22 December 2014
The culinary art of Massimo Bottura is a logical system. Its terms follow so clearly one from another that the final propositions do not stir the slightest doubt. For example, the first axiom of Botturian geometry: between any two points it is possible to trace one and only one straight line, the piece of spaghetti. “I’m serious,” he says, “the string of spaghetti is the best design I know. The most beautiful, the most essential, it is Italy itself. A line that tells you everything.” With his white coat and round glasses Bottura, the multi-Michelin-star chef born in Modena in 1962, has the rigor, the brilliant intemperance and the enthusiasm of a mathematician. Between 1986 and 1993 he cut his teeth at the Trattoria del Campazzo at Nonantola, in the province of Modena. This was followed by work experience at a café in New York and an internship in 1994 at Le Louis XV, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo. In March 1995 he opened the Osteria Francescana on Via della Stella in Modena, a sort of distillate of the best of the Campazzo with a touch of Ducasse and influences from New York and the Mediterranean. Today he can boast a string of awards and marks of recognition: Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine, number three on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014, Chef’s Choice in 2011, three Michelin stars and top listing in the guide I ristoranti d’Italia published by L’Espresso. But Massimo Bottura does not confine his activities to the kitchen: he has just published Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.
On the menu you have recipes with titles like Camouflage: the Hare in the Wood, Compression of Pasta and Beans and the very long Beautiful, Psychedelic, Spin-Painted Veal, Not Flame Grilled. And then you sing the praises of the string of spaghetti?
No, not at all. Simplicity is something else: it’s minimalism, it’s my mom dishing food out from the dish to the plate. What we’re talking about here is a line. That result was achieved after taking something away, then something else and something else again. Removing things is harder.
There you go, I got off to a bad start. Suggestions about what to do with the piece of spaghetti?
Next February, at Identità Golose, I will transform the string of spaghetti into a sheet of lasagna. It will be fantastic.
And what do you have in mind for the Expo?
Davide Rampello and I have imagined something good and beautiful that we will be presenting, right through the month of May, at the Refettorio Ambrosiano of the parish church of San Martino, in the Greco district. The idea is to collect unused food from the pavilions of the Expo, and have it cooked by great international chefs for 31 days.
Why this project?
Because ethics and aesthetics are one and the same thing, and there is nothing more important than being able to create a contemporary refectory that will show young people how the best chefs in the world cook dry bread and bring over a million tonnes of food back to life. Artists like Carlo Benvenuto, Enzo Cucchi and Mimmo Paladino will be working with us, as well as great designers like Fabio Novembre and Piero Lissoni. By the way, I simply love the table Lissoni has made.
One of the big tables in the refectory. All the designers involved have created a table for the central hall free of charge. But nor should we forget the collaboration of the Polytechnic, which has overseen the renovation of the spaces. In short, together we are trying to tell a different story that offers hope for a better future.
A big job, in other words. In your book you quote the famous maxim that success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration.
There are three fundamental points. Culture leads to knowledge, knowledge leads to awareness, awareness generates a sense of responsibility. Starting from this premise, the book describes my journey: first tradition, everything that I am, the value of farmers, fishermen, artisans, then the working-class heroes. Finally, the revival of awareness, and therefore art.
We are coming to the point. What do we mean by art?
It’s a form of thinking. Art makes the invisible visible, and generates a sense of responsibility, which in turn is a social act in the form of creativity.
We need a practical example.
What springs to mind are the recipes Rice with Cheese and Pepper or From Modena to Mirandola: they are things that make a society grow. Just like Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds on the victims of Mao’s famines, or Joseph Beuys’s work in defense of nature (“We shall never stop planting”).
And what is the social act?
The invitation to rediscover Italy in its most beautiful forms, because a caper is as beautiful as a sunset on Capri, and a misty portico in Bologna is as good as a bite of Parmigiano Reggiano from the hills of Rosola.
No to globalization.
I’m fighting it. When we make people aware of the power of biodiversity, we join the battles of the great farmers. They are the true heroes of our land, and this is why it is right to talk about just how precious our products are.
Zero food miles.
Food miles are in my head. I use my products because I have a certain kind of relationship with them, but it would take too long to talk about all this. I could write a treatise.
You practically have, it’s called Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.
Yes, it’s JFK’s message. Ask what you can do for your country, not the other way round. Create your restaurant that will get people to rediscover the greatness and beauty of Italy.
What kind of book is it?
It’s a timeless book, not a recipe book. There are recipes in it, of course, but it’s real strength lies in the stories that are behind them. It’s a book on creativity thatrecounts how many things there are in a recipe. It’s an intellectual exercise.
Among the many stories is Bread, Butter and Anchovies, a recipe that you presented at Identità Golose in 2009. You say something poetic about it: it’s one of those rare cases in which truth and justice prevail.
The anchovy is the fish that gets the worst treatment of all. On the big fishing boats they even throw it back into the sea. Along with other great cooks we are fighting an incredible battle against this kind of fishing, to prevent the destruction of what the oceans give us.
As well as a great chef, Massimo Bottura is an enthusiastic collector of records. Where does this passion come from?
I have 12,000 of them. I buy them at flea markets, from private sellers, wandering around New York. I’ve been collecting records since I was 14, first with my brother and then by myself. About twenty years ago I managed to find a 78 rpm of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit.
Which became your favorite disc.
Not at all, I’ve found many others. It’s like asking: what kind of cooking do you like best? Music is life, I couldn’t live without it. The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is listen to music, and it’s the last thing I do before I go to bed. I live with it, just as I live with art, with cooking.
Subtitle of the treatise: Massimo Bottura, on cooking, art and music.
And motorbikes. I have a passion for twin-cylinders, and so Harley-Davidsons and above all Ducatis, because I’m a child of the land of fast motors and slow food.
Where do you travel?
You don’t travel with the bike. The truth is that you don’t go anywhere with a motorbike. You climb on and it takes you away, far away. And far away can be round the corner or Cape Horn. When you’re on a bike, you’re free.
To sum up. Massimo Bottura, on cooking, art, music, motorbikes. And women. You dedicated Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef to the women of your life. Let’s talk about Lara, your wife.
I met her in 1993 in New York, at a place called Café di Nonna. It was a little place that had a lot of problems. The proprietor, Rey Costantini, had been a hairdresser in the sixties. He was quite a good cook and his friends had told him to open a restaurant. But he didn’t realize what a difficult job it was, and so I offered to give him a hand.
She was training as an actor at the August Wilson Theatre, an avant-garde theater. She had come there, like me, to make ends meet. We entered the same day and at the same time. It was April 8, 1993, and we both ended up at the Café di Nonna, right on time.
Before New York and the Campazzo, you were studying law.
I really have a lot of faith in justice, in honesty, in the sense of beauty, of the family, of art. That is the best Italy.
What do you think of justice in Italy?
Don’t make me come out with generalities. I’m not an all-round expert, I’m a man obsessed with things, and if I start playing the know-it-all I go against my principles. I would end up like all those people who go on television and sound off about everything, with no common sense. Whereas I experience my circumscribed obsessions as something marvelous.
And so I’ll ask you simply: what do you think of Italy?
That it’s an extraordinary country, where people get together, talk, exchange opinions, quarrel too. Then they make peace and talk about everything around a table, about beauty, art, design, music. The string of spaghetti is part of all this. And so I bring you back to the beginning of the interview, at the end.
Actually it’s not over yet. Why do you think people come from all over the world to eat at the Francescana?
Because they want a special relationship, one of friendship, welcome, storytelling, exchange. They want a dream. That’s another of the dedications I most often use: “Live life like a dream.”
Let’s finish with Christmas, which is almost upon us. It seems to me a classic ending, honest and mathematical. So, what music will you be listening to while you’re cooking for December 25?
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town by Bruce Springsteen, while I prepare a demi-soufflé of panettone with walnut liqueur sauce.