Interview: Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana)

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Dan Steinberg photographed Chef Massimo Bottura at "Food for Soul" on May 5, 2017.

Massimo Bottura has established global reach from Modena, Italy, the city where he runs Osteria Francescana with wife Lisa Gilmore. In 2016, the restaurant earned the #1 spot on San Pellegrino’s prestigious The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and they currently rank #2. To start May, he was in L.A. to participate in several events for the inaugural L.A. Food Bowl, including a collaborative dinner with Michael Cimarusti at Providence and Food for Soul, a panel discussion on hunger and food waste with Roy Choi, Mario Batali, Dominique Crenn, and Mary Sue Milliken that Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold moderated at The Theatre at Ace Hotel. A screening of the short film “Theater of Life” followed the discussion, featuring the story behind Refettorio Ambrosiano, a soup kitchen that Bottura conceived for the Milan 2015 World’s Fair to transform food waste into meals. Food for Soul, the non-profit organization that he founded, “promotes social awareness about food waste and hunger through a wide range of initiatives in collaboration with chefs, artisans, food suppliers, artists, designers and institutions.” I had a chance to correspond with Bottura by e-mail after the film. Learn more about his worldwide profile and mission to minimize waste.

Josh Lurie: In what ways have your life and restaurant changed (positive and negative) since San Pellegrino named Osteria Francescana the #1 restaurant in the world in 2016?

Massimo Bottura: From our point of view, mine and that of the whole team, nothing has really changed. The passion, humility and work ethic of the previous 21 years stayed exactly the same, even after this incredible achievement. Hard work is the base and humility keeps you learning all your life. If you are willing to sacrifice everything, then anything is possible. But without passions, those things that make you sing, I attribute this achievement to our ability to hold onto our passions, our humility, and work ethic. We never let go of our dreams during these long and difficult 21 years. But if you can dream it, you can make it happen. If you are willing to sacrifice everything, then anything is possible. Hard work is the base and humility keeps you learning all your life. But without passions, those things that make you sing, nothing really means anything. I love music, art, and food. I want to share all of those things with the people around me. That is what we try to do with our restaurant. Open our world and invite guests in to see things from another point of view. Everyone’s hard work and dedication is the motivation to continue following their dreams. You know, it’s just about hard work in the kitchen, 90% hard work and 10% talent.

JL: What was your reaction to being named the #2 restaurant in the world this year, versus #1 last year?

MB: Well, we have been in the top three positions for the past five years so there is really no difference. Being number one is fabulous (especially in New York!!!) and a once-in-a-lifetime sensation. But at the end of the day, it is the consistency that matters to us. Pushing the envelope, working as hard as we can, and being a top-rated restaurant.

JL: What will it take for you to consider Food for Soul a success?

MB: What we’ve done so far with Food for Soul is not only going beyond my expectations, but even my dreams. Three years ago, when just the glimpse of an idea popped up in my mind and I thought about launching the very first project, Refettorio Ambrosiano, I couldn’t have ever been able to imagine such a thing. We learned about our impact by doing, during the process of restoring abandoned spaces, recovering food otherwise wasted, welcoming all those people who haven’t been as lucky as us in their lives. We made visible the invisible in Milan, during a massive event like the Universal Exposition in 2015. We asked ourselves: what does “feed the planet” mean to us? And considering that one-third of the food we produce every year is wasted and almost one billion people are undernourished, our response to feed the planet – the theme launched by Expo2015 – was Refettorio Ambrosiano first, and then Food for Soul. In 2016, even Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro came out of a dream, that turned into an idea, then a vision, then a shared project, then a real space in the beating heart of Rio, opened since the Olympics 2016. Our next project will take us in West London, where we will restore a community center that has existed for the last 25 years. Designers, architects and artists are already working to make this space beautiful and inclusive; chefs from all over Britain, as well as international ones, already answered my call to action and will join me to cook recovered surplus food during the whole month of June. The good thing is, that all these places are not pop ups; we build them to stay permanently, to leave a legacy to the city and be a pivotal space where the whole community can meet and grow. We recently had the great news that the Rockefeller Foundation will support us to grow sustainably and to expand in the U.S.: a clear message that shows how many other people and institutions are sharing our same mission. I can only say that in the future, I see more future. That’s the success of Food for Soul.

JL: What are three measures that most restaurants can take to reduce food waste?

MB: I’m an Italian chef. As so, I am very lucky to rely on the golden rules of Italian culinary tradition. Every cuisine has a way of working. The Italian Cuisine has traditionally been one where very little is wasted. This is because there was great famine and poverty in Italy before the wars. Every part of an animal is used; every part of a vegetable and even left-over ingredients are used. We practice this in our kitchen at Osteria Francescana and try to teach young chefs to be resourceful with ingredients, to not be wasteful, to have respect for the food that they are preparing but also the food they eat daily. Our staff meals are healthy and fresh because we believe in the regenerative power of food. Every chef in every restaurant can highlight the real value of food in very simple ways. First, using ingredients in their wholeness, from nose to tail, as the Italians say. Use vegetable peels and scraps, fish and meat bones to make broth. Second: don’t stop at the appearance. You can’t imagine how much good food is thrown away because it is ugly, say a brown banana, or is close to the expiration date, say a container of ricotta cheese, that is still perfectly good to cook with. So often these products are taken off the shelves and thrown away when they could be given to charity organizations. Ugly fruits and vegetables can taste just as delicious as beautiful ones, and sometimes even more, in the case of the brown (over mature) bananas which when used properly, like to make gelato or banana bread, is even more delicious. It is often said of a person that he or she is “beautiful inside.” A browned banana, a bruised fruit has still a huge potential in terms of smells, flavors, texture. The responsibility of the chef – as well as that of all of us, cooking at home – is to find that inner beauty in each product. Third, take the best of the ingredients from every stage of its lifespan. Straight out of the oven, a loaf of bread is good enough to be eaten as it is. The day after, it will be perfect to make pappa al pomodoro or bread pudding. After two days, the bread will make perfect breadcrumbs for meatballs, passatelli and cakes. That’s what the real beauty is: to make something valuable out of something that might be seen as not having any value at all. We often say, “Something recovered is something gained.”

JL: What have your favorite restaurant meals been in Los Angeles, and what made them special?

MB: We dined very well in Los Angeles from ethnic spots to casual hipster spots in Venice to fine dining in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. There is great excitement in the air, serious food and a cool L.A. vibe wherever you go. We have never eaten better in Los Angeles than this trip. We hope to return soon!


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Sincerely looking forward to continuing watching this man’s career, and life path, unfold. “Theater of Life” truly sounds like a must-see, and hopefully many people help spread the powerful message. Hopefully more big names in the food industry will be inspired by this example and continue to encourage this kind of action. “Hard work is the base and humility keeps you learning all your life. If you are willing to sacrifice everything, then anything is possible.” — wonderful.

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