Why Hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, where today we’re going to tackle a topic a little out of our wheelhouse, but one that we’ve actually nodded to a couple times: we’re not going to talk about a recipe or a piece of food media, but of a famous food MAKER. Today, we’re talking about chefs. And specifically, we’re talking about Massimo Bottura.
Before we begin in earnest, I want to make a couple remarks. Firstly, I’d like to thank my mother for the idea for this post. It was a great idea I’m surprised we haven’t explored yet. Secondly, I’d like to set some expectations: I am capable of a great many things, but I am not an investigative reporter. If you wanna know about Marvel’s Ronan the Accuser, I’m your dude. But Ronan Farrow, I ain’t. I am ESPECIALLY not the kind of guy to excel at learning about an entire person’s life and achievements in under 3 days. This is going to be a highlight reel, a sort of culinary Cliff-notes. I’ll try and explain what type of food a chef I cover here makes, some of their philosophy about cooking/food/whatever, and what, if anything, makes them “important”.
This is Ronan the Accuser, by the way. Member of the Kree race, villain of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Supposedly going to show up in Captain Marvel next year, which might be cool.
Good? Great. Let’s hit up Italy and learn about Massimo Bottura.
As Good As Gold
In most people, there is a spark of good, a touch of love. But I cannot deny that there is darkness in some peoples’ hearts. There are men in this world who think only of their own hungers. People who wish to see others suffer, to exult in their power over the lives of those less fortunate than them. Cruel people, greedy people. Those who would darken the world to let themselves feel brighter.
And then, there is the other kind. Those who seem to, in all things, make the world better. Who bring nothing but joy and comfort, succor to the wearied, and relief to the downtrodden. The much-touted, and deeply revered scion of such luminaries is Fred Rogers, a man so well-beloved that it transcended species: KoKo the Gorilla watched his show, and when he came to visit her, she danced for joy, and told him, through sign language, that she loved him. That is the power of such love and compassion: it transcends words, or even humanity.
Massimo Bottura is one of the second kind of people.
Honestly, doesn’t he look a little like if Mr Rogers and Bob Ross had a kid?
Before I wax too saccharine on his many noble qualities, let’s answer that third question I posed earlier: what makes Massimo “important”? And that’s an easy answer.
He’s the best chef in the world.
And that’s not me saying that. That’s the international rankings of the The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Massimo’s flagship restaurant, Osteria Francescana is #1 this year. And it was in 2016 as well. In fact, he’s placed in the top 3 for the last 5 years, and in the top 10 since 2010. (Tragically, he only made it to number 13 in 2009) Massimo Bottura is the kind of guy that when chefs talk about, the discussion is not if he’s the best, it’s how wide a region does he conquer? Is he ‘merely’ the best in Italy? Or all of Europe? Is he THE best?
The answer is, of course, no. Because America placed ONCE, and therefore we’re claiming the spot for all time.
So, what makes him the best? What does he do? Fine questions. Let’s talk about them, and why they almost took him out of the game before he was in it to win it.
Italy: Where You Still Owe Me Because Your Grandfather Stole My Grandmother’s Tomatoes.
Massimo Bottura is, as his name not simply ‘shouts’ but shouts out an open second story window with elaborate hand gestures, Italian. He is Modenesi, the demonym for Modena. (“Demonym” or “gentilic” is the fancy word for “the term for the people/inhabitants of a place”. If that sounds super vague, it’s because it’s kind of hard to describe words like “New Yorkers”, “French”, “Norwegian” or “Italians”. And they follow a lot of weird rules. Some are just utter nonsense, like Indiana’s famous demonym of “hoosiers”, which shares only ONE LETTER WITH THE ACTUAL STATE’S NAME)
Massimo Bottura makes Italian food, a statement that, by writing without qualifying, means I am now in a blood feud with no less than 16 Italian families. The reasoning for this acrimony is…complicated. It’s BEST explained by me telling you that, in many ways, if you think of what “fine dining” means…well, that’s basically what Massimo makes. White plates with single 2 oz steaks on them, weird piles of pale goo with foam on top, something that looks like a literal mistake, or like someone is playing a joke on you. All of these are real dishes he makes. Some of them are his SIGNATURE moves, like the “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart”
Man, I wish I was famous enough to serve “Literal Mistake” as a dish.
That is…exactly what it looks like. And it was first invented almost exactly as you might guess. One of Massimo’s sous-chefs, prepping one of the last lemon tarts for service, dropped it. It broke, and Massimo looked at it and said, “Hey, that looks pretty cool.” So he made it look intentional. And then he just started making all his lemon tarts that way.
The other important part of understanding why there’s some resentment (And, to be fair, I should say “was some resentment”, to my knowledge, as of the last decade, he’s become beloved, he just had a rocky start) is that he’s something of an agent provocateur with his dishes. He intentionally tried to start shit. Because he found that the more he pushed, the more people paid attention. Not just to him, to his food. There’s a traditional soup in Italy, tortellini en brodo, which means, well, “tortellini in broth”. It’s a fairly simple soup. And when Massimo opened his big restaurant, he served the soup, and he noticed that no one CARED about it. They just…ate it. Shoveling it in mindlessly. And Massimo KNEW those tortellini were good, so it was killing him that people didn’t care about them. So he decided to start some shit. He replaced the soup with a dish called “tortellini walking into broth”. It’s a chicken gelatin spread over a plate, and SIX tortellini. Only six. That did NOT go over well. But it got a lot of people talking. So he innovated again. And I think his second innovation speaks to the kind of person he is, deep down.
Right now, tell me, if you eat lasagna, what’s the BEST part of lasagna? Which part do you argue, connive, or fight to get on YOUR plate?
It’s the crispy part, right? The corner with the crispy, cheesy edges? Because that’s my favorite. I’d say it’s EVERYONE’S favorite. Massimo certainly agrees. So he made a dish: “The crunchy part of the Lasagna”. He cooked pasta, puréed it, fried it, then GRILLED the now fried-pasta-puff, and hit it with a blowtorch, to get those little burnt pieces, and served that on top of a ragu and cheese foam.
Personally, I think he could afford to darken it a little more, but I’m not a three Michelin star chef, so presumably it works.
And he called it Lasagna, to piss people off, but what he made was, by all accounts, really good. Because, in his words, and in the words of some of his reviewers, Massimo’s most important ingredient is memory: Massimo WANTS you to “get it”, to taste the great flavors of his heritage in a new way, because you’ve gotten complacent eating it the old way. He wants to share this thing, this great idea, with you. Because sharing is caring.
Speaking of sharing and caring, let’s talk about the shit he started doing AFTER he had made it to the big leagues.
Things Get a Little Cheesy
Massimo has, in the last 6 or so years, become something of a philanthropist along with his “pissing people off through food” activities. The first big act was back in 2012. Now, as you may or may not know, Europe in general, and Italy specifically, is relatively finicky about DOP. I talk about this in my post about sparkling wines, but if you don’t want to follow the link, quick summary: Basically, since specific places in Europe have been making certain foods since roughly around the same time that we figured out how to make shirt buttons and/or windmills, they can get very tetchy if you throw around names that are THEIRS, damnit! So like, in most of the world, it’s illegal to call something Parmigiano Reggiano unless it was grown in one of 5 provinces in Italy. You can’t call a wine Champagne unless its from the south of France.
Anyway, I wanna talk about that Italy example. The only places allowed to make Parmigiano Reggiano are Parma (duh), Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Mantua., which are almost all in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy This is important, because in 2012, an earthquake hit the north of Italy. Specifically, in Emilia Romagna. Like, 20 miles north of Bologna, which means it was between 10 and 40 miles away from Modena, Mantua, Reggio Emilia, and Parma. The HEART of Parmigiano Reggiano production was slammed. Over 300,000 wheels of cheese were damaged, accounting for roughly 200 MILLION Euros worth of food damage. And, as that number might suggest to you, people were scared.
This is not an image to fill Italians with hope. More “existential despair”.
How many jobs would be lost, how many factories closed, because of the lost cheese? Well, Massimo reached out, and came up with an idea: make a dinner. He reached out, and proposed a Parmigiano dinner, that people could buy the cheese for, and share on social media, to raise awareness and help use up the damaged stock. The effort had some success, and I’m interested in making the dish itself at some point, but since it starts with “53 oz of Parmigiano Reggiano”, and is therefore going to cost something like $60 just for the cheese, that may take some time.
Anyway, it’s the last two projects I really wanted to talk about, because they’re partly why I had such a glowing recommendation of Massimo as a person at the start. And I’m going to apologize for taking a more somber tone in this last section, but in very real ways, these are important things, and valuable things, and mocking them in their introduction to you would only weaken them.
The first is called il Tortellante, and it is a project near and dear to Massimo, and his wife Lara Gilmore’s heart, as it ties so many of the elements of their lives together. It started as an after-school activity: a place for rezdores, (Italian aunts and grandmothers who have mastered pasta making, and cook for their families) to pass on their knowledge and skills to local teenagers with special needs. It’s so near and dear to the two because Massimo himself was greatly helped by a rezdora in his first restaurant, and later with Osteria Francesana, a woman named Lidia Cristoni, and also because their son is a Tortellante himself. The hope of the program was to give these teens something to do, a skill they could learn, and it has, over the years, blossomed. They’ve gone from meeting once a week to 5 times, and have opened new locations, and are starting a culinary laboratory, getting internships and jobs for the teens in question to use the skills they’ve learned.
Oh, and I forgot to mention: the kids get to take home the pasta they make. So their after-school activity also covers a meal for their families.
The second one is the most recent, and in some ways, the most flashy. Massimo recently became very invested in the cause to prevent Food Waste, a topic that too many of us can relate to. And he sought to combine this issue with another one: the dignity of the homeless. He first explored the concept during the 2015 Milan Expo by opening a soup kitchen in Milan, for which he called in many friends and associates to make dishes using food waste. And these friends are not names to sneer at.
Among the chefs involved were Ferran Adria and Rene Redzepi, two names you may not know, but luckily, I have already provided you with a reference point for them. Go back up to where I placed the table showing Massimo’s wins on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. If it struck you as weird that I included so much of the list before Massimo, it was for this moment. See, Ferran Adria ran the restaurant elBulli, which you may note did rather well on the list, as did Rene’s restaurant Noma. Massimo didn’t just make food for a soup kitchen, he had the main contenders for “best chef in the world” of the last 20 years show up and make food for a soup kitchen. And he hired artists to decorate, and architects to beautify the space. He made a soup kitchen the same way you’d make a millionaire’s mansion.
Because that was the POINT. Too often soup kitchens are seen as ‘low’ places, where the chairs are uncomfortable, the room barren of decoration. And Massimo wanted more than that. He felt that those in need were also in need of a sense of dignity, of respect. That giving them that might make a difference, make a change. It’s the root behind his latest cookbook, Bread is Gold, whose profits all go to sustain the non-profit he created, Food for Soul, to create and run his “Refettorios”, and spread the mission.
Here’s their London branch, for an example of the level of decor to be expected.
So THAT’s who Massimo Bottura is. The Best Chef in the world right now, a man out to piss people off with his tortellini, and a man trying to build better communities, to bring us all together. Because it is when you break bread together than you become a family. And in that moment, Bread is more than gold, it’s love, and hope, and everything you could hope to find in human hearts.
If you want to learn more about Massimo, or see the man in action, he’s featured in episodes of Somebody Feed Phil (Venice) and Ugly Delicious (Stuffed), where they discuss Food For Soul and Il Tortellante, respectively. He’s also the focus of the first episode of Chef’s Table, and has an entire documentary based on his first refettorio, Theater of Life, all of which are available to view on Netflix.
You know what? No plug for my own shit today. If you wanna give money, or feel moved by this to pump it on social media, fuck me: go support Massimo. The site for Food for Soul takes donations, and Il Tortallante does as well, though it appears only through an IBAN, which is WAY too complicated a process for me to unravel at the minute, but looks like it might be possible through THIS site, if you make an account, so give it a shot if you think it’s a cause you want to support. I’d suggest just buying his cookbook Bread is Gold, but that would be another way to support Food for Soul, not Il Tortallante. So… I dunno, do what seems best to you.
MONDAY: WE COVER A DISH MY MOTHER COOKED, IN EXCRUCIATING DETAIL, BECAUSE IT’S ACTUALLY PRETTY SIMPLE.
THURSDAY: I DUNNO, MAN, I FEEL EMOTIONALLY DRAINED. MAYBE A SHOW REVIEW, MAYBE I’LL FINALLY DO PART 2 OF THE DIET COMPENDIUM.