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Travel Story. The philosophy of food, dinner chez Bottura

guide to good manners/1 – Oops, I asked Bottura for seconds.

If you go for the ten-course tasting menu at a Michelin star restaurant, it’s not the done thing to ask for seconds. But when I was presented with dessert that evening at Osteria Francescana, run by three-Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura and named the best restaurant in the world this year – I just couldn’t help it. Oops! I dropped the lemon tart is the name of the dessert, the outcome of a mistake – the ‘perfect reconstruction of imperfection’, made with lemon zabaione, vervain sorbet, crumbled shortbread pastry, candied bergamot and a caper assembled with the verve of an action painting by Pollock. 

«So do I, when I eat at Giro’s (a friend of the chef, editor’s note) all on my own, and I feel like a sardine has astonished my palate, I have another one made for me right away», Massimo reassures me. On June 19th, at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the Oscars of food and wine held at the Basque Culinari Center in Bilbao, Spain, La Francescana was named the ‘best restaurant in the world’ for the second time, the first was in 2016. «One Sunday morning, I arrived at the Francescana and there was the Rossini choir singing Vincerò from the opera Turandot, from Modena like me – I live my life in the province, a small world where there are consortia and cheese dairies; where families are united and have a single voice»

Bottura dedicated his triumph to Italian food, all of it: «There is a generation of cooks from San Cassiano to Ragusa Ibla, who have realized that cooking is a way to express what their local area is about, and a shared resource». Cooking is an aspect of culture; restaurants are like ‘workshops during the Renaissance’, whose principle is described in a ditty: «You create culture, develop knowledge, you become more aware and that leads to a sense of responsibility». If you want to understand the philosophy behind the Francescana, just think of a restaurant based on the solace offered by food – «a place offering solace to the souls of travelers, where you are an ambassador of agriculture and a driver of tourism». Tradition? «It’s there, but seen from a distance of ten kilometers. You shouldn’t look back at the past with nostalgia» – even if there are madeleines on the table, after dessert, and there is almost a Proustian moment with The crunchy part of the lasagna«Do you remember, as a child, what it was like to observe the world hidden under the table? That’s what I plate up»

«My grandmother taught me that cooking is a gesture of love». It was this background and the verb reficere that gave Bottura the communitarian and frugal connotation – eating together in an uncomplicated manner – that led to his Refettori community kitchen project – four in all, to date: Ambrosiano in Milan, Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, Felix in London and Refettorio Paris in the crypt of the church de la Madeleine. For the first, during Expo 2015 in Milan, «I called for top Chefs because they aid communication: the world had to know we were transforming food that otherwise would have been thrown away, because people listen when an idea is ‘good’». Under the banner of Food For Soul, a non-profit association founded by Massimo and his wife Lara, he helps communities fight against social isolation by rebuilding a sense of dignity, sitting around a table, and with an ultimate dream: «when opening a refettorio will be something normal and no longer an event». An anecdote? – «In Rio, from panic when a madman came in and put a knife on the table, to listening to a homeless person saying: ‘this is the first time in my life that I have been treated like a human being. I pinched myself. It’s at times like this you realize you are on the right road».

Let’s take a look at the greatest cuisines: «There are four of them. Chinese and French – they use great ingredients but also too many spices, sauces, processes, and this can turn into an ego trip for the Chef. Japanese and Italian – they start from the bottom. They share the same obsession for the quality of the raw materials and deploy just enough technique to lend maximum expression to the ingredient». Elective affinities: Italian kitchens are full of Japanese cooks and the best Italian food outside Italy is served in Japan, «Because in Italy and in Japan, our palate for ingredients is so finely tuned that you have to keep this approach in mind when you go to work them. This encourages the chef to use techniques to perfection so he has to continue improving through such expression». 

Bottura’s cooking is confounded by the names of his dishes designed to trick the palate. One above all others, the Babà that wants to be a panettone, «It’s about the South that wants to become the North, or maybe the North that wants to become the South. Without the south, Northern Italy would just be the south of Switzerland, whereas together they create poetry», and then it is rediscovered through the vision of a flavor, «I go through a door that is always unexpected. This is how it has always been in my life; I have always given things the possibility to be something else». It is edible poetry – this is how he sums it up: «We compress our passions within chewable bites». The results are plain to see on the first day of the month, with 183 thousand trying to book a table at the Osteria. Behind the scenes there are forty eight people at work in the dining room, kitchen and office – «when I take on someone new, I don’t examine their CV, but I look for a gleam in their eyes».

guide to good manners/2 – Whether it’s true that you can talk about anything at the dinner table except for what’s on your plate.

«Food is how discussions start. You plan your future at the table. My mother always said so. We had a huge table in the kitchen – that’s where it all happened. Pasta was rolled out, then someone would come and the ham was cut, you could smell the roast being carved, it was where you had your arguments, where you dreamed, there was business to do, it was all done there, all together. Jean Todt, MD of Ferrari, always insists on having a table ready for him, because the best deals are done at the Francescana ». We spoke about this the following day, sitting around a table. In the garden of what was once the Mangelli family residence, bought by Massimo and Lara at auction two years ago, rather unexpectedly. «It was the place that found us», Massimo says. We are curious to know what is to become of a ‘place’ that doesn’t even have a name for now, but already has an impressive waiting list. Massimo shows us a message from John Elkann asking for confirmation for the board in February. Could it be called the ‘Villa’? «No, that’s too pretentious. Can’t you see the avenue of plum trees and small oaks, down over there? Certainly not a Villa, it will be called ‘Casa something’, or ‘La Maria Luigia – his mother’s name, editor’s note – who comes from Festà, a small village near Marano sul Panaro, in the Modena area»

It’s a place we needed so we can accommodate groups of people that we can’t fit into the Francescana, «There was a specific moment, when Michael Sweet was in Modena and looking for a house to record their new album. No-one would ever give their house over to a rock group! That’s when I started looking for a place where I could say welcome, stay, relax and enjoy». It is still not clear what it will become. Massimo isn’t confirming anything and offers no clues, «Maybe we will have nine bedrooms. I haven’t made my mind up about anything yet. We will definitely be planting spelt and barley for the flour we need to make our bread, and more fruit trees for our jams. We will bring our art and the artworks we have collected over the last thirty years». One thing Bottura does tell us, Petrified Petrol Pump by Allora & Calzadilla will be near the car park: 400 kilograms of Mexican stone carved into a petrol pump, that he considers a symbol of his story. It represents a crucial passage: «when I told my father I didn’t want to be a lawyer working for his petrol business». As the unnecessary ceramics by Giorgio di Palma are melting, there are no flowers in the vases but pretend ice creams. The flavors: strawberry and lemon, pistachio and chocolate, all quite traditional.

It you want to discover the secret behind the success of Massimo Bottura, don’t look in the kitchen but in the narrative of the artworks at the Francescana. «I think about the influence that Joseph Beuys had on me in ’75 when he started to plant oak trees and wrote ‘We should never stop planting’ instead of making artworks». When you enter the Osteria, the first person you meet is a rather listless, armed guard, leaning against the wall, a statue by American hyper realist Duane Hanson, 360 kilograms of hand painted bronze that has been named Franky. «Every morning, the first thing the guys do before they get started in the restaurant is to say hello to him, because each day you should ride the wave of everyday life, not the metaphysics of everyday life itself. A guard reminds you not to get lost, otherwise all that remains of your job is merely cut-toss-serve». In turn, Franky looks over We are Revolution, a work by Joseph Beuys that wants to convey a message «watching over you and involving you: we are the revolution». The work by Pistoletto next to it does not have a golden backdrop but brushed lead. And then there are the ironic and ‘neo-picassian’ pigeons of the Turisti by Maurizio Cattelan. 

In the large photograph showing the Po bursting its banks by Elger Esser, the mud no longer acknowledges the sky but becomes one and the same with it. «Considering the glass half full, yes, the Po did flood the surrounding countryside but the water irrigated the ground and made Emilia Romagna the food valley we know today». And what if we consider the glass half empty? «You mend the riverbanks so the Po won’t burst them again, use pesticides and your answer comes in the black circle by Bosco Sodi, which is just the same as The Scream by Munch. Here it is the earth asking for help». The next artwork you would like to buy? «I haven’t thought about it yet, but art finds its own way»

By Invitation Only – grazie ad American Express per l’invito a cena riservato ai clienti Centurion, e per definire un codice del lusso che è fatto di esperienze e non di cose.

Osteria Francescana Via Stella, 22, Modena