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Chef with a mission

Sunita Sue Leng
Sunita Sue Leng • 10 min read
Chef with a mission
Massimo Bottura became the world’s best chef by playfully reimagining Italian food. As he takes his creative cuisine to new shores, he is also firing up a global effort to tackle food waste and build more inclusive communities
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Massimo Bottura became the world’s best chef by playfully reimagining Italian food. As he takes his creative cuisine to new shores, he is also firing up a global effort to tackle food waste and build more inclusive communities

SINGAPORE (July 22): Standing under Singapore’s scorching sun, Massimo Bottura puts his hand on the bonnet of the Maserati Levante S GranSport next to him. He instantly retracts it. “It’s hot!” exclaims Bottura, one of the hottest chefs on the planet. His restaurant Osteria Francescana has twice topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and garnered three Michelin stars. Still, he gamely poses for photos — Bottura is brand ambassador for the car marque — until it is time to glide in the luxury SUV’s air-conditioned comfort back to the Maserati showroom.

The chef-restaurateur-author is in town for this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. He seems a little sapped by jetlag and the sticky heat but at the mention of food, the verve and geniality that he emanated on Netflix’s Chef’s Table emerges. He recalls with relish the chilli crab he had the night before at Bukit Merah View. “I’ve also had every single dumpling you can imagine. I love dumplings,” says Bottura, who grew up devouring tortellini, the ring-shaped pasta stuffed with meat that originates from his home region of Emilia in Italy.

Reinvented Italian dishes from award-winning Osteria Francescana

Bottura is not in town to add another accolade to his long list of professional triumphs. A rule change by the global ranking of fine dining establishments precludes previous No 1 winners from making the list again. Bottura, remarkably, was one of several personalities who pressed for the change. “It’s time for others to be up there, especially the younger generation,” he says.

Instead, he headlined events such as #50BestTalks and Food Meets Future, which saw industry heavyweights discussing issues in the culinary world and pledging to create a positive social impact. Bottura, 56, is at the top of his game but he is not just about dishing up €290 ($443) tasting menus to well-travelled foodies. Together with his New York-born wife, Lara Gilmore, he is using his celebrity to address food waste, feed the downtrodden and promote social inclusion.

Empowering change through food

Appalled by the fact that about a third, or 1.3 billion tonnes, of food is wasted each year, Bottura teamed up with Italian NGO Caritas Ambrosiana during Expo 2015 in Milan to turn unused food ingredients from the expo’s stands into meals. In an abandoned theatre that had been revamped into a light-filled, souped-up communal hall, three-course meals were served to the city’s poor. As Bottura writes in his book Bread is Gold, he “envisioned the most spectacular refettorio ever seen, filled with art, light, beauty, cooking, and life”.

Over time, other restaurants lent a hand to the cause, as did Bottura’s famous friends such as René Redzepi of Noma and Ana Roš of Hiša Franko. Encouraged, Bottura and Gilmore set up the non-profit Food for Soul to address food insecurity and foster social integration through community meals. However, Bottura is quick to stress it is not a charity. “It’s a cultural project,” he says. “It’s about bringing the beauty of hospitality to empower communities to act for change.”

Bottura with his wife, Lara Gilmore, whom he credits for opening his eyes to contemporary art

Food for Soul now has eight community kitchens stretching from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Some 45 tonnes of food has been recovered and turned into haute cuisine meals for 150,000 people. More significantly, Bottura reckons the initiative spurred governments in France and Italy to pass laws to cut food waste. “I totally did not expect it [to become so big],” he says.

In Paris, for instance, there is a waiting list of 4,000 volunteers. “It’s insane,” he says. “Clearly, people are ready to make a change.” This year, community kitchens are in the works for the US and Mexico. His dream ultimately is to have 1,000 such spaces all over the world and for a large organisation to take over the mission. “I would love if it could change the world.”

Closer to home, Bottura and Gilmore have started Il Tortellante, which they hope will uplift people with special needs. Youths with autism and genetic disorders, such as their son Charlie, are taught the art of making tortellini by experienced grandmothers in Modena, Bottura’s hometown. A shop selling the handmade pasta opened in November last year and is already receiving more orders than it can churn out.

Fast cars, age-old food

Modena, a medieval city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy’s north, is famed for high-quality quintessentially Italian products such as balsamic vinegar, the sparkling red wine Lambrusco and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It is also a centre for the sportscar industry, with the factories of automakers Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini located in the city or nearby. As a result, Bottura grew up with a taste for aged artisanal cheese and the roar of fast cars.

He remembers the day his father brought home their first Maserati, a red Merak. “Me and my brothers, we all went ‘wow!’” he says. That was back in 1972. Bottura now has two Maseratis. The family was moneyed: His father ran a fuel company where he wanted Bottura to work. He also wanted a lawyer in the family so Bottura, who has four siblings, studied law. He worked briefly for his father but found they clashed often and that the business was not for him.

Cooking, on the other hand, had always called to him. As a high-energy child, Bottura often took refuge from his older brothers under the kitchen table, where he would watch his mother and grandmother roll dough and simmer broths based on age-old recipes. “My mama was a very good cook and a great gourmand,” he says. He began experimenting in the kitchen while in his teens and was soon whipping up praiseworthy batches of pasta for his friends.

In 1986, he took over a roadside trattoria called Campazzo di Nonantola, filling the menu with refined takes on Emilian staples. After seven years, he felt the urge for a new culinary challenge and moved to New York for inspiration. He met Gilmore in 1993 when they both started working at a cafe in Soho on the same day and credits Gilmore, who studied art and theatre, for opening his eyes to contemporary art, which has gone on to shape many of his dishes.

Later that year, acclaimed French chef Alain Ducasse offered Bottura a job at his Monte Carlo restaurant after tasting the food at Campazzo. Ducasse had a huge influence on Bottura’s evolution as a chef, leaving him with an “obsession with quality” and a belief in himself. “When I was ready to leave, he asked me, ‘Did you take notes?’ I showed him a book full of recipes and notes. He took it and tore it to pieces and said, ‘You are ready to stand on your own’. I was angry at the time but later I realised he was doing it for me,” Bottura says.

Bottura also spent a summer at El Bulli in Spain working with Ferran Adria, one of the most celebrated, controversial and experimental fine dining chefs of this era. “From Ferran, I learnt the freedom to express yourself in every way. Cuisine is about emotion. It is much more than good food,” says Bottura. In 1995, he opened Osteria Francescana in Modena, rewriting the rules with his whimsical interpretations of traditional Italian dishes. His passions — ranging from music, particularly jazz, to avant-garde art to prized produce from Emilia — took on an edible dimension.

The dish Five ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano pays homage to his terroir’s prized cheese by distilling aged cuts of the hard cheese into an unorthodox medley of galette, souffle, sauce, chilled foam and air pockets. Another, An eel swimming up the Po River, a waterway that is paramount to the Emilian countryside, was inspired by Bob Dylan’s Girl from the North Country. “It’s about how memories are part of your life,” he says. “I steal ideas from paintings, sculpture, poetry, music and filter them through a contemporary lens.”

Five ages of Parmigiano-Reggiano pays homage to the prized cheese of Bottaro’s terroir

The locals, however, were not enthralled by how he was messing with grandma’s recipes, and the restaurant went for years with empty tables. He thought of giving up several times but Gilmore pressed him to keep going. Then, serendipitiously, an influentical food critic dined at Francescana and the stars began flowing in. Today, the world is knocking at his door.

Passionate Singapore foodies

Bottura is swamped by offers to bring his brand to far-flung places such as Ginza and Oman. “But I am very slow. I never search for money, only quality. I want to do it step by step,” he says. He responded instantly, though, to a call by his secondary schoolmate Marco Bizzari, CEO of Gucci. “Me and Marco, our Math teacher used to say we were troublemakers. We were never going to do anything with our life,” he laughs. How wrong he was: Bizarri today heads one of the most popular luxury fashion brands in the world while Bottura is one of the biggest names in gastronomy.

Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura opened in Florence last year. The kitchen is helmed by Karime Lopez, who honed her skills under acclaimed Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez. She had moved to Modena to marry Taka Kondo, a sous chef at Francescana, after meeting him while he was doing a stint at Martinez’s restaurant Central in Lima. Lopez impressed Bottura with her talent and dedication.

Lopez also headlined a pop-up in Singapore in May, Gucci Osteria’s first foray outside Florence. “Singapore was the perfect place for us as it is becoming a very important food destination,” says Bottura. “At Francescana, we see a lot of people from Singapore who are so passionate about food.” The Gucci Osteria pop-up at the The Arts House sold out in its first couple of days. Next up is a Gucci Osteria in Beverly Hills, earmarked for January next year.

Bottura is also venturing beyond elevated dining. In February, he linked up with The W Hotel in Dubai to open an all-day casual restaurant called Torno Subito. An ode to the carefree Italian Riviera lifestyle of the 1960s, it is billed by Bottura as a place to have fun and, so far, guests seem to think so; the restaurant has more than 2,000 covers every day.

However, the project closest to his heart currently is Casa Maria Luigia. A luxury inn 20 minutes from Modena, it was conceived by him and Gilmore to extend the Francescana experience to hospitality. The 12-room villa, surrounded by 200-year-old oak trees, has been furnished with pieces from their extensive art, book and vinyl collection.

An 18th-century carriage house in the courtyard has been turned into a dining hall with an open kitchen and communal tables where guests have a ringside seat from which to watch Bottura and his team at work. The inn is named after Bottura’s late mother. “She helped a lot when I opened my first restaurant,” he says. She was also the one who urged him to pursue his passion for gastronomy. What would she make of his widespread appeal now? He smiles. “You know, she would come into Francescana and always order the tasting menu. Then she would ask for tortellini. And she would say, ‘Mmm, very good but mine is better.’”

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, loves writing about food almost as much eating it

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