World Food Day: Chef Massimo Bottura says, 'I take recipes as a starting point from which I begin the path of creation'

Culinary maestro from Italy talks about his inspiration behind curating extraordinary dishes and his attempts to implement zero waste in his kitchens on the occasion of World Food Day (October 16)

Priyanka ChandaniUpdated: Thursday, October 20, 2022, 06:39 PM IST
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It’s been 30 years since the Modena-born chef Massimo Bottura is redefining the culinary culture across the world bringing a sensorial experience that meets aesthetic with ethics. His three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in the city of his birth, Modena, Italy offers a host of exclusive dishes with quirky names, one of them being — Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart! We caught up with during his India visit after five years for a special collaboration with Masters of Marriott Bonvoy and Culinary Culture at St. Regis Mumbai

Excerpts:

Classics recipes Vs fusion, what is your take on mixing cuisines?

“Tradition in Evolution” is an idea and a concept that has led my work and that of my team over the past 27 years. The kitchen at Osteria Francescana is a laboratory, an observatory, where we look at tradition from 10 kilometres away. We look at the past in a critical way. This doesn’t mean to disrespect our culinary traditions, nor throw them away; instead, it implies a deep knowledge of it. Our work is not about forgetting the past but finding the most appropriate way to bring it into the future, with evolution and resilience. Recipes are not meant to be followed literally. They are stories or watercolours of a feeling, a mood, a way of seeing the light fall onto a plate. I take recipes as a starting point from which I begin the path of creation. Then inspiration comes from what’s around me. Being a chef means being able to find inspiration in everything, in simple things as well as expensive ones. It means leaving the door open for poetry, for imagination. For the unexpected. It means making a pesto with breadcrumbs when you look around and can’t find pine nuts. This is how you make the invisible visible.

How do you suggest incorporating zero waste concept in food?

Food waste is one of the most important issues that we are facing today. We overproduce food globally and then one-third of that production is wasted. It just makes no sense. Food waste is also one of the biggest contributing factors to climate change. Learning new ways to cook our food, to be creative and considerate of what we buy can really have an impact. Everyone has the ability to contribute to positive change in the world and it starts in our own kitchens. Teaching our children and changing our own bad habits is the first step. It is something that everyone can start doing today. As a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), I hope to inspire everyone in simple ways to take action.  As consumers, as chefs, as community leaders we can make a difference by putting the health of the planet first. The time is NOW.

How important is it to be creative when cooking with a zero-waste approach?

It’s very important! The Italian Cucina Povera is the original “No Waste Kitchen”. I learned everything I know about not wasting food from my grandmother. Any food business knows that wasting food is not good for business. Our kitchens do everything they can to use every part of the animal, fish, cheese, fruit and vegetables. When our menu prep produces food trimming that in most places goes to waste, what do we do? We do a creative exercise where we prepare staff meals using all the leftovers from our preparations. I teach my cooks to have a new relationship with food. We can look at an older carrot or a brown banana, stale bread or a crust of Parmigiano Reggiano and say “Hello! What can I do for you?” We ask ourselves questions and the answers are most of the time unexpected solutions. I always keep the door open for the unexpected! Our work with food waste has helped us realise that contributing to sustainability doesn’t have to be hard, and in fact once we have it in our minds and our hearts then it comes very naturally.

Tell us more about Food For Soul.

It was back in 2015, on the occasion of Milan world EXPO. The theme of this huge event was “Feed the Planet: Energy for Life”. For us, Milan Expo was an opportunity to do something more than just cook a good meal. We had received so much in the past years that we felt the urge to give back. We decided to feed the planet in our own way, in a way that was real for us! We saw an opportunity to raise awareness about Food Waste and Food Insecurity. We saw a chance to create community through cooking, to feed those in need and to show that chefs are more than the sum of their recipes! So, we reinvented the concept of a soup kitchen inside an abandoned theater in a neglected neighborhood of Milan and we called it Refettorio Ambrosiano! The same principles that inspire our restaurants guided the project’s design and programs giving energy to a place that would lift the soul and bring people together. We would have never imagined that the project would still be open today. The year after we founded Food for Soul, as a non-profit association, a cultural project, to raise awareness and take action reducing food waste and social isolation. Back in 2015, it was just an idea, but today it has become a global movement, centered around a common interest in promoting a food culture in which we act sustainably and work together to create better and more equitable systems where good food is available to all.  

What changes would you like to see in fine dining over the next five years?

I am more convinced than ever that energy in the gastronomy world, as in that of art, design, architecture, should be turned towards the outside, towards others and towards our planet. I believe in the fight against food waste and social isolation through beauty. As Camus said “with beauty you don’t make a revolution, but one day the revolution will need beauty”. I believe that the world of fine dining can evolve towards this idea. It is only thanks to everyone’s daily gestures that we can truly create change. Today, more than ever we have the most powerful means at our disposal to spread ideas and trigger a revolution. Every chef, every restaurant has a duty to try to stimulate this change through the value of hospitality, the power of beauty and the quality of ideas. I am very confident that the future of cooking will go in this direction, I see young people becoming more and more aware and empowered of how we were at the same age. Now more than ever we have the power and responsibility to act. No more excuses.

What does it take to make a restaurant a Michelin star one? What is your advice to young chefs?

My advice to everyone who wants to become a chef is the same my father-in-law gave me nearly 20 years ago: “Be like a tree — grow slowly.” They need to find out their true motivations, passions, and inspirations, and to do it they have to keep a small window open for poetry: read, travel, look at art, listen to music, and dig as deep as you can into your culture to understand who you are and where you come from. And never forget that talent is only 10 per cent — the remaining 90 per cent is all hard work.

Your favourite food?

Tortellini, Tortellini, Tortellini!

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