New York. June 2016. The presenter at the World's 50 Best Restaurants gala ceremony announces: "Becoming the first restaurant in Italy to make it to number one on the 50 Best list, the best restaurant in the world is Osteria Francescana!"
When he stormed onto the restaurant scene over 30 years ago, Italy – and certainly Modena – perhaps weren't ready for a Massimo Bottura.
Massimo Bottura — Photo courtesy of Paolo Terzi
Unlike serious innovative food cities that had seen everyday (and even unlikely) produce land on plates after being dehydrated, test-tubed, dry-steamed, frozen and fermented, molecular gastronomy wasn't and isn't really part of Italian culinary tradition.
Things in Italy are slow. Bottura himself says this about Emilia Romagna, Italy's food and luxury car heartland – they like their cars fast, their food slow. Food across Italy is about historical ties and ancient customs. It's about tradition.
So many products that have become household names around the world (prosciutto di San Daniele, Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosecco) are produced according to strict guidelines, adhering to various consortium brands like DOC, DOCG and DOP. It's serious business, and Italians from region to region debate what they eat more than who they vote for.
Bottura's unique talent and dream have given him the ability to marry these concepts in a true art form; one that honors his upbringing, his beloved region of Emilia Romagna and Italian regional nuances in a quirky, cutting edge way. He is nothing short of a celebrity in Modena, having brought food tourism to new levels in this town of 180,000 in Italy's north.
Getting a reservation at Francescana is a process. One doesn't just ring and book. And if you're a local, that doesn't give you priority either.
Savvy foodies around the world sit anxiously at 9 am on the 1st of each month when bookings open online. At 9:03 am, if you manage to get through, you take whatever is left for a date that is 3 months away. Since the Modena institution with 3 Michelin stars was announced as the number one restaurant on the World's 50 Best list, it has become even more difficult.
Arriving at the restaurant, the only word you could use to describe it from the exterior is 'unassuming.' There are no bells and whistles, just an apricot-colored building with a few gold plaques. The interior is minimalist too, but there are touches of Bottura throughout with personally selected artworks adorning the walls. There are only 12 tables and each of the guests looks visibly excited or even nervous.
Then, the show begins like an opera. Menus, the wine list, the homemade bread and extra-long grissini (breadsticks). The 11-course tasting menu reads like poetry. Each carefully designed plate has a name, not just a description.
It's a journey through Bottura's creative mind and an ode to dishes that take you back to your childhood. Like "The crunchy part of the lasagna" which speaks to that quintessential Italian childhood wish of having mamma or nonna cut the corner piece of the lasagna for you – the piece that has a crisp, charred edge.
Lentils are better than caviar — Photo courtesy of Maria Pasquale
There's the "Lentils are better than caviar," a cheeky presentation of lentils in a caviar tin atop crème fraîche and beets. And another signature, "5 ages of Parmigiano Reggiano," where the king of Italian cheese has been prepared in 5 different ways with 5 different textures and temperatures, and ranging from 24 to 50 months in age. Every morsel plays with the sensations of your palate.
The famous "Oops, I dropped the Lemon Tart" is the recreation of the tart dropped by his pastry chef Kondo Takahiko during service one day. It says life is about imperfection in every bite. Oops, I dropped the Lemon Tart — Photo courtesy of Paolo Terzi
When asked what his principal philosophy is, Bottura says, "I compress my passion into edible bites that are influenced by years of history and tradition. My passions in life – music, art, reading, culture – are what inspire me."
Bottura's energy is contagious. He could be describing something that the naked eye sees as mundane, like a building façade, and says: "Inspiration can be found anywhere. It just depends on what kind of eyes you use to look at the world. If you look at the world with the right eyes and with poetry, that makes all the difference. It's about perspective. When you get lost in everyday routine, your life doesn't have a chance to evolve." His words give lessons for life.
With a grueling work and travel schedule, Bottura says he doesn't cook at home but leaves this up to his wife, New York native and Italy adoptee Lara Gilmore, who according to him makes a very good ragù.
He says life hasn't changed all that much since Osteria Francescana took the number one spot, because at the 3-Michelin-star level you already have a certain fame. He laughs and says, "Well now they call me maestro and before I was just someone that was screwing up all of grandma's recipes."
He says, however, that people's perception of him and the restaurant have changed, and that being number one gives you more weight; a voice that begs to be heard. "Titles are important and have impact," he continues. When the number one restaurant in the world makes a move, it makes headlines – the number two or three don't."
And while many chefs or celebrities use their fame to grow an empire, it seems Bottura for now is more focused on charitable cultural projects that educate and build capacity. Bottura and Lara have used the spotlight to promote their Food for Soul initiative, which aims to reduce world food waste.
It saw him galvanize the crème de la crème of international chefs to manage soup kitchens at the 2015 World Expo in Milan. It then spread to Bologna and there are plans for other Italian cities. They struck again during the Rio Olympics this year with international headlines reading, "World's greatest chef feeds the poor," when they partnered with chef and activist David Hertz of Brazil’s Gastromotiva.
Why is Food for Soul so important to Bottura? "It's based on four pillars: culture, knowledge, consciousness and a sense of responsibility. Cooking is a call to act. Culture is the most important ingredient for the chef of the future."
With that kind of enthusiasm, there is plenty more to come from Massimo Bottura.