Massimo Bottura, the internationally renowned Italian chef from Osteria Francescana (three Michelin stars) sat down with us this week to discuss his new book “Never trust a skinny Italian chef” and to talk about his views on becoming a successful chef and how to use your standing to help others with innovative ideas.
First off, tell us how this project came about. Why did you decide to put all of your knowledge into one book?
After 30 years of work and 20 years of Osteria Francescana and all the dishes and recipes we developed, I realized that culture brought knowledge. Through knowledge came consciousness and through consciousness a sense of responsibility. What I realised is that at one point, once you receive every single prize it’s time to give back. For me this kind of book is not a cooking book, what’s most important here is the whole story behind every dish. That’s why I decided to choose this cover. This is not a trendy book cover; it looks more like the Holy Bible. One day I was in a Motel and I opened the draw and there was the Holy Bible, and I thought to myself this is the only book that stays forever. So that is why we chose this cover, trying to move away from trendiness.
What kind of story does this book tell?
It’s says many things but it mainly says that I’m not getting lost into nostalgia, I’m a contemporary chef and in my future there is always future. That means I don’t have time for nostalgia, I look at the past in a critical way not in a nostalgic way. I do this to bring the best from the past into the future. That’s the point in the book that talks about tradition and evolution. Traditions are there and they are very strong. There is a very big Italian heritage, but I don’t want to get lost into tradition. I want to bring everything from the past with its incredible distillation of flavours through the centuries and bring it to the future through a contemporary mind. I like this idea because it gives space for the younger generations; I’m always close to the school for that reason.
How involved are you with the younger generation of chefs?
Very much so. If you walk into the kitchens of Osteria Francescana right now there are young cooks 19, 20 and 22 years old. There is a 22-year old that is responsible for the restaurant’s budget – he buys everything. I don’t think I choose the people in my kitchen, I think they choose me. These guys are very interesting and passionate, and they show me this passion. I’m sensitive to passion; I’m sensitive to these people who believe in something very deeply. They sacrifice their youth because it’s their passion and you can feel that in the younger generation. That is how they choose me.
How many people helped you put this book together?
All 43. We are 43 people in the restaurant for 30 covers and I think that every one of them gave something to the book. Those little details that can make the difference. The book is like the expression of the team. The most important thing in a restaurant like this is to build a team. If you build a team, I can be here and feel relaxed because I know that everything is going well.
Why did you feel writing this book was important for the world of gastronomy?
Well I didn’t want to tell the world, it’s something that came as a close of 10 years of work. Actually, the one who really convinced me to write the book was René Redzepi in a conversation late one night. He said to me, listen every time you go on stage everyone is amazed because of your ideas. Why don’t you take the bull by the horns and do it? It’s time for you to do it, it’s very important for you to write a book. He told me I could be an inspiration for many young chefs. And I said, okay and the next day I made the decision.
And this is the 20th Anniversary of Osteria Francescana so it’s also very important. I tried so many times to write a book, but by the time I reread what I’d written it was already old. I’m so projected into the future that for me a book about the past is already old by the time I finish chapter 1. But I did it!
Do you think about this book as closure of your career?
No. Since I closed the book I’ve done so many more things that are not even in there. All the projects, especially the social projects like the one I’m doing for the Milan World Fair are going to be incredible projects.
Tell us about the Milan World Fair.
Well, with this idea of “Feed the Planet” you need to start very deep. From the scraps and from the waste. I saw this article about the food that is being wasted every year: 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year. This is crazy. It’s an enormous number. So I said why don’t we start giving an example? The best chefs in the world should be giving an example to everyone. So I called all my friends from all over the world, from René to Ducasse, from Ferrán to Andoni, and I say come to Milan and lets cook the scraps and the waste from the other pavilions. And they said of course we will.
So I explained the idea to many people, but nobody really got it except for the Pope. He said: this is an amazing idea. Let’s do it. The Pope suggested we focus on the suburbs and we found this incredible theatre from 1930 that was completely abandoned and owned by the church. So now the architects from the Politecnico di Milano are restoring it, artists are putting up their work, the designers are doing the furniture – everything for free.
From May to October, all the best chefs are going to come and cook the scraps from the other pavilions to create a new tradition. We want this to be a spiritual testament for the future generation. We are going to cook for poor people in the night and students at lunch. No journalists, no nothing.
Now everyone from the other pavilions wants to get involved, because it’s the deepest idea.
What are the three ingredients that as a chef you always use in your kitchen?
There are three ingredients that to me are the most important thing in life: one is humility, the other is passion and the third is dreams. If you have these three you can make it in life. Humility means you have your feet on the ground all the time, we are chefs, we are cooks, we are workers. We have good ideas. If you study you can get deep into your interests and these can be passion. Through passion you can transfer emotion and this is a dream. Passion means you live 24hours with your job.
Bob Dylan was always saying the secret of his success was waking up in the mornings and going to bed at night and in the meantime doing what he choose to do. Doing it with all his energy. Dreams are about the future, if you can imagine it you can make it. If you can’t you don’t even start doing it.
Enzo Ferrari sold his family business to buy a sports car and look what that has become today, I was studying to become a lawyer and I wasn’t happy. I loved cooking, music and art. One day I said: stop. Reset. And I bought a restaurant one week later.
Is this the kind of advice you would give someone starting in the business?
I would give it to every single kid out there. Stay with your feet on the earth, go deep into your interests and transform those interests into passion. Dream all the time, live your life like a dream. Young aspiring chefs should understand where they come from. Look at the mirror every morning and say I choose to be a chef. And try to understand who you are. Most people don’t have the humility to understand who they are and the possibilities they have. If you look at yourself and you know exactly who you are and what you can do, then you wont do crazy things that burn you down. Grow slowly, like a tree. First you put roots into the earth, and step-by-step you grow. You travel to France to learn the basics of La Grand Cuisine. These steps are so important; you cannot take shortcuts these days.
It’s very important to have culture, for me the chefs of the future need to be give culture more value. They don’t have to push so hard to start in the kitchen so soon, because they are going to get lost very easily.
I think culture is essential. And that is why I’m pushing to have the Agriculture School in Modena. A university educated farmer and cheese maker is going to give you smiling Parmigiano Reggiano and a happy potato. And that’s what makes the difference.
Do you think you will ever do a similar project again?
I don’t know. In my future there is always going to be future. For now I’m fighting for the University for the Pavilion and then who knows. If two years ago I had said that I would be doing a project for the World Fair, becoming the symbol of the Fair and working with the Pope, you would have said I was crazy. Now, when the Pope or the Prime Minister of Italy mention me in their speeches as an example it makes me think how crazy it is.
I also think about the School of Agriculture in Modena and how there is a waiting list now. They used to say: You are a chef and you want to build a university? Build, think, dream, explain! The most difficult thing is to get people to listen. Now they are finally listening, so I feel I have a responsibility. If I were younger maybe I would think more about the restaurant and myself. But after all the achievements and prizes I just want to give back and be helpful to others. And ultimately, this is what this book is about.