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‘Chef’s Table’ Recap: Massimo Bottura Became a Star by Turning Italian Tradition Upside Down

Italians hated his food at first, but they learned to respect his modernist approach

Massimo Bottura.
Massimo Bottura.

In the series premiere of Netflix’s culinary documentary Chef’s Table, creator David Gelb and his crew introduced viewers to Italian chef Massimo Bottura. He is one of the most celebrated chefs on the planet and owner of Osteria Francescana, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world. At Francescana in the ancient city of Modena, Bottura takes traditional Italian dishes and turns them on their head with modern and innovative techniques. The restaurant claims three Michelin stars and was No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016.

What was Bottura’s journey through the culinary world like?

Bottura grew up with a large family in close quarters: his parents, grandparents, three older brothers, and one younger sister all living under one roof. His love of food was forged at an early age, when he would hide under the kitchen table while his grandmother made tortellino, stealing the pieces that fell to the floor. Bottura opened his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, in Modena shortly after graduating from university in the late 1980s, but he left after a couple of years to work in kitchens in New York City. There, he met his future wife, Lara Gilmore.

The two parted ways for a bit while Bottura worked for renowned chef Alain Ducasse in Paris, but reunification eventually came in New York, and in the mid-’90s, they moved back to Modena and purchased the restaurant space that would become Francescana. On opening day, Bottura asked Gilmore to marry him.

Locals jeered Bottura in the early years of Francescana’s existence, taking the chef to task for meddling with sacred recipes. Over time, however, critics and diners with modern sensibilities became interested, and Bottura was soon recognized as one of the best and most creative chefs in the world.

The broken lemon tart at Osteria Francescana.
The broken lemon tart at Osteria Francescana.

What was his “aha” moment?

In a Venice art gallery in 1997, Bottura observed an instillation depicting taxidermied pigeons in the rafters defecating on older works of art. This was a bolt of lightning, and it made the chef realize what he had to do to Italian cuisine.

What do people, including Bottura, say about his work?

  • “He’s arrived at his own formula for what being a three-Michelin-star [restaurant] is about. For Massimo, it’s about the art, it’s about the music, it’s about the place, it’s about the ingredients. It’s not just about the food, it’s about the whole concept behind the food that makes it into something far more interesting.” — Faith Willinger, Food & Wine, on Bottura’s cooking philosophy
  • “We’ll have been at the movies and we’ll walk out of the movies, and I’ll say, ‘So, what’d you think about the film?’ And he’ll say, ‘I don’t know; I wasn’t really paying attention. I was thinking about a way of making mozzarella invisible. And if you could drink that, and have all the flavor of tomato and mozzarella, how cool would that be?’ And I would think, ‘God, he really didn’t watch the movie.’” — Lara Gilmore on Bottura’s relentless creativity
  • “Every time I open [a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano] cheese like this, I get emotional. You know, it’s unbelievable. When I say, ‘In my blood there’s balsamic vinegar and my muscles are made by Parmigiano,’ it is true. It is true.” — Bottura on his love of cheese
  • “Can you imagine what the locals were thinking about us? They wanted me dead. You know, you cannot mess with Grandmother’s recipe.” — Bottura on the initial reaction to his modernist cuisine
  • “Years later, looking back on it, asking me to marry him on the same day we opened the restaurant was his subtle way of saying, ‘Are you ready to marry a restaurant?’ Yes, the chef comes with it, the husband comes with it, the family comes with it, but basically, I married a restaurant. So the restaurant, to me, has never been something that took my husband away from me. The restaurant has always been our family, and a big family.” — Gilmore on her life with Osteria Francescana

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