Italy's Best Chef Quarantines, Crusades, and Carefully Re-Opens Restaurant
World-famous chef Massimo Bottura talks to Kyle Long (co-founder of Untour Food Tours) about his psychedelic new menu, delivering to and for the community, missing American diners, and pushing back against internet trolls.
ITALY – Like just about everyone else on the internet, Massimo Bottura, the self-proclaimed chef-patron behind one of the most famous restaurants in the world, posted the plain black box on Instagram for #blackouttuesday. Someone trying to call him out for not caring about the issue “enough” in the past quickly became the top comment.
When I meet with Bottura shortly after Osteria Francescana’s post-lockdown reopening, he relates his counterattack. For anyone who has followed his career closely, it’s a familiar recounting of his socially conscious endeavors: saving the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium from financial ruin after the 2012 earthquake; opening soup kitchens worldwide using surplus food; and enlisting retired grandmas to teach tortellini-making skills to autistic youth are just a sampling from the list.
The three-month lockdown provided a few new ones too: He helped raise 73,000 euro on social media for a new ambulance after a local aid organization’s truck was totaled. His foundation also quickly pivoted from teaching immigrant women in Modena professional culinary skills, to sewing much-needed fabric masks for the community.
And maybe his personal favorite, with the help of his daughter Alexa, he won a Webby for Kitchen Quarantine, a cooking show on Instagram Live that gave a heart-warming peek at his family’s dining routine during lockdown.
Bottura is perhaps just as famous for these projects and his crusade against food waste as he is for single-handedly evolving modern Italian cuisine, earning the restaurant three Michelin stars in the process. Against the backdrop of global lockdowns, Food for Soul, the foundation he co-founded with his wife Lara Gilmore, managed to open a new soup kitchen in Médina, Mexico. It’s the eighth location globally, with another on deck, post-Covid, in Harlem. Called refettorios, the community initiative sprung from his involvement in the 2015 Milan World Expo, where the theme centered around feeding the planet. (Read more about Massimo Bottura's non-profit community kitchens on Fathom.)
“We produce food for twelve billion people. We are seven billion people on earth. We waste 33-percent of the production and there are 860 million people that don’t have anything to eat. So for me, 'feed the planet’ means first of all fighting food waste,” explains Bottura. The soup kitchens use surplus food donated from supermarkets and restaurants to feed communities in need, but with a strong commitment to restaurant-worthy dishes in beautiful spaces.
“We produce food for twelve billion people. We are seven billion people on earth. We waste 33-percent of the production and there are 860 million people that don’t have anything to eat. So for me, 'feed the planet’ means first of all fighting food waste,” explains Bottura.
From the outset with the first location in Milan during the Expo, highlighting beauty emerged as a central theme. He claims that Pope Francis implored him not to put the first location in central Milan in a dark space under the train station. Instead, they managed to remake an abandoned theater on the outskirts of the city near refugee housing centers and closer to the homelessness crisis the city is (still) dealing with.
Bottura loves to quote the French philosopher Camus, repeating versions of the line, “Beauty, no doubt, does not make revolutions. But a day will come when revolutions will have need of beauty.” In the current climate, quoting Camus feels like the tacit acknowledgement that he knows his own social contributions are just one small part in a broader revolutionary goal of achieving deep societal change.
And the revolutionary spirit has come to Italy. The social unrest and protests unraveling around the world arrived in Florence, about two hours away from Modena. Organized by the Women’s March Florence, demonstrators held an eight-minute-46-second moment of silence to mark the time it took for George Floyd to be suffocated to death under an officer’s knee. The US consulate in Florence warned of potentially thousands of protesters attending, despite a ban on marches due to Covid-19 restrictions. Further marches took place in Rome, Naples, Milan, and Turin.
While his efforts in the social realm all seem genuine, it’s easy for the skeptic to see why Bottura makes a concerted effort to highlight the projects whenever he can. The twelve-course tasting menu with wine pairing at Osteria Francescana will set you back more than $650. The classic dishes that he’s most famous for, like Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, or Eel Swimming Up the Po River must be ordered a la carte and run about $90 each. He has opened up Osterias in Gucci stores around the world (next up, Tokyo), helping to expand his reach while maintaining a solidly aspirational image and price point.
But despite the current crisis, with more projects on hold, restaurant doors closed, and bookings lost, Bottura maintains his usual positive outlook. “We have to stay always very positive and do whatever we can do with what we have. We all have learned this during quarantine,” he says.
His message to others in the industry concerned about using their own voice to make statements on social media and beyond: “You do or you don't do it. You’re fake or you’re real.” Bottura clearly believes he has done the work over the years to be authentic when speaking out, despite his exclusive restaurants catering to the extremely wealthy.
At the same time, his own experiences creating social programs helps explain why the restaurant industry’s brand statements in response to Floyd’s murder can be so hit or miss. For example, Ben & Jerry’s touts their values consistently while backing them up with activism over many years, and their strongly-worded responses are well-received and possibly even influential in their reach. Meanwhile other brands’ belated arrival to the issue, like Wendy’s presumably well-intentioned $500,000 donation, can’t shake the hollow feeling of bandwagon-hopping, PR crisis messaging.
Back in Modena, Osteria Francescana reopened on June 3, 2020 with an overhauled tasting menu that is more outward-looking than one might expect for a restaurant that came to prominence highlighting ingredients from the local region of Emilia-Romagna in innovative ways.
Instead, there’s a shumai-style dumpling stuffed with smoked pork belly featuring southern-style bbq flavors, which is then topped with a drizzle of New England “clam chowder.” Sichuan peppercorns make a subtle appearance in a strawberry- Lambrusco scampi risotto. And there’s a memorable Thai-inspired green curry cod that’s plated in typical artistic excess.
Later, there’s a crème caramel featuring manuka honey from New Zealand. Most of the local herbs featured are credited to Casa Maria Luigia, the couple’s new gastro-country hotel project. With just 12 bold guest rooms located on a bucolic estate a few minutes outside of Modena and featuring a Francescana tasting menu with the originals’ signature dishes, it’s a natural extension of the hospitality they’ve honed over the years. Although the room rate doesn’t include dinner, booking a night or two is the best way to ensure you get to taste Bottura’s classic dishes when tourism (and, therefore the waiting list) resumes in full force.
For now, however, the restaurant is looking to Italians to fill the void in bookings left by travel restrictions. Italy has reopened its doors to other Europeans, but the situation is in flux. Travel from the U.S. remains blocked.
“We are born to open the door, and say welcome. Good morning. Have a great lunch. Enjoy. We are a European community. We need to be together. We need to stay together. I deeply believe in the European community,” says Bottura, adding wistfully, “I’m going to miss the Americans.”
For the lucky few Americans who live (or are willingly stuck) in Italy, like myself, there are still a smattering of dates on the reservation calendar with openings – something unheard of pre-COVID, when the online reservation system required logging on at a precise moment to join the digital queue of thousands of others for the few available slots.
“We feed people with emotions. We keep the door open,” Bottura proclaims. A hopeful message just as a second wave of infections and social unrest continue around the world, but his incessant positivity often feels like a force to be reckoned with and a potential source of hope for other restaurateurs. “Keep your spirit high. Keep your team close, and when you reopen, they’re going to give you … all the energy you need.”
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