Chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy is one of the most thoughtful and artistic
chefs people in the world. 2011 was a tremendous year for him. At the beginning of the year he received an award from his peers as International Chef of the Year. In April, the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants List rated his restaurant as the fourth best in the world and in October he was finally rewarded with his third Michelin star. I had the pleasure of seeing Massimo Bottura present at Chef’s Congresses three times in 2011. At the first, in late January, at Identitá Golose in Milan, he was basically a home town hero, not far up the road from his base in Modena. The second was in September at the German eye-opening conference, Chef Sache, in Köln, and the third in October in my hometown and Massimo’s second home of NYC, at Starchefs. Though none of the three presentations were exactly the same, his theme was consistent. I aim to compress them together here, though I will focus more on his message than on the food.
Bottura’s presentation at Identita Golose in 2011 focused largely on the role of art in food. He took a personal approach wherein he spoke about nostalgia, the past, art and how this was reflected in his cooking, noting that we need to think about “values and direction. and how we are going to try to evolve.” He thinks it is important to think about and respect our past, but not in the form of mindless nostalgia. On the contrary, it should help us to think about what we want to do going forward and how to communicate this. Bottura said, “For me, art is the greatest form of communication,” but it also represents “aspiration and inspiration”. The aspiration is to do something that will be there forever and that “one day will become part of tradition.” Inspiration must come from intelligent ideas in order to produce more intelligent ideas and something “that looks forward into the future.” Bottura continued, “Art is also irony. Many of my dishes are ironic.” He confessed,”I am not trying to look for beauty in my dishes, I am trying to look for truth.” As an example, he prepared a dish of Hare Royale, in which he wanted to capture the moment “between life and death.” Did he achieve his goal? For one to eat the dish without knowledge of the subtext, I would think not, but isn’t that true of most art, at least contemporary art? Having eaten that dish at Osteria Francescana the very next evening with knowledge of the subtext, I found the story compelling, adding to my enjoyment and appreciation of a dish that was already delicious and even beautiful, whether Bottura was trying to make it so or not. In my mind, at least, he did succeed in making art that also happened to be food and very delicious food at that.
It was at Identitá Golose that Bottura premiered his film entitled “Il Ritorno,” an emotional fable telling the story of one of the dishes on his menu in a particularly beautiful and poetic fashion. The film, which utilized his mother as the narrator, was shown at Chef Sache and Starchefs as well as in August at Rene Redzepi’s Mad Camp. Not having had the dish, I can not personally attest to its success as an artistic statement, however, the film has certainly piqued my desire to have it (see more below).
Between Mad Camp in August and the Chef Sache in late September, Bottura also attended the Mistura Congress in Lima, Peru. It was there, as part of a group of 9 chefs representing the Basque Culinary Center (known as the G9, the group included Bottura, Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, Dan Barber, Alex Atala, Yukkio Hattori, Michel Bras, Gaston Acurio and the absent Heston Blumenthal, who apparently has since disavowed his participation) that Bottura was party to signing a “manifesto” that came to be known as “The Lima Declaration.” This was an appeal to chefs and cooks the world over to take an active and leading role in stewarding the world’s gastronomic resources, using ingredients responsibly and with an eye on preserving them for the future. Their communiqué:
At a time when society is rapidly changing, our profession must actively respond to new challenges.
The culinary profession of today offers a wide variety of opportunities and trajectories. We chefs remain united by a passion for cooking and share the belief that our work is also a way of life.
For us, cooking offers a world of possibilities, allowing us to freely express ourselves, pursue our interests, and fulfil our dreams.
Indeed, we believe that cooking is not only a response to the basic human need of feeding ourselves; it is also more than the search for happiness. Cooking is a powerful, transformative tool that, through the joint effort of co-producers—whether we be chefs, producers or consumers — can change the way the world nourishes itself.
We dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a fair and sustainable society.
As members of the International Advisory Board of the Basque Culinary Center, with a broad range of experiences, we keep dreaming about and reflecting upon the challenges to our profession. It is our hope that these reflections will serve as a reference and inspiration for the young people who will become tomorrow’s chefs.
To all of you, we direct this reflection, entitled ‘An Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow’ and signed in Lima on September 10, 2011.
Ferran Adriá, Yukkio Hattori, Massimo Bottura, Michel Bras, René Redzepi, Gastón Acurio, Alex Atala and Dan Barber.
In relation with nature
1. Our work depends on nature’s gifts. As a result we all have a responsibility to know and protect nature, to use our cooking and our voices as a tool for recovering heirloom and endangered varieties and species, and promoting new ones. In this way we can help protect the earth’s biodiversity, as well as preserve and create flavours and to elaborate culinary methods.
2. Over the course of thousands of years, the dialogue between humans and nature has created agriculture. We are all, in other words, part of an ecological system. To ensure that this ecology is as healthy as possible, let’s encourage and practice sustainable production in the field and in the kitchen. In this way, we can create authentic flavour.
In relation with society
3. As chefs, we are the product of our culture. Each of us is heir to a legacy of flavours, dining customs and cooking techniques. Yet we don’t have to be passive. Through our cooking, our ethics, and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country. We can also serve as an important bridge with other cultures.
4. We practice a profession that has the power to affect the socio-economic development of others. We can have a significant economic impact by encouraging the exportation of our own culinary culture and fomenting others’ interest in it. At the same time, by collaborating with local producers and employing fair economic practices, we can generate sustainable local wealth and financially strengthen our communities.
In relation with knowledge
5. Although a primary goal of our profession is to provide happiness and stir emotions, through our own work and by working with experts in the fields of health and education, we have a unique opportunity to transmit our knowledge to members of the public, helping them, for example, to acquire good cooking habits, and to learn to make healthy choices about the foods they eat.
6. Through our profession, we have the opportunity to generate new knowledge, whether it be something so simple as the development of a recipe or as complicated as an in-depth research project. And just as we have each benefited from the teaching of others, we have a responsibility, in turn, to share our learning.
In relation with values
7. We live in a time in which cooking can be a beautiful form of self-expression. Cooking today is a field in constant evolution that includes many different disciplines. For that reason, it’s important to carry out our quests and fulfill our dreams with authenticity, humility, and above all, passion. Ultimately, we are each guided by our own ethics and values.
Somehow, this received criticism, though that criticism seemed to be directed more at the messengers than at the actual message and largely because these were “just bloody chefs” as if chefs, notable or not, shouldn’t have an opinion about important things or lead by example.
At Chef Sache in Köln, Bottura had the opportunity to amplify his message. Here is the text of his message (with permission):
Ethics and Aesthetics
Osteria Francescana has certainly changed from when we began 15 years ago.
This change did not happen on the outside – this change began on the inside.
It began when we shifted our relationship with food from an object of consumption to an object of meditation.
I love music. I think about Maharishi, the spiritual teacher who seduced the Beatles.
He changed the way they made music and influenced generations of musicians.
He often used the metaphor of the calm lake, like a mirror reflecting nature, but distorted.
A fisherman willl tell you that to get the best fish, you have to go deep.
And Maharishi will tell you that to find what is true, you cannot rely on reflections, you must go beneath the surface.
That is what we began to do at Osteria Francescana.
Dig below the surface.
Slow Food taught us that Ethics and Aesthetics go hand in hand in the kitchen.
The pleasure aspect of food is fundamental for a chef.
We take raw ingredients and make them edible, hopefully delicious, or at least good.
This pleasure engages all the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste but aesthetics is only a part of this sense of pleasure.
We have learned that without ethics, our job as chefs is not complete.
If we don’t have an ethical approach,
if we are not attentive and respectful regarding the food we buy,
we cannot make anything truly beautiful or good.
Restoring a correct relationship with food begins with the farmer, the cheesemaker, the herdsman and not with the consumer.
Each of us in our own continent, country, and kitchen know what that means.
It means thinking about the origins of our products and not the end result.
It means cutting out the middle man and going directly to the source.
It means getting down on your hands and knees.
It means fighting for what you believe is right.
It means never asking a producer how much something costs.
If you have to ask, don’t buy it.
Work with a potato instead…. miracles have been known to occur.
The business we are in is a complicated one.
It isn’t about serving people food.
That is the only final act.
There are a long list of actions that begin with having a conscious mind.
To be chef in the 21st century, we have to be conscious of our thoughts and our actions.
Whether we realize it or not, the world is watching.
We are teaching without words in the most universal language of all.
We live in a world aiming for perfection and ultimate beauty.
How about making food that doesn’t always appeal to the asthetic eye?
How often we are deceived by our sense of beauty?
Just think about all that perfect looking fruit out there…
when the most perfect strawberry is the one you just picked.
Ugly, imperfect, and frightening can open new doors of meaning.
Think: working class hero, a three-legged cat, frankenstein.
Don’t forget the emotional impact of the underdog, especially when it comes to dessert.
Don’t forget to Chew. Crunch. Squish. Grind.
What lazy eaters we have all become.
Always searching for the smooth, the buttery, the melting…
Have we forgotten to listen to ourselves eating?
Texture is the sound in your mouth.
Keep it alive or risk drowning out that sense forever.
So much perfume in the atmosphere.
Sometimes it is hard to find a neutral space
to smell the flowers, smell the grass, and what’s cooking in the kitchen.
Let’s help our clients gain back their sense of smell, or at least the desire to smell again.
First of all, we must give them something worth smelling.
If you smell roasted chicken and eat a baked potato,
what does that potato taste like?
Please put down your forks and knives at least once during a meal.
Touching your food is next to holiness.
Do it as often as you can.
The culmination of all the senses is in your mouth.
Treat your mouth like a temple.
Protect it, praise it, respect it.
Your sense of taste is a record of all that you have eaten, of the places you have been, and the world around you.
Remember: nutrition is emotional not mathematical.
Sustainable senses is about making it worth the while.
Supporting local farmers is not enough.
Buying organic is a good start.
Educating our customers is a beginning.
But we have to take it to another level.
We have to reach out to a larger audience.
Politicans, multinational companies, health care administrators.
Why prepare food if it doesn’t make a difference???
Going back – Il Ritorno
The video I am about to show you is called: Il Ritorno.
In this video we made a choice to tell stories about people, places and ingredients that are dear to us..
We interviewed friends and fishermen, an art gallerist and a watercolor painter.
Each had a story to tell, a strand of that cultural braid that keep things together.
These stories helped us to understand where we come from.
The plates we designed to accompany them are our way of keeping traditions alive by keeping these traditions in evolution.
One of the most unexpected moments in making this video was meeting a third generation fisherman from Comacchio in Emilia-Romagna.
Comacchio is a place where eels have been caught for centuries.
The fisherman took us out on his boat and told us about the once beautiful and abundant lagoons now nearly abandoned with the eel population wanning and a future generation without hope.
We began this project one year ago determined to share our stories with a wide audience: chefs, producers, journalists, gourmets and politicians.
Perhaps of all our viewers, the politicans were the ones who listened the closest.
I’ve recently heard that there are plans to requalify the entire Po River from its birthplace in Piemonte to the Deltas in Emilia-Romagna and Veneto.
The project aims to give the magestic Po the value, attention and energy it deserves.
A new website visitporiver.it aims to encourage people to visit the river, giving it a chance to survive.
At the end of the film, the gallerist Emilio Mazzoli asks himself:
“Signor Mazzoli, what is your true love?”
And his answer:
“My true love is the Future.”
I believe that it is our love of the future that makes us better chefs and better humans.
In a very small way, we have contributed to making people see something from a new perspective…
Seeing just how important a river is to a restaurant, to a population, to a place, to the future.
In the 1980s, German artist Joseph Beuys said: “We should never stop planting” .
We: chefs, farmers, fishermen, artisans, scientists, journalists and pasionate gourmets.
We really shoud never stop planting.
We can change the world one seed at a time.
Planting seeds of thought in the fertile ground here today
and planting them on the plates of a thinking man’s restaurant can and will lead to great things.
A few weeks after Chef Sache, Bottura did a demo and a workshop at the Starchefs International Chefs Congress in NYC. As in his previous congresses he demonstrated several dishes and showed a couple of videos including “Il Ritorno.” Bottura’s talk was was similar to the one in Köln a few weeks earlier, though he expanded on a few things, especially in relation to cooking as a chef. Saying, “We cannot take shortcuts…machines and technology are not for taking shortcuts,” Bottura got into the relationship between technique and ingredients. For Bottura, technology is used because “it helps to extract the best from ingredients.” He described his way of creating via a “pyramid.” “The upper part, there is my way of (artistic) thinking. Going down, you have the ingredients and the technique, but the technique is used to get the best from the ingredients, not to make fireworks or to take shortcuts.” He showed a short video in Italian called “We are the Revolution,” inspired by the German conceptual artist, Joseph Beuys. With this video, Bottura aims to show that while the word “revolution” implies change, this revolution is intended to be a “creative” revolution “of conscious minds.” For Bottura, it is “only through passion that ideas can be put into motion.” The video is intended as an example to show how he and his team have been inspired by art and music and also to ask a question, “Is it enough to serve people beautiful food, or do we need to share more?” He suggested that we could share and do more.
This film was done in 2007, a period of intense creativity for Bottura and other chefs, however, much changed in 2008 when the entire Western world encountered major economic crises. Bottura and other chefs were forced to alter their approaches and outlooks. According to Bottura, he felt that people coming to his restaurant and to other restaurants really wanted “the truth.” He felt that they were no longer, could no longer be interested in the culinary “fireworks” that had been the center of the gastronomic world at that time. Bottura asked the question, “For us, what is the truth? Is it a potato or a truffle or maybe it is a potato who wants to be a truffle…a message of hope.” This led to the Slow Food inspired union of ethics and aesthetics described above. They go hand in hand. Bottura urged everyone to look into the past with a critical eye and to extract the best from the past to take it into the future. This is what he is currently trying to do at Osteria Francescana and harkens back to the hare Royale that was presented earlier in the year at Identita Golose. It also is the message of Il Ritorno, which he subsequently showed to the audience at Starchefs.
Bottura illustrated his position by describing the development of a recent dish. He was in Hong Kong enjoying all sorts of pork dishes and learned the technique for making soup dumplings. He translated the technique he had learned back to his home region. He extracted the gelatin and the meat from a cotechino and paired them as per tradition with lentils. He used three varieties. Instead of a Chinese dumpling, he used the Italian raviolo to bring something from the past into the future. These ravioli were made for and passed out to the audience while Bottura finished his talk.
Bottura finished his Starchefs talk speaking about the three best ingredients for the chef of the future. The first was “humbleness.” Humility allows one to keep learning and evolving. His second ingredient is “passion.” He tells young chefs to go deep into their interests so that they can develop a true passion. His third important ingredient is a “dream.” Dreams are important to have something to aim for and one day they may even come true. He finished by urging everyone to always continue “planting.” By planting one seed at a time, whether they be actual seeds, or the seed of an idea, planting of seeds is always important to keep the future moving forward.
Many people feel that the words cooking and art don’t have any association. They feel that cooking is and should be a craft and a craft alone. I disagree. Craft is certainly important in cooking, as are quality ingredients, however, these entities can be used to elevate food into the realm of ideas, emotion and spirit. Massimo Bottura and his restaurant Osteria Francescana have done just that. I have found his cooking to be absolutely delicious (not everyone agrees completely), but what has taken it over the top has been his conceptions and execution of those concepts to make food that is not just delicious, but also worthy of contemplation and thought. Bottura is not “just a bloody chef.” He is a man of thought, emotion and spirit. he is a man of creativity who uses food as his creative medium. I hope that I have done him and his ideas at least a little justice with this post.