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Bottura was born in Modena, Emilia Romagna, in 1962. Midway through a law degree in 1986, he bought and renovated his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, and apprenticed himself to Georges Coigny at his restaurant Locanda Cantoniera. For the following two years he spent every Sunday and Monday – when Campazzo was closed – driving two hours into the mountains to learn. In 1989 Bottura opened the Harley Club (named after his purple Springer). Its after-parties and food offering became the stuff of legend. A chance meeting with Alain Ducasse saw him move to Monte Carlo to work at Le Louis XV. In his early 30s, Bottura took a sabbatical in New York and cooked at Caffè di Nonna, where he met his future wife, Lara Gilmore. In 1995, he returned to open Osteria Francescana. After Ferran Adrià dined there in 1999, he invited Bottura to El Bulli for the summer of 2000, where he met lifelong friend René Redzepi. Francescana won its first Michelin star in 2002, its second in 2006 and its third in 2011. It won the World’s Best Restaurant in 2016
Massimo Bottura is one of life’s true polymaths. He’s the kind of guy that would annoy the hell out of you at school. He breezed through class with top grades, collecting all the sports trophies as a motorcycle-driving lead singer of a band with the prom queen on his arm. He could have played football for Italy – ‘I was one of the best in the country’ – a law degree didn’t challenge him and, had he wanted to, he could have been one of the finest artists of his generation. But he chose food. And the gastronomic world should rejoice every day that he did.
Bottura was the man Netflix chose to launch its acclaimed Chef’s Table documentary series. His pilot episode set the tone for the introspective, questioning, highly stylised productions the show became renowned for. The series was modelled in Bottura’s image: cerebal, modern, and quite beautiful in its simplicity. As Bottura questioned the existential nature of food, viewers embraced the window into his stream of consciousness that the programme allowed.
His three-star flagship, 12-table restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena has been in the top five in the World’s Best list since 2010, winning the number one spot in 2016. An understated entrance on a back road gives way to three diminutive dining rooms. Pieces by Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan and Matthew Barney dot the walls and match the modern art on the plate. His food is challenging. The dish which made his name, Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, is a plate that features vast and far-reaching technique in homage to his town’s finest export. To say it encapsulateshis food doesn't go far enough to explain the canon of his kitchen, though it's a good place to begin to understand the man behind it:
‘With that dish I am saying “here we are as Mondenese and this is what we do best.” Yes, it is a skilled dish but it is in essence a celebration of my region. My muscles are made of Parmigiano Reggiano and my blood of balsamic vinegar,’ he delivers with an almost straight face. I fast realise real life and metaphor blend seamlessly with Bottura and as we speak, I consistently find I’m a couple of paces behind his thought process.
I’m not the first to languish in the slipstream of his mind. While he’s considered one of the greatest chefs on the planet today, it hasn’t always been the case. His style of cookery flies in the face of one of the most ardently traditional mother kitchens. Italian food does not embrace change; it actively spurns it.
When he opened Osteria Francescana in 1995 and until 2008, when his became the best restaurant in Italy, critics were slow to acclimatise. Silvio Berlusconi’s TV show Striscia la Notizia (The News Slithers) accused him of poisoning Italy with his ‘chemical cuisine’.
‘In Italy, you cannot go against soccer, or against tradition. I was in the eye of the storm with eight or nine million who watched that show hating me. Can you imagine that?’ He sits up on his chair and looks me straight in the eye. ‘My daughter, Alexa, was seven and came back from school asking me, “Dad, are you sure you don’t poison people?” Everyone was against me. Not one chef stood up for me.’
‘I called all my guys at the restaurant together and said, “If you believe in what we’re doing, stay. If you don’t, you’re free to go.”’ Not one of them left.
Italian magazine Espresso was the first to about-face. It awarded Bottura its Best Young Italian Chef and Dinner of the Year in 2006. Its leader writer, who had penned a hatchet review six years previously, ate his words and it marked a sea change for the Italian press. As his reputation outside of Italy grew, a conservative public began to recognise the importance of what Bottura was trying to do with Italian food. Was there a moment when he felt accepted? ‘I don’t think I will ever be 100 per cent. What I do is take an icon of our national cuisine and treat it with a totally different spirit. Italian people get offended. But I am not trying to change anything. With dishes like The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne, I’m trying to evoke memories of stealing the best bit of lasagne as a child, to recreate a sensation,’ he explains.
Bottura’s childhood had a huge influence on his cooking. His mother Luisa stayed at home cooking for Massimo, his three brothers, sister and their father, Alfio. The youngest by six years, Bottura speaks fondly of hiding under the kitchen table watching her cook. He’d eat the pasta that fell to the floor and scavenge rapaciously. This tableau spawned the idea for one of his most famous creations: Tortellini are Walking on the Broth.
‘In my life, I always keep the door open for the unexpected. I enjoyed school and started studying to become a lawyer, but I wasn’t happy. I was doing it to please my father. One son was an engineer, one a doctor and he wanted to complete the set, but I wanted something different,’ he recalls. ‘I’ve always been a passionate man about the things I love: art, music, football and food. The passion for food started running deeper and I felt drawn to it. My brother Paolo encouraged me and my mother was my strength. Even though it annoyed my father, she told me to follow my passion. I told my dad that, one day, I would bring a three-star Michelin restaurant to Modena and he laughed at me. That moment has motivated me ever since.’
One week after that
conversation, he opened
Trattoria del Campazzo in
an old trucker’s caff on the
outskirts of Modena. On his
first day open, an elderly lady
walked in looking for a job.
‘Lidia is blind in one eye and
had limited sight in the other.
When I gave her the ingredients
for pasta, she showed me that
you do not need physical
vision to be a great cook. That
lady handled 160 eggs a day
and taught me what pasta
meant to her. Without her, I would not be the chef I am.’
While his post-modern plates are at the vanguard of
cuisine, there’s a humility to his
persona and his food. ‘There
will always be a future,’ he
says. ‘And that reminds me
where I came from.’
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