A conversation with a pioneer in modern Italian cuisine
In 1995, when chef Massimo Bottura opened Osteria Francescana, his restaurant in Modena, Italy, he introduced a menu that dared to rewrite traditional, classic Italian dishes. The experimental menu would be playful, bold and cerebral: Dishes would be inspired by jazz great Thelonious Monk and evoke the creativity of Damien Hirst, bridging the worlds of art and music through food.
Predictably, the restaurant initially baffled locals and aggrieved arguably the most powerful guardians of Italian cuisine—Italian nonne—who bristled at the breaking of longstanding food traditions. But things change. Since earning three Michelin stars and topping the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list twice (in 2016 and 2018), Bottura has become recognized as a pioneer of modern Italian cuisine.
In recent years, Bottura was tapped by his childhood friend Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri to oversee restaurants for the fashion house in Florence and Beverly Hills. And as a lover of contemporary art, old jazz and high fashion, Bottura is known for his taste, but the chef is also respected for his philanthropy. Through his foundation, Food for Soul, Bottura works to combat food waste and serve the underprivileged in cities such as Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro, Milan and Modena.
What have you done recently for the first time?
My family and I created an Instagram Live cooking show called “Kitchen Quarantine” during lockdown in our home in Modena, Italy. And surprise of all surprises, we won a Webby award for positive messaging.
What apps do you use the most?
Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook.
First thing you do in the morning?
Put on a record and prepare a cup of coffee on the stove top (old school).
Do you have any personal rituals?
Coffee and music in the morning: no talking, just listening. Staff-meal lunch with my restaurant team: lots of talking! Evening driving back and forth between Osteria Francescana and Francescana at Casa Maria Luigia. Explaining our culinary philosophy to our guests. It is so important for me to connect with our guests every night.
What advice do you wish you’d followed?
Back in the 1990s, contemporary art gallerist Emilio Mazzoli advised me to commission the painter Alex Katz to make a portrait of my wife, Lara. I didn’t have the economic means at the time. Now I really wish I followed his advice.
Last piece of advice you gave?
Wash your hands.
What do you do that’s still analog?
Listening to records, writing notes in my notebook, cooking in a wood-burning oven and using leftovers to make delicious meals.
What’s in your wardrobe do you wear most often?
Gucci sweaters in blue and black, with my initials and a bee embroidered on the left-hand sleeve.
What do you most crave at the end of the day?
A midnight snack before heading to bed. It could be a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or a gelato with sour Amarena cherries on top.
The most recent thing you’ve added to your collection?
A black 1965 Maserati Mistral.
How do you find calm?
Driving my car into the Emilian hills, listening to music on the stereo or playing with my dog, Thelonious Monk. These are the things that take me away from the everyday.
What’s your favourite cocktail, and how do you make it?
The perfect gin and tonic. First, lots of ice. Second, super-quality gin. Then double lemon-skin twists over the ice. Add excellent tonic water and another twist of lemon rind.
What’s the most recent thing you regret not buying?
A Robert Johnson 78 record.
What’s the most impressive dish you cook?
Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce, using four different tomatoes.
Who is your dealer, and what do they source for you?
Local farmers, cheese makers, artisans and fishermen. I have a strong and long-lasting relationship with all of them. We grew together with my restaurant, and they are the ones who enable us to transfer emotions to our guests through the ingredients they deliver to us every day.
If you could learn a new skill, what would it be?
Play the guitar.
What does success look like to you?
Success is having an incredible team, a big family and being lucky enough to keep doing what I love every day. I wake up in the morning, I listen to some blues and let words take me on a journey into my soul. I work all day and go home with a smile on my face.
Newspapers keep me updated wherever I am. I read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Il Sole 24 Ore.
Drive or be driven?
Drive, drive, drive.
When was the last time you completely unplugged?
I unplug every Monday (my day off ) in the Emilian countryside at Casa Maria Luigia. It is only a 15-minute drive from Osteria Francescana but far enough away with agricultural fields, vineyards, a swimming pool and a big green lawn where I can relax, enjoy silence and reconnect with nature.
And who do you admire most, and why?
Creative people who take risks to bring light into the dark corners of the world. Those who bring justice, pride and dignity to those in need.
What’s worth paying for?
A masterpiece—music, art, cars, watches, real estate—something unique. If you buy it, it is yours.
Do you still write letters?
Not letters but handwritten notes in my notebook, yes.
Last box set or Netflix binge?
The ESPN Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance.
Bowie or Dylan?
Dylan. A friend of mine organized a Bob Dylan concert in summer 2000. I was invited to go backstage to meet Bob, but I was too shy.