Massimo Bottura isn’t shy about being the best chef in the world.
When I met him last week at new London private members club The Conduit, where he was holding a residency for the week, he referred to himself by that name a number of times.
It’s not surprising, given his countless successes to date.
His three Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana, based in the small town of Modena, Italy, was named the best in the world at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 awards in June, having previously topped the list in 2016.
You may also have seen Bottura — and Francescana — on the first ever episode of the Netflix original series Chef’s Table, which followed Bottura from his childhood of stealing pieces of his grandmother’s tortellino from under the kitchen table to working in New York City, training with renowned chef Alain Ducasse in Paris, and eventually opening Francescana, where he finds innovative ways of turning traditional Italian dishes into something entirely modern yet nostalgic.
Despite the prestige behind Francescana and Bottura, the stories behind his dishes are surprisingly relatable — none more so than his most iconic one, fittingly titled “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.”
Dropping the lemon tart
The menu Bottura created for his residency at The Conduit, the new sustainability-focused members’ club which officially opens on September 24, was made up of Bottura’s most iconic dishes, and “really deeply Osteria in every single preparation,” he told me.
Every ingredient was sourced from Modena — using the likes of Bottura’s farmers, fishermen, and cheesemakers — then shipped to London. “We finished everything with all the fresh herbs and foraged around the markets here in London,” he said. “It was a very long process.”
The result was a seven-course menu which finished with “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.”
The dish involves the idea of “rebuilding in a perfect way the imperfections,” Bottura said.
It came about when Francescana sous chef Taka Kondo accidentally dropped a lemon tart before serving it.
“He was ready to kill himself because he’s Japanese and Japanese [people] doesn’t make mistakes, or they make mistakes but they’re not allowed to,” Bottura said. “So I saved Taka’s life saying ‘Taka, it’s amazing. It’s the metaphor for south of Italy.’
“‘You’re breaking the border between sweet and savoury, and it doesn’t matter if it’s perfect.'”
He calls the dish “the palate of the people,” using bergamot from Calabria, lemon from Sorrento, and almonds and capers from other parts of the country.
“We don’t care [about] the aesthetic part of the dish, we care about the ethic part of the dish,” he said. “If you go to south of Italy, you never know if the museum is open or closed, or when you’ll arrive in Capri — but when you’re there, you swim in Capri and you forget about everything, or you walk into the Temple Valley and it’s done, it’s magic.
“So that’s what the meaning of ‘Oops! I dropped the lemon tart’ is. Keep space open for poetry in your everyday life, with which you can jump and imagine everything.”
He added that in a place like Osteria Francescana — and in Modena — serving a dish like this is “really pushing it, provocative.”
It was this type of creation — too innovative for the conservative and traditional Modena locals — that nearly caused the restaurant to close in its early days.
“It’s also the way to make everyone feel comfortable, even if you’re not used to eating in the best restaurant in the world,” he said. “‘Who cares? Look at that. He made a mistake.'”
After recently giving a speech at the Sydney Opera House, Bottura said: “At the end of the speech, an elementary class arrived with all these young kids, and they gave me a book they did for me, in Australia, saying amazing, very simple messages, cartoons, drawings, writings, which were saying [things] like ‘Chef, you are the best chef in the world and you are making mistake[s].’
“‘You [broke the] lemon tart. If you make mistake[s], we are allowed to make mistake[s] too. So please, keep making mistakes.'”
Serving up emotion
It’s certainly not the only one of Bottura’s dishes that, despite appearing to be quite obscure, is rooted in nostalgia.
Perhaps my second favourite is “The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna,” the pasta course he served at The Conduit.
“The pasta course is very abstract, but is the most emotional plate of the day,” he said, explaining that it’s about sharing “the idea of the grandmother who brings the big pan of lasagna in the middle of the table at Sunday lunch.”
“The kids, they’re stealing the crunchy part,” he said. “I just rebuilt and shared the idea of serving the crunchy part of the lasagna, because it’s the way you approach the food as a kid. Everybody knows, even people from Lima in Peru, they know that the best part of the big pan of lasagna is the crunchy part.”
He added that while in fine dining “it’s not about serving a big piece of lasagna or pasta in your dinner or lunch,” he instead is “serving emotions.”
“I’m serving the emotion of the kid who steals the crunchy part of the lasagna,” he said. “That’s the experience.”
‘We have a big responsibility to change the world’
It is perhaps this connection to emotions that make Bottura much more than just the best chef in the world.
Gary Robinson, Executive Chef at The Conduit and former Head Chef to the Prince of Wales, told me that while Bottura’s food is “utterly incredible — you don’t get three Michelin stars by not being utterly incredible,” his “ethos and values” were a match with the members’ club.
The food program at The Conduit is focused on local sourcing — like Massimo in Modena — and sustainability, but the team particularly identified with Bottura’s work with food waste and feeding the homeless.
The Conduit has teamed up with the Beyond Food Foundation, a charity that “helps homeless people get into meaningful employment.”
Meanwhile, Bottura is attempting to combat homelessness and the food waste crisis in one with his nonprofit Food for Soul.
It began at Expo 2015 in Milan, where the team behind “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” asked Bottura to be involved.
In “the most neglected neighbourhood in Milan,” Bottura worked with a team of architects, designers, and artists to turn a 1930s abandoned theatre “full of rats and dust” into a pavilion where he could cook “beautiful meals” for those in need.
“We produce food for 12 billion people, we are seven billion on earth, and almost one billion are in need, so we waste 33% of the food we produce,” he said. “This is insane, so I said, ‘We need to do something as chefs, we have a big responsibility to change the world.'”
After Milan, Bottura said he had the idea of “serving people in need in amazing places full of art and design,” not just for the sake of the food, but “also to rebuild the dignity of people and serve them at the table.
“It was not a normal soup kitchen which you’re waiting in line,” he said. “It’s a three-course meal cooked by the best chef in the world, served by the volunteers.”
Now, the foundation uses Bottura’s image to raise money and build these “refettorios” — or community kitchens — across the world, so far in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, London, and Paris.
“To volunteer in London or Paris, there’s a waiting list,” he said. “This is crazy.”
He added that he’s trying to communicate to the world that “what people think is food waste — brown bananas, overripe tomatoes, bread crumbs — for us are just opportunities to create something beautiful.”
“In my life, I [have received] every single prize, recognition, money, whatever, [and] at one point of your life, you should ask yourself…what [should I] do to give back something,” he said.
“The people that choose to do the job I do are usually people that are open to give, not to receive. We give happiness, we transfer that kind of feeling through our food.”