a coincidence, but we can safely surmise that securing a reservation at Casa Maria Luigia will be just as tough. 

(Related: Massimo Bottura And His Fight Against Food Waste)

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