When a friend of mine who is Deputy Editor of a prestigious Australian magazine, told me she managed to line-up an interview with the chef from the No. 1 restaurant on the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, I politely begged her if I could tag along too. Incredibly she said yes, and the following month I found myself bound for Modena, in central Italy, to meet chef Massimo Bottura.
Within thirty minutes of meeting Massimo in his office behind Osteria Francescana, I concluded that we were in the presence of a creative genius. Despite the lunch service looming, Massimo generously gave us so much insight into his work; I don’t think I have ever met anyone quite like him. I started off by asking him what it is about his food that is so special.
Massimo: I think I found a way of expressing myself, through food. I am obsessed with quality; not just quality of food, but also quality of ideas. Osteria Francescana is a laboratory of ideas; and creativity with food is very contagious.
Massimo describes the process of creating a new menu as an “intellectual act”; he knows before he starts creating a recipe whether a dish will work, or not, purely by intuition.
Massimo: You have to learn to trust yourself. I’ve been here thirty years, I grew up very slowly, like a tree, and I travel a lot to learn everything. In order to create a new recipe, you have to know everything, and then forget everything. And then in this journey of creativity, you have to leave a door open for something unexpected. If you then walk through that door you have the possibility to see the world from another point of view. In that moment you can see a flash, and if you can catch that flash, you get the moment of creativity.
Massimo’s restaurant is located in the region of Emilia-Romagna, often referred to as Italy’s “food bowl”, and home to Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan Cheese). One ingredient, one dish, twenty years in the making, the incredible, Five Ages of Parmigiano, is Massimo’s signature dish. It’s like nothing I have ever eaten before!
Massimo: In the kitchen we (the team) compress into edible bites our passions. I love music, I love art; and if you have a bit of culture, then it’s not just good food you’re creating, it’s something more.
To be a chef today, Massimo says they must have a “big sense of responsibility”. After reading an article by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations on food production, sustainability, and poverty, Massimo was inspired to speak out. The article stated that 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted each year and one quarter of that could help feed 870 million people who need it. During the Milan Expo in 2015, Massimo worked with a Catholic charity and Milan’s famed Politecnico for the restoration of an abandoned theatre – Teatro Greco – into a 21st century refectory. The stage was turned into a kitchen and the auditorium the dining room and it became a place for the homeless where meals were created from leftovers from the exhibition. Refettorio Ambrosiano was born, and today, thanks to Caritas Ambrosiana, the soup kitchen lives on permanently, serving the hungry. The Refettorio Ambrosiano has become a true community centre, presenting theatre, music and special events for the community of Greco and the people of Milan.
During the 2016 Rio Olympics, Massimo again enlisted an incredible team of international chefs and they opened his Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, turning food waste into nutritional meals for the poor. Massimo has plans to open the soup kitchens in cities including Montreal, Berlin, New York City, and his hometown of Modena.
Massimo is quick to explain to me that what he is trying to do is more than just a soup kitchen; the projects are attracting not just famous chefs, but also artists and designers who are wanting to create places of beauty that inspire connection and change. Volunteers are able to learn culinary skills from some of the world’s best, and some of their incredibly moving stories from Reffettorio Ambrosiano can be seen in the documentary Theater of Life.
After speaking with Massimo, and then sampling some of his extraordinary dishes, I can see how his creativity and passion, has resulted in him becoming the No.1 chef in the world today!