The World’s Best Restaurant: Osteria Francescana

In celebration of the coronation of Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena as Number One in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards held last night in New York, we revisit December 2014 when we met with the Italian Chef following the release of his internationally acclaimed book ‘Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef’. Having now effectively conquered the world, we wonder what is next for this gastronomic titan.

Massimo Bottura is undisputedly the man who changed the face of Italian cuisine. Celebrating over 25 years in the industry and fresh from unveiling his first ever venue in Istanbul in the upmarket Zorlu Centre, Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura, along with penning his first book in English Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef  by Phaidon Press, Bottura continues to be one of the busiest men in the industry – no wonder he stays slim. Famed for his energy, eccentricity and for bringing three Michelin stars to his home town of Modena at his Osteria Francescana restaurant – which ranks third in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (at time of writing in December 2014), Bottura’s cooking fuses tradition and modernity together in perfect harmony, embracing the region’s cultural history with distinct intellectual intricacy to create his signature unconventional dishes. A seasoned award winner and expert in his field, 2014 saw Bottura being named winner of the prestigious Global Gastronomy Award.

As we approach the end of another impressive year for Bottura, Total Management Lifestyle was lucky enough to chat to Italy’s most passionate, engaging and enthusiastic chef about the town and region where his culinary journey began; the thought process behind his new book; where he loves to dine and where he goes to source the best ingredients in town.

Massimo, as an Italian who has in many ways broken many traditional Italian cooking rules, how do you see Italian cooking today. Is it becoming more innovative or do deep-rooted culinary traditions still override modern ideas? I am an Italian chef, born and raised in Emilia Romagna. At 51 I am still discovering new Italian flavours. I am asking myself ‘what are authentic Italian flavours?”. A great part of my investigation is about throwing away my own assumptions about tradition, territory and ingredients. I taste, travel and discover within my own country and outside as well. I am interested in what other people think is Italian food and adding that to my reflection. Italian food is internationally appraised and yet it seems still to be stuck in someone’s grandmother’s kitchen. It is as if Italian food is not allowed to evolve. We are all wooed by the beauty and deliciousness of Italy but are we missing something more?
Tradition in Evolution is an umbrella under which my kitchen can be understood. It’s also the title of the first chapter of my new book. The idea behind Tradition in Evolution is to push the Italian kitchen forward without ignoring the past. It’s taking the best of the past into the future – through technique, ideas and a changed perspective.

“At 51 I am still discovering new Italian flavours. I am asking myself ‘what are authentic Italian flavours?'”

You opened your three-Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in 1995 in your home town of Modena. What was the driving force behind creating an internationally renowned Michelin starred restaurant in a town with such strong gastronomic heritage? I thrive on challenges! Modena has such a rich gastronomic heritage and some of the most amazing products in the world. It was only natural for me to open here and not in London or New York. I love Modena and my dream has always been to bring more people to Modena. Today that dream has come true. Our guests come from half way around the world to visit us here in Modena. This is the best compliment of all. Better than any stars or rankings. And Modena surprises everyone for its beautiful coloured buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, the 11th century cathedral and the warm and affectionate Modenese people.

Emilia-Romagna is known throughout Italy as being the home of food, producing some of Italy’s most famous exports. What are your favourite ingredients from your home region and where do you go to get them? I love shopping in the covered Albinelli market in the centre of Modena. It is a gathering place, bustling with great energy and even better products. There are many stalls from dairy products with the best Italian cheeses to Manzini gastronomy with condiments, anchovies and spices, as well as fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and cold cuts. I encourage all our guests to stop by the turn of the century market just to soak up the busy atmosphere and see Italians doing what they do best – shop for their kitchens!
We really are spoiled here in Emilia. My favourite ingredients from my home region would be Parmigiano Reggiano. This cheese is really something incredible. We use several ages of this in the restaurant from different local producers. It is the most amazing cheese I have ever worked with in the kitchen – and an integral part of our terroir. Then comes traditional Balsamic Vinegar which is part of our Emilian savoury and sweet taste buds. We love strong flavours, rich mineral flavours, the undertones of cherries and chestnuts that remind us of the Emilian landscape. Then there’s our egg pasta tradition. No family is without a matarello, a large wood board specifically for rolling out dough. Afternoons around the kitchen table are filled with gossip and the nimble fingers of a group of women carefully and quickly folding miniature tortellini one by one for their families. Of course, Emilia is famous for cured meats, such as salami, prosciutto, and mortadella but also a very old sausage called cotechino. I currently have cotechino on the menu paired with a Lambrusco zabaglione. And the incredible wines made in the hills of Piacenza. My absolute favourites are made by La Tosa. They produce a Malvasia called Sorriso del Cielo, or ‘smile from the sky’, that I just adore.

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Modena is home to two of your restaurants – Osteria Francescana and Franceschetta58 – aside from eating here, where are your preferred places to dine when in Modena? Who serves up the best tortellini in town?! My new favourite place to eat in Modena is our sommelier’s tiny gourmet shop called Generi Alimentari Da Panino. It’s a 30 second walk from Osteria Francescana, just across the street, with only 8 seats and a bit of standing room. Beppe and his staff serve the finest Italian ingredients from cold cuts, sliced on a red Berkeley to fine Italian cheese with all kinds of condiments, including pickles vegetables, fruit chutney and mostarda, all on semolina bread delivered daily from Matera, in southern Italy. Occasionally they will have a daily special pasta course, like lasagna or tortellini, or offer porchetta (roasted pork with herbs). Of course, the wine and beer selection is exceptional, so a 5 euro panino with a glass of Dom Perignon could be the best and most expensive sandwich… ever!

Of course, there are excellent restaurants in Modena from local trattorias to Michelin star fine dining experiences. Hosteria Giusti is a very special place with only five tables in the back of a salumi shop or Trattoria Bianca, a restaurant I went to with my family as a child. Both serve excellent tortellini in broth. At Osteria Francescana we serve miniature tortellini in a light Parmgiano Reggiano cream sauce. It is hard for me to say which is better however, the traditional tortellini in broth or Osteria Francescana’s historical compromise.

“I have concluded that the three most valuable tools in any kitchen are: humility, hard work and dreams”

Were this your last day in the kitchen, what would be the meal you would prepare and with whom would you share it? My favourite Emilian plate is tortellini. I not only have an emotional attachment to tortellini because my grandmother and mother made them for me every day – but a gastronomic one as well. They are small packages of Emilian flavour – prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano – perfectly balanced and complete. I would share it with my extended family, which included my amazing staff, many of whom have been with me for over 10 years.

Massimo, you must have an impressively stocked kitchen in your own home. What are your ultimate kitchen essentials? After more than 25 years in the kitchen, I have concluded that the three most valuable tools in any kitchen are: humility, hard work and dreams. No machine or technique will create a delicious meal if you don’t have these three ingredients first and foremost.

Over the years you have worked with some of the best chefs in the world including Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Ferran Adrià at elBulli. Who remains your greatest influence? It is hard to say. From Ducasse I learned a lot about classic techniques but also the rigor of running a 3 star Michelin restaurant. Upon leaving Hotel de Paris, Monsieur Ducasse asked to look at my notebook. He then said to me, “Massimo you don’t need these recipes. What you have learned is already in your head and in your heart. Now it is time to walk on your own two feet!” And he never returned the book to me!

Ferran allowed me to work in all the various stations of elBulli to learn different techniques. He then patted me on the back and said, “Good luck. Italy doesn’t want to change but if there is someone who should try, it is you.” And with those words, I was encouraged to continue my mission of bringing Italian traditions into the future.

These two voices still resonate with me. Both chefs passed on their wisdom but also their advice, which I still treasure. The rest has been hard work, day-to-day struggles and eventually rewards. I do believe that everything I do has a direct or indirect relationship to the world that surrounds me – and the things that I choose to be surrounded by – art, music, and travel. Being a chef requires one to live not only in the kitchen but be a citizen of the world. It is all about call and response.

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In your new book Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef you are retrospectively looking at your culinary career to date. What is your favourite dish in your repertoire and what is its story? The book begins with a recipe Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich in which I am literally running away from an iconic Emilian ingredient and ends with a broken tart which is actually a poem about Southern Italy. There are many stories and recipes in between which narrate my career but also touch on our rich culinary history.

There are four chapters in the book, which represent four distinct stages of my career. The first chapter explores Tradition in Evolution. Within that chapter there are some of the most important Osteria Francescana recipes, such as Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano and Bollito, not boiled. One takes a singular ingredient, Parmigiano Reggiano, and turns it into an abstract tone poem all about the ageing process of the cheese. The other takes a classic northern Italian recipe, boiled meats, and re-works it but cooking it sous-vide (not boiling anymore) and rendering it a contemporary version of the medieval recipe.

Chapter two, Working Class Heroes, is all about the poor ingredients of the Italian kitchen and their emotional impact on me as a chef. I would have to say that A Compression of Pasta and Beans is the one recipe that sums up my gastronomic history, and therefore is perhaps the most important. On the bottom of a shot glass there is a layer of ‘crème royale’, which represents my classical French training from Alain Ducasse. On the top of the glass is a ‘rosemary air’, which pays homage to my life changing experience with Ferran Adria. In the middle, there are three layers: the classic bean puree, a pancetta and radicchio reduction and finally, the pasta which is faux pasta made with boiled and thinly sliced Parmigiano Reggiano crusts inspired by my grandmother’s cooking. The pasta is not egg pasta but thinly sliced Parmigiano crust. This is the sentimental part of the dish and the working class hero. I, like many other Modenese, grew up with Parmigiano Reggiano crust in our daily broths. It is a flavour we associate with hot broth and our grandmothers. I believe that it is important to include an ingredient that means a little something personal to every recipe – something that connects you to who you are and where you come from – even when you are aiming for the moon.

In Chapter three – Image and Likeness – I explore all the recipes where art, music and travel began to contaminate the kitchen. The recipes here are complex and filled with references. Both recipes, The Crunchy Part to the Lasagne and Camouflage, take on the theme of working through tradition by looking at it through the eyes of an artist. My kitchen began to change radically when I allowed myself to be influenced by not only ingredients but ideas because cooking is not only about the quality of the ingredients but the quality of the ideas. And in the last chapter – Come to Italy with Me – my favourite recipe is Oops! I dropped the lemon tart. It is the last recipe in the book and an ode to Italy, to its imperfections and contradictions, and its fragile beauty.

Over the years you have been awarded many prestigious titles for your talents. What keeps you focussed and what inspires you to continue evolving your recipes? I am passionate about what I do. Without passion the kitchen is just a hot place and the work never ends. Don’t lose yourself in the everyday routine but allow a part of you to stay ‘in the clouds, dreaming’. Those dreams are what will keep you alive, awake and alert even when you are peeling potatoes, which, by the way, is where the place where all our dreams begin and where many ideas come from.

Massimo’s kitchen essentials

Humility

There is always something new to be learned. Most often from someone younger than yourself, or even less experienced. It is very important to keep learning, to be curious and to be humble. Only then do you let your guard down and let the unexpected happen.

Hard Work

The work in the kitchen and the restaurant is endless. When I leave the restaurant, I am still thinking about it, our guests, the evening, new ideas for plates and ways to improve. A restaurant is like a puppy that never grows up. It needs constant attention and discipline but also gives back so much joy and life.

Dreams

You’ve got to have a dream or two to get anywhere in life. It is very important to live your life with your feet on the ground but your head in the clouds – dreaming. Never give up on your dreams. They are what keep us alive inside. I definitely would not be here today nor would Osteria Francescana, if I didn’t hold onto my dreams and do everything in my power to make them come true.

Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef by Massimo Bottura is published by Phaidon and is available nationwide.

Main image by Paolo Terzi

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