He is legendary, Chef Massimo Bottura. He is a dreamer, a visionary, an extraordinary professional who pushes the envelope and never gives up. But who is this man, who was crowned with esteemed title of Best Chef in Italy?
Bottura, who had worked with the likes of greats like Lidia Cristoni, Georges Coigny, Alain Ducasse and others opened the now famous Osteria Francescana in 1995, juxtaposing tradition and innovation with contemporary art and design in Modena’s Medieval city centre. It wasn’t easy at first, but due to his hard work and constant striving for perfection he earned numerous accolades. Bottura received the “Grand Prix de l’Art” from the International Culinary Academy in Paris 16 years after opening Osteria Francescana. He was later decorated with a medal of honour for his contribution to Culture and the Arts by the city of Modena. Later in 2011, Massimo achieved a life long ambition when Osteria Francescana was awarded its third star by The Michelin Guide and achieved near perfection with the highest vote ever recorded -19.75 out of 20 – in the l’Espresso dining guide. He earned “Chef’s Choice” at the 2011 World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in London. The restaurant currently holds 5th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and has been voted the best restaurant in Italy for four consecutive years.
In November 2011, Bottura, opened his second restaurant in Modena, Franceschetta58, an informal brasserie and bar serving small plates that showcase Italy’s finest produce in all its diversity. Bottura is married to a former Washingtonian whom he met in New York, Lara Gilmore. The two have just made a trip to NY and DC.
Pamela’s Punch: Why this trip to Washington DC?
Massimo Bottura: The trip is part of my role as Ambassador for food for the Year of Italian Culture in the United States. I am presenting my tasting menu- Come to Italy with US in three cities, New York, earlier this week, Washington, tonight and LA at the end of the week.
The Year of Italian Culture in The United States is a programme of events designed to showcase the best of Italian culture and identity through art, music, cinema, literature, architecture, fashion and of course, food.
PP: Tell us about your background, your inspiration for your chosen profession?
MB: As a kid, I was always under the kitchen table. It was my refuge from 3 older brothers’ torments and threats. I found peace at my grandmother’s feet as she rolled out the dough for tortellini, among the smells of broth and roast meats, and silenced by the constant chatting of my grandmother, mother and aunt who prepared meals for the 10 of us every lunch and dinner. These memories are probably why I became a chef.
When my brother told me about a trattoria on the outskirts of Modena for sale in early 1986, I just knew that was the right thing to do rather than continuing to studying law. I bought it and opened it a week later. I didn’t know a lot about running a restaurant but thankfully my mother came in to help and soon after I met a cook called Lidia Cristoni. She taught me all the basics of running a restaurant kitchen. I then apprenticed myself to Georges Coigny in Piacenza, a classically trained French 2 Michelin star chef who was working with local traditions in the hills above Piacenza. There I really learned how to cook and also how to dream. After that experience I went onto Hotel de Paris in 1994 with Alain Ducasse. Later I had a wonderful experience cooking in Adrià’s kitchen at El Bulli during the summer of 2000 and in 1995 opened Osteria Francescana in the center of medieval Modena and have been there ever since.
PP: You won Best Chef in Italy – that is an unbelievable feat – by the way, I’ve never been to Italy and my favorite cuisine is ITALIAN! What does that mean to you?
MB: It means a lot to me but Osteria Francescana is not just Massimo Bottura but the amazing team we have created together. Yoji, Davide, Taka, Ricardo, Michele, Renata, Franco, Vince, Tomo and many others are the key to our success in the kitchen. Beppe, Andrea, Luca, Lorenzo and Francesco are our secret weapons in the dining room. And of course, Enrico, Lara and Ricardo in the office.
At Osteria Francescana we are a family – we fight, we make up, we play soccer in the streets, we celebrate our birthdays with tiramisu, we support and criticize each other because we all believe that together you can do great things.
PP: Who are in your opinion the best chefs in the U.S.?
MB: There are too many to name and in so many different genres, I don’t think it’s really correct to lump them all together. I have great friends who I totally respect like Mario Batali, Daniel Patterson, Grant Achatz, Daniel Humm, David Chang, Jose Andres, Eric Ripert, Wiley Dufresne, Dan Barber, Mark Ladner, and more.
Then there are very interesting chefs I am getting to know like Roy Choi and who are adding important ideas to the scene. There are too many to name and there is always someone to discover, like Sean Brock of Husk who I keep hearing about or Fabio Trabbochi in DC who I am meeting here and cooking with at Food and Wine Festival in Maya Riviera, Mexico next week.
PP: Do you have any idols?
MB: My idols are the artisans: the cheese makers, the butchers, the farmers and those who provide us with the raw materials for our craft. The relationships we develop with our agrarian brothers are everything to our future. Italy’s greatest resource is its artisans. We must support them and reflect light on them in order to guarantee that the next generation of artisans will be there for our children and grandchildren. It is very important that young chefs do not loose themselves in their own dreams of grandeur but keep building for the future of Italy. The more we focus on territory, on the amazing resources we have been given by our ancestors, the more we are able to create recipes with lasting value. Ethics and aesthetics go hand in hand. Think about the power of Slow Food and how it has changed a generation of chefs. This is the trend for the next decade, and maybe forever. Someday instead of Chef superstars, there will be farmer superstars. That will be a great day indeed.
PP: What do you think about the Italian chefs in the states?
MB: I admire anyone who makes the hard choice to become a chef. There are no easy paths to success in this business. As Picasso often said “success is 10% talent, and 90% hard work. All my respect goes out to those chefs who dare to make a difference in their community and country.
Generally, I don’t seek out “Italian restaurants” abroad. I am usually looking for something else when I travel. I often eat locally at small start ups but there are many excellent Italian restaurants abroad from Del Posto in NYC to Fiola in DC and more. In the US today you can find some of the most precise and clean Italian food around. These restaurants (the serious ones, I mean) pay great attention to detail, ingredients and traditions.
PP: What do you think about the restaurant/chef scene in DC?
MB: Actually I have heard a lot through writing and tweets of critic Todd Kliman. It’s too early for us to say and we have too little time to try all the amazing restaurant choices. We ate at 28 seat Thai restaurant Little Serow last night (we queued up at 5pm) and really enjoyed it – the food, vibe, and sound track. Today I’ll see Fabio at Fiola. I would have seen Jose Andres but he’s out of town. Tomorrow I am having lunch at the World Bank which has some very interesting food from around the world.
PP: What do you plan on doing while here in the Nation’s Capital?
MB: Museums – like the Hirshorn where Ai Weiwei had an amazing show, you can still see some of the work like the snake back pack piece, the light box and his Chinese zodiac heads. Or the Corcoran which has a great photography show on and the Lincoln Memorial which I’ve never seen.
photo credit: www.osteriafrancescana.it
Pamela Lynne Sorensen is the founder of Pamela’s Punch, a platform for profiling people who "make it happen" in the Capital region, reviews & topical blog posts. She launched Punch Enterprises, a connector consulting business in 2015 and Pacific Punch based in LA, in 2012. Pamela comes from an extensive background in sales and business development from a variety of industries, has been involved with charities and fundraising for a number of years and holds several Board and leadership positions. She currently resides in Arlington, VA. Follow her on Twitter at @pamelaspunch.