Becoming Italy’s best chef today requires a striking culinary genius. At first unsettling the deeply traditional culinary habits in Italy by remaking its regional fare like spaghetti bolognese, chunks of aged parmesan, thin crusted pizza, Massimo Bottura created a delectable volcano of bubbling disturbances at the epicentre of change from in his native Modena.

Yet, time worked in his favour, since any gastronomic fanatic cannot ignore the existence of the Italian chef Massimo Bottura any more. The three Michelin decorated chef behind one of the best restaurants in the world – the Modena based Osteria Francescana, partnered with the Expo 2015 in Milano and even with the Pope himself when he cooked from the Expo’s food waste for the poor people. The Pope’s nod to his talents may swoosh even the staunchest enemies of his food revolution.

The importance of art in contemporary cooking for Massimo Bottura

I spoke to the eloquent chef while dining in his wine cellar at the Osteria Francescana. His body language of a conductor swooning his arms in giant motions as he talked, made him feel so authentically Italian that if I have not just eaten his off-stream dishes I would not believe that he would challenge his nonnas cooking. The chef’s inspiration though has also been “a dialogue with contemporary art”. In Bottura’s case, this idea went further. In the rough beginnings of his celebrated restaurant, its existence heavily depended on a mutual exchange between the chef and a group of diners, that happened to be involved with art: “I shared ideas with artists. I fed them and they fed me.”, he said.

The ideas spinning son of Modena shines his aura on the local produce with a striking rainbow of transformations. He defines his vision as “tradition from a distance.” , by not uprooting the highly personal and emotional Italian culinary tradition, but redefining it. His use of contemporary language of gastronomy facilitates the change of the form. Like modern art, shifting our perception of reality through an artist’s unique definition and so opening our mind to questioning what we see and how we define it, the chef pours his genius on the plates. By applying artistic imagination transferring the common Italian and in particular Modenese dishes, many may feel deceived even betrayed by his unfaithful detour, yet the gustatory pleasure rewards even those who do not believe in his ideas. His food tastes incredibly, and once you read his book Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef (Phaidon) you will appreciate even more his creativity and intellect.

Contemporary art is one of the muses for his culinary creations. Collecting sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs, and accommodating controversial installations and displaying them at his restaurant also became as essential as the recipes themselves. His penchant for American music from Johnny Cash to John Lennon, and the lyrics of some of their songs became another source of his plate-centred nourishment.

Photo by Phaidon PressItalian chef Massimo Bottura

Culinary mentors from traditional Italy, through classical French to futuristic Spanish use of technology

Born to a middle class Modenese family engaged in the heating oil business as the local car-industry-driven economy supported, Massimo Bottura was driven to another domestic feature of his region – the food. His grandmother, had cast her spell over his palate. He writes in his book: “in between Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià, there will always be my nonna (grandmother) Ancella keeping me connected to the emotional part of each recipe.” Emotions are essential in the Italian expression of self and the chef herds them out with a force of a locomotive steam. As most Italian sons, he loved his mother’s and grandmother’s cooking, but once he grew up, he realised that it is more habitual rather than based on reality. Unlike for most Italians, this nostalgic enchantment by childhood did not stiffen his resistance for change but on the contrary its stirred his creativity. The chef sets galactic goals for his culinary impact. Carried by this rocket of emotions, they seem to set their feet on yet unknown planets faster than any Italian chef was able to achieve to date.

Indeed, many traditions endure for the sake of routine. Still, being raised near home of the Ferrari, the Italian boy blurbing inside Massimo Bottura allowed for minuscule car models to find their proud starting line-ups as they are displayed around the wine cellar inside his small gastronomic temple in the midst of old Modena.

Aged 23 he bought a trattoria and transformed it into the local popular foodie haunt. Alain Ducasse, the French culinary father of hundreds of promising chefs today, dined there once and was so impressed, that he invited him to cook at his eponymous Louis XV. in Monaco. The Trattoria del Campazzo was like a surrogate mother to the now three Michelin stared (and the best gastronomic restaurant in Italy) Osteria Francescana. His ready-to-be-born baby opened in 1995 after the chef’s summer stint at Adrià’s El Bulli, at the time the world’s best and most innovative restaurant located in Spain.

Influenced by the two iconic chefs and their kitchens, so that “the Ducassian mantra of terroir” infuses his creations, while El Bulli’s transformations of ingredients beyond their natural reality keeps them interesting for the ever curious diners. For example in his ‘Memory of Mortardella Sandwich’, Massimo Bottura transformed the traditional pork sausage into a creamy foam, yet without losing the powerful flavours of the sausage. Not a boring and tasteless air by any means.

An additional building block for his gastronomic house is the El Bulli’s zeal for changing the form, not much its contents.

By using top local ingredients (Ducasse’s accent), taking more control over their production:

  • by specifically requesting having certain ages of Parmesan from different local cow breeds also fed distinctively for one of his signature dishes – the ‘Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano,
  • to improve the flavour persuading mortardella sausage producers to fill the pig’s meat into the pig’s bladder as used to be traditionally done instead of a synthetic skin common today,
  • making his own traditionally aged balsamic vinegar that won multiple awards,
  • using the powerful Ferrari engine of his constantly spinning brain, he was able to change the traditional dishes into superb works of art.

Balsamic Vinegar made for chef Massimo Bottura

Studying history of his country and of its food braced Massimo Bottura with arguments against even the staunchest traditionalist naysayers. Enlightened, he could easily argue in favour of transformation for many of the iconic Italian plates.

Massimo Bottura has become the living ambassador for the cherished ingredients and gastronomy of Emilia Romagna, his birth region. Having by his doors the by-centuries refined support of Parmigiano Regiano, aged traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, Parma ham, the succulent cherries from Vignola, and of many other globally known delicacies, is as much an advantage as it is a challenge. Not just the locals, but most of us foodies adore the simplicity of the Italian cuisine. Perhaps it is a bit selfish, fed by our laziness as we can whip up simple plates of pasta and risotto within minutes at home, but do not we want to explore what else is possible with these ingredients? Occasionally, trusting the forward rather than just backward-aiming professionals, can bring more zest into the everyday mediocrity.

Dessert at Osteria Francescana in ModenaOsteria Francescana in Modena by Massimo Bottura

Aside his immense culinary talent Massimo Bottura is also a chef activist. Next to running his charitable organisation The Food for Soul, the Refettorios, his socially generous, equality highlighting and empowering kitchens serve poor people in Italy, in Paris, and Rio de Janeiro. By restoring neglected places and using surplus food, the chef brings attention to the pressing issues in our cities. Bottura further supports local artisans, resuscitates breeds of cattle like the Bianca Valpadana on the brink of extinction, and increasingly ponders about the future of food. The milk from this Emilia-Romagna cow has been used to make the best Parmesan cheese since the Middle Ages. After all, the antsy chef does not try to kill tradition, but he works on its evolution. His deconstructed parmesan dish pushed the simple dry aged chunk of cheese a step further into the future of elaborate gastronomic cooking. Further inspired by Cook it Raw, an international project he participated in since its inauguration in Copenhagen, “helping to defend oceans, terroir and our unique cultural heritage”, is his attempt to make a difference.

You can peak into the chef’s album, his book of inspiration, inside the recently released cookbook cum culinary memoir “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef”, now also available in French. Find its review here.