In March 2018, I wrote a post, “Combatting Food Waste,” which featured the renowned Italian chef, Massimo Bottura, a vocal advocate on this theme. During the Milan Expo in 2015, he opened an experimental soup kitchen that used leftover food from the exhibition as part of a campaign to raise awareness about food waste. The documentary, “Theatre of Life” features the Refettorio Ambrosiano, where he invited 60 of the world’s best chefs to cook with him for the homeless of Milan. During the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro the next year, he set up an “anti-waste” kitchen to feed people who lived in Rio’s slums.
Bottura’s home is Modena where he is celebrated as the world’s best chef at his restaurant Osteria Francescana. With a staff of 36, Bottura creates amazing dishes that are works of art. In fact, his dishes are inspired by contemporary art and combine colorful compositions, complex flavors and multiple textures with whimsical names. Bottura’s dish “Camouflage” is an abstract painting made of wild hare, juniper berries and cocoa powder. One of his desserts, “Oops! I dropped the Lemon Tart,” which was born from an accident, resembles a Jackson Pollock painting on a plate.
When Bottura and his American wife opened the restaurant in 1995, they struggled for years. His minimalist rendition of a bowl of tortellini—with just 6 pieces of pasta—was met with scorn by the locals; even the Modenese food critic said, “don’t go there.” And hardly anyone did. His food was seen as a sacrilege in a land that reveres traditional cooking and Modena’s famous balsamic vinegar and parmigiana Reggiano, which have been made the same way for centuries.
After six years of bad reviews and empty tables, he finally introduced a few traditional Italian dishes, including tagliatelle. A food critic happened by and gave it a rave review. Now the maestro can indulge all his fantasies and dreams – and hard work—in dishes that delight him and his clientele: “An eel swimming up the Po River,” “The Crunchy Part of Lasagna” and “Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano,” which is a popular dish composed of 5 different textures and temperatures using the king of cheeses. They all pay tribute to local products and dishes, but are executed with his inimitable twist and creativity.
And now, following the quarantine, chef Bottura has reopened the doors of his restaurant with even more innovations, this time inspired by the Beatles. It’s called “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and Bottura pays tribute to his staff: “In this long, forced rest we thought of a new, imaginative, colorful cuisine that spoke to us and our land of Emilia and also of distant places.” The menu starts with “A Day in the Life,” which is a bread knotted with honey and salt, to remember the solidarity among the staff during the coronavirus.
“Cellophane Flowers & Kaleidoscope Eyes” contains cuttlefish of Chioggia, scampi, Adriatic mussels and bottarga. “Yellow Submarine” combines turbot and potatoes compacted in a saffron rice coquette with an unexpected exotic flavor: pineapple, daikon and flowers. “Strawberry Fields” is a gazpacho that contains slightly sour strawberries in Lambrusco with shrimp, smoked mozzarella and Sechuan pepper. And “In the Sky without Lucy” is a dessert with roasted peaches, ice cream, meringue, amoretti biscuits and cotton candy.
It takes months to get a reservation at his restaurant and the price for a meal, as unforgettable as it might be, is quite steep. What is amazing is not only Bottura’s energy and creativity, but also the many skills he has to organize soup kitchens, to convince and lead others to cook for the poor, as well as to manage the most sought-after restaurant in the world. He is a celebrity chef with a conscience, and in the words of Bottura, “chefs can no longer cook for just the elite ignoring the ethical issues about feeding the planet.”