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Father Of Modern Italian Cuisine
HE'S DOING FOR Italian cuisine what Ferran Adria did for Spanish food, but don't mistake Massimo Bottura as the Catalonian master chef's apostle. As far as chef Bottura's followers are concerned, he's a messiah in his own right.
The chef-patron of the Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana is the only Italian chef to hold double honours with three Michelin stars and the No 1 spot on the World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2018 and 2016 - final validation of his once-controversial mission to transform his country's culinary landscape.
There was a time when locals in Modena wanted him dead for daring to modernise traditional Italian recipes - such as lining six tortellini in a neat row instead of piled high in a bowl like Nonna serves it. He is now seen as the father of modern Italian cuisine, inspiring a generation of young chefs in the process.
It's not that tradition doesn't have its place, says the 56-year-old chef who was in Singapore recently. "What I learned from the French (he worked with Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo 24 years ago) is that we don't have to be as nostalgic as they are. Nostalgia is nice - it's very comforting but you don't evolve. It's important to break that connection." But he's not advocating that one should barrel towards the future and forget the past. The point is "to bring the best from the past to the future".
For sure, you can't do all this without a firm grasp of "who you are and where you come from", says the maverick chef. "It's not easy. Most people never ask themselves who they are. I know exactly who I am. I am a cook. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, but I wouldn't have been a good one. So my mum pushed me to follow my passion. My passion has always been art, music, and food. The door of gastronomy was opened to me at 22. I walked through that door and I never left."
The non-conformist opened Osteria Francescana in 1995, and despite initial failed attempts to convert diners to his reinventions of classic cuisine, fans now flock to his restaurant for signature dishes with quirky names like The Crunchy Part of Lasagne. Since his restaurant starred in Netflix's popular Chef's Table series, he's become a bona fide celebrity in a career gilded with one honour after another.
Although the main driving force for him is to move beyond nostalgia and create his own identity while still staying true to his own culture, he had an epiphany of sorts 20 years ago while working at elBulli under chef Adria. "What I learnt from him wasn't technique. It was more a lesson on freedom. That was very important - in a much deeper and emotional way."
FREEDOM ON A PLATE
A select group of diners got a taste of that "freedom" in a special eight-course dinner chef Bottura prepared for American Express Platinum card members. The aforementioned The Crunchy Part of Lasagne, is his rendition of the past and future fused into one.
This reinvented Italian classic recalls childhood memories of stealing the crispy burnt corners of his grandmother's lasagne - "the best part" - presented as a sheet of crunchy, tri-color pasta (in Italian flag colours) perched on bold-flavoured meaty ragù and airy béchamel foam.
Not one to shun his heritage, the chef continues to champion food from Emilia-Romagna including Modena's famed balsamic vinegar and parmigiano reggiano. He lugged a huge wheel of the cheese and his family's precious bottle of 50-year-old balsamico for guests to savour, waxing lyrical about the umami profile of the parmigiano reggiano and the sweet, tangy vinegar.
GUIDES, LISTS, AND REINVENTION
When asked what restaurant guides and lists mean to him these days. Bottura says: "It's very difficult for me to talk about what they mean. I've already received everything - so to me it's much better to think about what you can give back."
He continues: "I created a global movement together with my friends. As chefs, we've shown the world that we are much more than the sum of our recipes. We can be a voice of change. Together, we have a louder voice. That's the most important thing when you've achieved these amazing awards."
INSPIRING HIS TEAM AND THE WORLD
Boturra constantly credits his team for their energy and dedication. "It's all about hard work, focus, and building a team. But without the best team, I couldn't possibly do everything that I've done," he says.
It's clear that it's a two-way street of support and inspiration. Chef Bottura remembers how, years ago, his sous chef Taka Kondo accidentally dropped a lemon tart - the last dessert of the evening. He was shell-shocked and embarrassed, and repeatedly apologised to chef Bottura. Instead, his boss simply stared at the smashed piece of lemon tart, and exclaimed: "Look at that! That's beautiful!".
On the fly, chef Bottura recreated another serving of dessert just like the smashed up version, serving it to the guest who loved it. The dish was later christened: "Oops I dropped the lemon tart!"
Chef Bottura had found beauty in a mistake, and turned the shattered dessert of lemon zabaglione, verbena sorbet, candied bergamot, and fragmented pie crust into a success.
Osteria Francescana, he says, is an incubator of ideas. "It's where we create culture, and we expand in many different directions. We don't just cook. We transform our edible ideas, our dreams, our passion. We serve emotions. That's how everything starts. But the future - who knows? I already have ideas - but trying to develop and digest them. It's unbelievable to contribute to the food scene."
After Singapore, chef Bottura flew to Merida, Mexico, to cook a couple of dinners to raise money for Food For Soul, a non-profit organisation, which he founded with his American wife, Lara Gilmore. With the proceeds, he hopes to open a new Refettorio - his version of a community soup kitchen - in Mexico soon. The aim is to offer free nourishment with dignity to those in need; as well as to fight global food waste by preparing these meals with ingredients that might otherwise have been thrown away.
Meanwhile, Bottura's team will launch Food for Soul in Naples, Italy, in September and possibly in San Francisco in March. The Italian culinary icon is determined to "fight food waste, feed people, restore dignity, transfer knowledge, and contribute to the community", while continuing to grow his congregation as an Italian food evangelist.