Massimo Bottura, considered by many to be Italy’s greatest chef, earned three Michelin stars and his restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena is ranked second in San Pellegrino’s ” World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list in 2015, the highest ranking ever received for an Italian chef. Bottura’s jewel of a restaurant that seats 28 requires a kitchen staff of 28 to achieve nightly avant-garde culinary magic. Mario Batali dubbed him, “the Jimi Hendrix of Italian chefs” and says his food is “innovative, boundary-breaking and entirely whimsical.”
Below is an excerpt of a conversation with him at his office in Emilia-Romagna on why he loves American cuisine, tips for home cooks and favorite must-try Italian ingredients.
Tradition, with a twist
The Wall Street Journal says, “Bottura possesses both a deep respect for local traditions and a drive to keep blowing them up.” How would you describe your approach?
In the entrance way to Osteria Francescana, there’s a 2,000-year-old jug. It’s broken. I break with the past; I don’t want to get lost in nostalgia. I’m always in search of the future. That’s how I respect our traditions. If you just dust traditions, you’ll lose them. Put them in a museum, and they’ll stagnate, they will die.
‘Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef’
Your latest book, “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef,” has received international acclaim. The New York Times Book Review wrote that it “demonstrates that food has indeed morphed into an element of high culture.” Now that it’s been published, is there anything you wish you had included? Anything you wish you’d added?
I wrote the book like I cook. I wrote a million things, and then cut them to their essence. It says everything I wanted to say.
Cooking Italian in the United States
The Italian government invited you to represent its cuisine in the USA last year as part of their “Year of Italian Culture” initiative. Tell us about the trip.
Hillary Clinton said one of the things Americans like best is Italian cuisine, so I was honored that Italy asked me to come to the States representing Italian food. It was an incredible trip. I prepared meals around the USA. In NYC for over 60 journalists, in D.C. for the embassy with the ambassador attending, and in Los Angeles, in Bel Air, Sylvester Stallone even helped us in the kitchen!
Sylvester Stallone can cook?!
Yes, absolutely. He didn’t sit with the guests in the dining room, but stayed in the kitchen with us all for the entire meal. He was amazingly helpful, very modest. A real delight.
What did you serve?
We created a menu entitled “Come to Italy With Me,” a sort of trip through Italy by way of our flavors. We started in southern Italy with the island of Pantelleria, then went across Sicily traveling into the Gulf of Naples, crisscrossing Italy and up into the Po Valley and northern Italy.
Advice for home cooks
What was the best American ingredient you discovered while traveling through the States?
Liberty! The liberty of expression. It’s the key ingredient to why American cuisine is so wonderful. In fact, a journalist recently asked me what would be the cuisine of the future and I told him that it would come from America. Americans have an open mind and the resources to push the boundaries of the culinary arts. I’m struck by the great chefs America has inspired, chefs like Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne, who leave me speechless.
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What do you think is America’s secret to this culinary success?
Pride. America takes pride in its creativity and freedom to push boundaries.
You’ve created several savory dishes with unusual ingredients, like coffee.
I like the touch of earthiness that coffee adds. I added a hint of espresso foam to Snails in the Vineyard, a dish I created that celebrates the snail’s daily meal, with the texture of the soil created with coffee, beets and black truffles sitting atop aromatic greens. Again, with snails in my dish Snow Under the Sun, there’s coffee powder to complement with the earthy raw potatoes and porcini gelatin. I even added a drizzle of sweet cappuccino to a risotto dish I made for the young daughter of NY Times food writer Melissa Clark.
Is there an ingredient you’re experimenting with right now?
Not an ingredient but a tool. I’m amusing myself tremendously with the Big Green Egg. It smokes, roasts, bakes and even grills at very high heat. I’m exploring the limits of what I can create with it.
What advice do you have for home cooks?
Go grocery shopping! Buy what’s in season, purchase just what you need for two days. You’ll use it all and waste less. Treat yourself to 30 minutes every two days to get to know your grocer, to establish a relationship with small stores, the fishmonger. If you can, go to farmers markets and meet small artisan makers. After a week or two, these folks will give you the best.
What are your favorite Italian ingredients?
I’m partial to the foods of my own region, to the gourmet foods of Emilia-Romagna.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano, preferably aged 24 months
- Aceto Balsamico from Modena. Never cook with it, though. It’s best enjoyed poured onto a small ceramic spoon and sipped at the end of a fine meal.
- Culatello of Zibello, the boneless center of prosciutto. It tastes to me like the Po Valley, the fog, the mushrooms that grow there. Culatello encompasses the entirety of the flavors of Emilia-Romagna, the taste of our land.
- Great dried pasta, like the fine pasta from the Gragnano area of Italy, like Giovanni Assante’s Gerardo Di Nola pasta or Monograno Felicetti, of the Trentino region. Buy great pasta and dress it simply, with just quality olive oil, and you have a gourmet meal. What’s important is to start with the best ingredient.
- For the fifth, I suggest a series of flavors of that represent the Mediterranean: Lemon from Sorrento, anchovies from Certara, capers from the Sicilian island of Pantelleria, wild oregano from Puglia and Mozzarella di Buffalo from Campana.
What’s your personal favorite food?
Coffee is my big vice. I don’t like just a shot, but prefer it strong, sweetened with milk foam.
Main photo: Massimo Bottura is considered by many to be Italy’s greatest chef. Credit: Copyright 2015 Max Bennici