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Massimo Bottura on Tradition as a Way to the Future

Photo: br1dotcom/Flickr

The Italian chef Massimo Bottura has a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for enthusiasm and kindness, and he doesn't hesitate to talk about his cooking in artistic and philosophical terms. Since opening Osteria Francescana in Modena seventeen years ago, he has become Italy's most renowned chef, climbing up the ranks of the San Pellegrino list (this year, the restaurant is ranked 5th in the world), earning three Michelin stars, and becoming a fixture of the international scene of gastronomic congresses and festivals.

As is the case with many of his colleagues around the world, Bottura has done it with a style of cooking that aims to be personal and emotional. In his case, there is a specific emphasis on Italian tradition and the potentials of abstraction. In the following interview, Bottura talks about his presentation at last week's MAD Symposium, his cooking at Osteria Francescana, and how to look at tradition "critically and not with nostalgia."

[cold open] Did you hear my talk and see the video?

Yeah, and I was there last year when you couldn't make it and René read your letter. We posted the video they played in your absence on Eater.
You know, because of that video, the Emilia-Romagna government is now investing 18.5 Million Euro into the Po delta.

I was at Identità Golose recently and announced another great thing that I am excited for: the next big project is to improve the school for technicians of agriculture in Castelfranco. The mayor feared that they would have to close the school, so I tried to help out. I thought that it would be important to have the chefs of the future be close to the farmers. So, in September they are introducing a cooking aspect to the high school. Emilia-Romagna has already invested 450,000 Euro for the program and the classrooms.

They will make their own Parmigiano-Reggiano, their own Lambrusco, their own balsamic vinegar. They learn everything. I think that when a chef goes in the kitchen with his hands having just been in the earth, with the smell of milk in the air, they are going to have a lot more respect for the ingredients.

As a way of talking about your cooking and what you do at Francescana, maybe we should start by talking about your presentation at MAD, which sort of laid it all out.
In Italy, the centuries and centuries of culinary tradition tell us who we are and how we should eat. At Osteria Francescana, we see the whole process from a critical point of view and not a nostalgic one. The tradition dictates what we do, but we are contemporary chefs and we are moving into the future. That is the motivation in our kitchen. Like what happens with architects or artists, you can change things or ask absurd questions, but you cannot forget where you come from. I say that culture breeds awareness, awareness breeds consciousness, and with consciousness comes responsibility.

Everything we think, see, and learn — we squeeze it into our cooking. It's about the quality of the ingredients but also the quality of the ideas.

It seems that one of your biggest concerns or tools is abstraction.
Yes, there was the artwork I showed, "Portrait at 10KM of Distance." The person asked the artist to paint a portrait, and he drew a dot — which is actually what a traditional portrait would look like from a far distance. The idea is that you can't stop yourself from dreaming and from looking for new ways to express something. The Parmigiano dish, "Five Textures and Temperatures of Parmigiano Reggiano," was created in 1994, twenty years ago. It's a monochrome, all the same color, an abstract way of understanding the territory we come from and the aging process. The reflection there is that you have to try to see things in a different way.

And all of this leads to the idea that you're trying to do really personal cooking and somehow convey that emotion to the diner.
Oh, yes. Totally, totally. You create the food that comes from your emotions and experience. We try to make something magical with that. If someone comes into Osteria Francescana and wants to eat tagliatelle bolognese, to me, that's perfect. I'm going to draw that plate of tagliatelle my way and it will maybe be as good or better than the other ones you have had. Maybe it will give you feelings or reactions you haven't experienced before.

I need to say that it is not abstract because I want to show off fireworks or techniques. It's abstract because that's the best way to express myself and share emotion.

To me, the fireworks and exercises of technique are over in gastronomy. It's about the truth of the product now. The chefs of the future need to step back and reflect more about how to serve the ingredient and not show off as much. It's a big, big step.

Can you give some examples or where you think you look at traditions critically or practically as opposed to with nostalgia?
The example I gave at MAD was about the traditional guinea hen. My grandmother always roasted it, but it was always overcooked in some way. You could have a beautiful breast or a beautiful leg. That was the choice. But it's a beautiful bird that lives in the hills of Modena, so why not do it this way: debone the bird, cook the breast, sautée the leg in the pan. That is cooked technically perfectly.

Then you have to look to where the emotion is. It's where you least expect it: the skin, the interiors. The skin is usually caramelized, so we make a crostino out of it with white chocolate, garlic, and rosemary spread on top. There's also gelato of toasted bread. Then, we chop up the bones, roast them with garlic and rosemary, and then distill the water of the guinea hen in a Rotovapor. I spray that on the plate and give it an intense perfume of the guinea hen, which reminds me of when my mother and grandmother used to open up the oven. It's the feeling of the family. We are Italian: we love art, we love and fight with our friends, and we share emotion at the table. That aroma is very emotional.

It's a similar thing with the bollito misto. Centuries of tradition tell us to boil it, but should we, really? There we have a beautiful piece of meat, but we lose vitamins, protein when we boil it. Why do I have to boil it? Just because they did that in the Middle Ages? So I started doing a "bollito not bollito" so that the meat is more alive and has more flavors. And it's without doing anything crazy. It's tradition in evolution.

Practical and respectful of tradition as that may be, a lot of people like nostalgia and the familiar.
I'm not losing the feeling of the bolito, though!

My question is, have you had to deal with lots of critics in your career who don't like the idea of abstraction or putting a spin on something that's been done more or less the same way for centuries? It's something many progressives chefs have to face.
I have to deal with critics all the time that don't know where we're coming from. There are many, many critics who don't really understand our past or our culture. They think that avant-garde cooking is just done to create something strange or to present weird combinations. But here we have centuries and centuries of tradition, and that is reflected in the food we make at the restaurant.

To try to create something new is sometimes provocative. For years, especially at the beginning, some people wanted to burn us in the main piazza, like witches. There are so many gastronomic critics that don't know anything about the past, so how can they judge what is going on here? But I keep doing it and will keep doing it.

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Osteria Francescana

Via Stella, 22 41121 Modena Province of Modena, Italy

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