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Around the table, we are all equal: Massimo Bottura

The celebrated chef on creating the unexpected, turning mistakes into cult dishes, and visiting India

Massimo Bottura at St Regis Mumbai. (Photo courtesy: Culinary Culture)
Massimo Bottura at St Regis Mumbai. (Photo courtesy: Culinary Culture)

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In 2022, a memorable dining experience is not just about tasting world-class food, but also about sampling original ideas. One such chef who disrupted the notion of traditional Italian food with creative flair is Massimo Bottura. He reimagined lasagna by serving only its crispy part, rescued a crumbled lemon tart with the dessert Oops! I dropped the Lemon Tart, and reinvented food plating by drawing inspiration from art.

Last week, the celebrated chef was in India at the invitation of the Masters of Marriott Bonvoy and food consultancy company Culinary Culture to curate a multi-course menu from Osteria Francescana, his three Michelin- star restaurant in Modena, Italy. Eating food made by one of the world’s finest chefs is like winning a lottery—there’s a waiting period of at least six months to dine at his restaurant. There were two dinners on 15 and 16 April at the St Regis in Mumbai, with signature dishes like The Crunchy Part of The Lasagna and Oops! I dropped the Lemon Tart. The approximately 120 tickets, each priced prohibitively at 40,000, plus taxes, were sold out within minutes.

The chef’s impact, however, goes well beyond the Michelin stars. As a tireless entrepreneur, he runs multiple food and hospitality businesses—a boutique hotel, Casa Maria Luigia, and a casual restaurant, Franceschetta58, in Modena, a condiments brand, Villa Manodori, and a chain of restaurants, named Gucci Osteria, in partnership with the fashion label. But the one project that seeps into most conversations with Bottura, a food systems activist and global goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme, is his non-profit organisation, Food For Soul. Set up in 2016, it aims to raise awareness about food wastage, provide meals to the underprivileged and promote a just food system.

When we sat down to chat, a day after he arrived, he seemed jet-lagged. But as the interview progressed, the tiredness seemed to fall away, his eyes shining as he described his new menu and dreams for the future. He went beyond simple responses, outlining the context in each instance, explaining how mistakes can be turned into cult dishes and sharing his plan for a dinner table where every community can have a seat. Edited excerpts:

You get hundreds of invitations from countries around the world. Why did you choose India?
I want to look into the eyes of our guests and reappropriate the real meaning of the words restaurant and reficere (Latin for rebuilding or restoring). If I look into your eyes and say welcome, leave your worries behind and let us take care of you, what would you feel? That’s the real meaning of the word reficere—it restores or rebuilds your soul. India is a place where, more than any flavours, it’s the soul of the people, the warmth, the joy and the spirituality that makes the difference. I won’t be in a place where I don’t get this feeling.

How does that reflect in food?
(Smiles) It’s so simple. Cooking is an act of love. You can taste it, whether food is prepared in India, at refettorios (community kitchens run by Food for Soul) or at Michelin-starred restaurants. It takes the same time. It depends what you have here (places hand on heart). It is about expressing yourself. If you ask me what I do at Osteria Francescana daily, I compress into gastronomic experience my passion, sitting on centuries of tradition, filtered through a contemporary mind. My first purpose is to serve good food, but the last is to feed you with emotions.

What inspired this love?
I cook because I choose to cook. And, I learnt by observing my mamma, who cooked with deep love; her food was amazing. My grandmother was a bad cook, because she had to cook. But she would make one great meal a year and that was for Christmas. We were a large family: five brothers and sisters, three aunts, the two grandmothers, my parents, and some would bring their girlfriends. We would sit around a long kitchen table sharing a meal.

Perhaps you remember that meal because your grandma cooked so rarely, and when that happened, she would put her soul into it. What’s the one dish you remember?

(Smiles) Oh my god! One thing she was good at was patiently making tortellini. They are small dumplings filled with prosciutto, mortadella, Parmigiano, pork and veal. She would get fresh Parmigiano from a cheese factory across the street. It was just pure umami, you know. Then she would add a 36-month aged Parmigiano to the tortellini, and during truffle season, shave some white truffles. It was insane. We have this dish at Maria Luigia and it’s served as the last dish after the dessert Oops! I dropped the Lemon Tart.

This iconic dessert happened because your sous chef dropped a lemon tart in your kitchen. What are the other dishes that were created due to mistakes?

Another mistake was panettone, which is a classic dessert for Christmas in Italy. It was a mistake because the baker dropped raisins and candied fruit into the bread dough while it was proofing. Instead of serving it as a sweet, I decided to turn it into a savoury dish with crumbled cotechino (Italian pork sausage) and lenticchie (lentils).

Our new menu for Osteria Francescana is called Come to Italy with Me, and it has a dessert named Oops! I forgot to serve a Caprese. This was not a mistake, but it’s unexpected. Caprese is an Italian salad but we are serving it as dessert shaped like a tomato and filled with berries and lightly smoked mozzarella. When you walk into Francescana, you have the door of the unexpected always open.

Would you say you are an instinctive person?
I am very sensitive and I feel extremely close to my team. Now, I am also an activist, with much more focus on giving back. For the past one month, I have been dreaming of creating a new refettorio in Bethlehem, where I want to set up a table to serve food to people from different communities, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Orthodox. Around the table, we are all equal. Probably, it will be my birthday present for my 60th this year.

Also read | The US will be the biggest hub for Indian food: Chef Sujan Sarkar


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