An insight into the chaotic mind of Massimo Bottura

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th November 2014
MB by Paolo Terzi Fotografo 1Massimo Bottura is a three Michelin star chef. The Italian owns restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena and after 20 years he has published a book packed full of his dishes. The Staff Canteen spoke to him about the book, his food philosophy and why understanding the classics is paramount when creating innovative dishes.  When I received the book ‘Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef’ by Massimo Bottura, I was a little unsure about what to expect inside. But as they say, never judge a book by its cover, and so I continued with an open mind. Initially I was mesmerised by the beautiful photography which goes hand in hand with Massimo’s mind blowing explanations of his dishes. The photography was shot by artists Stefano Graziani, who captures the chaos of the kitchen and the chaos in Massimo’s mind in his images and Carlo Benvenuto who creates the serenity in the form of the finished dishes, before you are thrown back into the chaos as you move to the next page. The pages each have a story to tell and it screams nostalgia. But once you begin to read it you realise it is something very different. Massimo was keen to explain this when I met him at the Connaught hotel in London. “Look,” he said animatedly. “Here is the steam, like the fog and the oven is empty ready to start service. These are at the beginning of the book and that is very, very important. Then there are the plates, they are like paintings, still and calm. It’s the creative process captured – not the recipes – and the white plates are the calm just before they disappear forever. “It’s everything but nostalgia!” I was intrigued by the fact that all the recipes are at the back of the book and alongside the dishes are explanations of the creative process. 015 MB with book “People say ‘why have you not put the recipe there?’” He says, as he points to one of the pages of the book. “Because the recipes are not important. It’s the creative process which is important. The culture is important. If you just look at the recipe it’s just a shortcut.” Each page is a small taster of what goes on in Massimo’s mind – trust me, after meeting him, it’s a fun place to explore! Like his food, Massimo’s book dares you to look a little closer. It enticingly invites you to explore every page and discover what it really is. In Massimo’s world nothing is as it seems, he’s a real life Willy Wonka – bringing his dreams to life in the form of food. The project took 20 years and the first thing he did when he got his hands on the first copy – he tweeted! “When I look at this book, I never tire of it,” explained Massimo. “To me that means we did a good job. So when I got the first copy we took a picture outside Ostteria Francescana and I put it on twitter.” Inspired by his ‘secret book’ which helped him along the way, he’s only allowed a few images of it to feature as he wants it to remain a secret. He said: “Inspiration can come from everywhere. It can come from listening to music, looking at a painting, reading a book or tasting a great product, even memories. Inspiration is an open door and you can walk in and explore. “You may not know where you are going but after one, two, three steps you learn and you know more. If you see the work from a different point of view, and you don’t lose yourself in nostalgia but keep dreaming you find the solution - the flash in the dark.” He added: “Sometimes it’s a mistake like ‘oops I dropped the lemon tart’ but it usually comes with passion, you can jump into your passion and imagine everything. 263 Oops “As contemporary chefs we ask ourselves ‘what have we done?’ We ask ourselves questions and our answers are our plates and our recipes.” Massimo is a cool customer, he takes his time to savour each word in my questions before giving me a response. We have a perception of how chefs are, often at boiling point – only perfection will do. It’s hard to imagine this man ever getting frustrated or impatient in life or the kitchen. “Frustration if it’s positive is a great thing,” explained Massimo. “It’s like obsession, I’m obsessed with quality, I’m obsessed with perfection but I love imperfection. It’s more human, it goes direct to the senses. “It’s imperfect but it’s perfect in the way we’ve created it. We want the perfect way to recreate an imperfection - don’t get scared to eat the lemon tart it’s already broken.” For a chef who is so innovative and forward thinking, to the point where he often baffles diners and others in the industry, he remains true to his roots when it comes to the foundations. He said: “You have to know the classics. First you learn the classics, the traditional and then you can create these kinds of plates.” He added: “I ask in the kitchen, always, who are you? They have to answer in three days with a plate. They express themselves with a plate.” So do other chefs understand him? 203 Camouflage “How can I answer? Culture is our landscape of ideas. Culture tells you how to approach, the shape you have to create and the messages the plate should give to people. What I create at Osteria Franscana, uses art and culture and landscape for ideas.” He added: “I have a great relationship with chefs. The new generation, after the 90’s, they exploded in 2000. It created a gastronomic congress, which helped chefs to grow together, to share and break all the barriers. We could experience and influence together, that’s why and how cuisine went to such a high level.” This book may appear serious, its bible style cover makes you approach with caution, but throughout its pages runs humour. It and Massimo himself, don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s very light-hearted and a lot of fun lies within those creative processes. Massimo said: “Humour is very important, it’s important to always be grounded because at the end we are just cooks. We are not scientists, we are not doctors – we are cooks. Right now people talk about us, and the spotlight we have on us we can help the whole area surrounding us. So artisans, cheese makers, fisherman, the gastronomic tourism of our nations.” Massimo’s ‘tradition evolution’ takes dishes so far out of their comfort zone that they don’t remember what they used to be. Playing around with traditional plates such as bollito misto must have caused Italians everywhere to gasp in disbelief. “The Italian reaction was indifferent at the beginning,” explained Massimo. “I believed in what I was doing and now after years and years, they are beginning to understand because I’m explaining it to them. In 2014 you cannot boil meat (bollito misto) into the water, you lose all the vitamins and protein. With the new technique, sous vide, the meat is preserved.” He added: “Tradition, really respects the ingredients. But if you look at these dishes from a critic point of view you analyse immediately if there are some mistakes or if it’s totally wrong. There are plates that I like and if I can’t evolve it, then it’s done.” Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef So what does this evolutionary chef eat outside of Italy? Can other chefs tempt his pallet? He said: “There are so many cuisines, sometimes I feel I want Japanese, some classic French – two nights ago I was at the Ledbury and had the game, the hunting season is extraordinary. But as soon as I go back to Italy I’m going to eat my pizza!” Massimo is clearly thrilled with his book and he puffs with pride when he talks about it and his restaurant Osteria Francescana, but will he ever venture away from Italy and open a restaurant here? “British cuisine has never been like this,” he said. “These guys they are the sons and daughters of Marco Pierre White. Very rock and roll, they express themselves with incredible ingredients. It blows me away to see how much it has grown in the last ten years.” “London is one of my top two destinations to open a restaurant,” he added. “Along with New York. But I‘ll only be ready when I’m ready to move.” Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef is available now priced at £39.95– click here for more details. By Cara Pilkington @canteencara

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th November 2014

An insight into the chaotic mind of Massimo Bottura