Text by Anthea Gerrie
At the after-party of this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards – the culinary equivalent of the Vanity Fair Oscars party – Massimo Bottura did exactly what he wasn’t supposed to do.
The Italian chef’s Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena had just been named the world’s third-best restaurant for a second year running, and the shindig at the Clove Club in London’s Shoreditch was meant to be a well-deserved night off for the world’s best chefs. Instead, Bottura went into the kitchen and saw what he could find. “It was 2am, and I looked in the fridge and saw eggs, Parmigiano and guanciale – it had to be gin and tonic carbonara!”
When we meet the next day in the Connaught hotel bar in London, he claims to be suffering from flu – after his late-night snack, he’s cancelled most of his TV interviews and is nursing a super-strength espresso to get through this one. Still, even with a sore throat, Bottura is attractive in an Italian film-directorish way.
Bottura is the Italian chef who’s been doing things out of kilter his whole career. If you were to sum it up, you might say that he’s taken grandmother’s recipes and given them the Jackson Pollock treatment. At Osteria Francescana, in the heartlands of Ferraris and balsamic vinegar, he can do spectacular tortellini with Parmesan sauce, but his signature dishes are defiantly eccentric. “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart” is one of the all-time great reconstructions of a kitchen accident; “Camouflage”, a nod to Picasso, features foie gras hidden in powders of chestnut, hare’s blood and herbs designed to resemble woodland camo.
Other dishes have had names like “Tribute to Thelonius Monk” and “Eel Swimming up the River Po”, and Bottura says he’s been inspired by everyone from Lou Reed to Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Beuys and Gertrude Stein.
Though he’s come to be regarded as one of the world’s most-admired chefs, tradition-obsessed Italians haven’t always been so impressed by the cook who learned arch artiness in New York and wildly experimental cooking at elBulli. “In Italy you can’t mess about with soccer, the Pope or grandmother recipes,” he says. “For a long time, people didn’t understand or appreciate what we were doing.”
But it was with grandma’s recipes that Bottura began. He grew up in the Emilia-Romagna region with three older brothers, and used to hide in the kitchen (“My safe place”) to escape his brothers as his mother, aunt and grandmother made tortellini and authentic ragù. “My parents were in the oil business, and my mother cooked every day for at least 10 people,” he remembers, “though at the weekend there would often be 20 round the table.”
As he got older, he’d go with one brother to Alba to taste truffles, and with another to Piedmont to taste wines for the family cellar. While his passion for food grew, his future was mapped out, however: he would study law and work in the family oil business. But, as a 22-year-old law student in 1986, he saw a little roadside restaurant outside Modena with cheap rent, and “jumped at it”.
The Trattoria del Campazzo wasn’t an overnight success. For a start, says Bottura, “My father was not happy I’d left the family business – he didn’t talk to me for a couple of years.” A more pressing problem was the fact no one was coming. He apprenticed himself to French chef Georges Coigny in Piacenza to learn the ropes, only to become more adventurous, not always helpfully so.
“My first risk was combining French techniques with classic Italian dishes – serving a perfect sauce with a roast guinea hen. This was not what Italians like at all. They hate butter, so I learned to make these sauces using meat extracts and juices instead, so they were rich but light. But still no one came.”
Then, one day, someone did come. The legendary French chef Alain Ducasse was in Modena looking for balsamic vinegar, and asked a local for a place to eat. “When they sent him to me, he tasted my food and said: ‘Come to Monte Carlo’. I went to the Hôtel de Paris for six super-intense months, at a time when Ducasse was revolutionising French cuisine. He gave me the opportunity to do everything from making bread to working on the pastry line.”
By 1995, when he found Osteria Francescana, a 19th-century restaurant in the medieval heart of Modena, he’d had another epiphany while working at New York’s Caffè di Nonna. American waitress Lara Gilmore, who would become his wife, came from an art family, and set about educating Bottura. “That was life-changing,” he says, “not just because I met my wife but because it opened up my mind to a contemporary way of thinking. Nothing was ever the same again.”
From the start, Osteria Francescana was experimental – something which went into overdrive when Ferran Adrià called Bottura to spend a season at Catalonia’s game-changing elBulli, the making of so many of today’s great chefs (both Noma’s René Redzepi and Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca did the same thing). “It was not so much learning technique as finding the freedom to express myself, to tell stories, to give rein to my emotions.”
As he got bolder, and his dizzying range of influences grew, he got more controversial. “Was I going to boil the meat for Bollito Misto just because people have been doing it in Italy for 1,000 years? No! I was going to preserve the flavour by compressing it and cooking it very slowly in a water bath.” He insists that he’s not trying to throw tradition out of the window, but instead to challenge and build on it.
Yet Italians are still making their minds up about him – and his coronation as Italy’s best chef by outsiders remains a subject of national debate. The World’s 50 Best list has been seen by many, even outside Italy, as rewarding flair and gimmickry over the honest cooking for which Italy is known. Bottura concedes the jury is out: “There are many Italians who are simply not going to accept radical treatment of their local cuisine just because a restaurant has won international acclaim.”
Now, rather than resting on his laurels – his only other venture has been a casual trattoria not far from his fine dining establishment, called Franceschetta 58 – Bottura is about to test his reputation by trying out some new ideas in Istanbul. Why Istanbul? “It’s the capital of three empires, a door between the West and the East – and they wanted me there very badly,” he explains, simply.
“They” is Eataly, a high-end Italian food megastore, which was founded by electronics entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti, and has spread to the USA and Japan. Eataly’s most recent incarnation is in the Zorlu mall in affluent Beşiktaş, well away from the souks, domes and mezze parlours of the old town – and its crowning glory will be Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura.
Bottura’s plan for the restaurant sounds typically bold. “The idea is rebuilding the history of Italian cuisine… delivering 100 classic recipes in a different way. I think a great deal about how much of our culture is influenced by the past. Italy, like Turkey, is a country that has been trampled and traversed by so many different peoples throughout the ages. Each left something that has been integrated into our gastronomic culture, and finding the new in something very old is interesting to me.”
Will his customers be Italian expats, or Turks crying out for Italian food with a twist? For once he seems fazed: “I have no idea – but we are launching to Italians in Istanbul with a party organised by the Italian Embassy, so I’ll soon find out.”
The restaurant should have opened by the time you read this magazine, so the early verdicts will be in. Bottura may be reassured, however, that while Italy is eternally suspicious of its rare mavericks, Turks may welcome the refined madness.
Modena is less than two hours’ drive from Milan; Norwegian flies to Milan and Istanbul, home to Massimo Bottura’s latest venture. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com