Chef Massimo Bottura is adamant that to be a cook is to give back to the community. And it’s not something he just says, for Bottura has put his money where his mouth is, with the opening of several spaces around the world that are designed to welcome and feed those in need with meals made from ingredients otherwise destined for the garbage.
Not bad for a man who has just claimed the second year at the top spot in the World’s Best Restaurants list. In 2016, Massimo Bottura nabbed the number one with his Italian restaurant Osteria Francescana and now he’s made it a double whammy with the news of his 2018 win shared at the award ceremony in Bilbao earlier this week.
We spoke to Bottura when he was in Hong Kong to hear more about his work feeding the less fortunate, and why it’s more important now than ever before.
Why are your soup kitchens so important, especially now?
When people are building walls, we are breaking walls. At the moment, they are closing soup kitchens because they want to hide the poverty; we are opening soup kitchens.
It feels like a social-food evolution, a revolution.
And that’s why we have such a big impact. I spoke at the G7. The Minister of Agriculture, he wanted me to speak about the project in Milan, and they were so in shock that a chef can do something like that that they gave me their cards with their mobile phones. They said, ‘let me know if you come to France because I want to have a meeting with you’.
People have an idea about what a chef is – in the kitchen, behind the scenes. What’s your idea of what a chef is?
To me, the most difficult thing was building a team. A team that is very passionate. That could help us, help me, to build dreams. Our job, it’s all about emotion, we sell ideas. You don’t travel 16 hours on a plane to come and eat good food. You can eat good street food in Bangkok or Hong Kong. You travel to eat emotion. It’s all about emotion, our food. You eat the crunchy part of the lasagna because it’s pure emotion. It’s me, as a kid, growing up in the middle of Romagna, who shares with every single guest who travels from all over the world, the emotion of stealing the crunchy part of the lasagna. That’s the point.
And if someone takes something different from your food than what you intended, does that matter to you? If the emotional connection they find is different?
It’s like art. You walk into a museum, you can just say I like it or I don’t like it, as when you walk in Osteria. But, it’s not the point. You have to look at the art in a much deeper way, and understand what the chef is trying to do. The point of good and bad is very important. Whether it’s good or bad depends on your palette. If you’re used to McDonalds, how can you judge that kind of stuff. But if you’re used to great food, exposed for years to a great dining scene, then you can have a good word on what we are doing. More than that, if you are very interested – like this generation is – travelling all over the world, they don’t even open the menu. They say, ‘cook whatever you want’.
You’re very involved with Gucci – you have opened a restaurant in the Florentine Gucci garden – tell us how that came about.
I was always very minimal in what I was wearing, I was very Margiela, very deconstructed. The CEO of Gucci, Marco Bizarri, and I were friends since we were 14 years old. We spent five years of high school together, at the same desk. Every day! And he approached me when he was at Bottega and so we became very, very close again, after 20 years. So, we did crazy events at Bottega Veneta, and then he went to Gucci. He said, ‘I want to rebuild everything, the company is dropping drastically, we need to do something to rebuild the image and everything’. So, we were discussing that, and frankly it’s exactly the way that I’m playing with food. The same philosophy. You think about the whole history you have and you get the best from the past into the future – not in a nostalgic way, but in a critical way.
You have such a big history on your back that if you leave everything like that, it’s so bad. It’s like when you build a Ferrari. This is a contemporary vision. In 2018, you cannot have a 17-course tasting menu and a big pan of lasagna, you’re going to die. But if you eat the emotional part, the crunchy part, you’re going to leave with that in mind.
It’s that balance between heritage and innovation.
When they ask me, describe your cuisine, I say it’s a compression of my passion into edible bites. Art, music, design, food. It’s what I know, it’s how I grew up. Sitting on centuries of history, because you know Italian cuisine is a compression of centuries and centuries of history, the flavours are there, but distilled by centuries. Think about the Roman and the Greek philosophers: the Greeks were saying we eat to live, the Romans switched it and said we live to eat. It’s in our DNA, and filtered by contemporary minds. So, you have passion, you have history and you are contemporary. It’s exactly as they do in Gucci, it’s exactly the same thing. You have a contemporary vision, as obsession about quality, and obsession about little details… they make the difference. Creativity is like this.
But you were met with protests, weren’t you?
Everywhere; Milan, London. Everyone didn’t want. They didn’t understand. They thought we were bringing poverty in. It was unbelievable.
That shows the depths of peoples’ fear, perhaps? That they don’t understand.
It’s crazy. You don’t realise how people are closed. You have to really explain. We made visible the invisible. And this was very invisible to them. People are used to watching TV and sometimes getting on the internet and getting lost. They don’t read anymore. They don’t spend time around the table, and talking. It’s something that keeps you very grounded.
Why did you decide to work on this, is it a social responsibility?
There are four words: culture, knowledge, consciousness, sense of responsibility. Once you achieve everything, all that you want, it’s time to give back. In your life, you want more? You want another boat? Another car? It’s time to give back to people that don’t have anything. You have to share with the others. One of my favourite artists is Joseph Beuys. And Joseph Beuys was like a philosopher, you know, ‘We are the revolution’? We are the revolution because we are all together. If I’m by myself, I’m not going to do anything, but if we are all together we can really create something special. And this is really what pushed me to do it and believe in the project. I didn’t expect anything you know – I just jumped.. Two years later, I spoke in front of the G7. Can you believe it? A chef! We show that chefs today are much more than the sum of their recipes.