Culinary genius Massimo Bottura is in Dubai and won’t rest until we’re all part of his cultural revolution
Massimo Bottura is holding out a nugget of parmesan cheese. It is laced with a thick, extra-aged balsamic vinegar that is seeping its way to the edge. A droplet of it threatening to fall at any second. “Mangia! Mangia! Eat!” he says thrusting it towards my face with boyish enthusiasm and zero intention of letting me hold it in my hand.
It has been a while since someone has hand-fed me, but if one of the greatest chefs on the planet is insisting, then frankly, it would be rude not to indulge. With Massimo Bottura you have to expect the unexpected.As my mouth explodes with tangy flavour, my brain floods with a hit of pure nostalgia taking me straight back to countless childhood comforts of my nonna’s cooking— her recipes always heavy on the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“Good, eh?” he asks rhetorically with a sparkle in his eye. He is not fishing for an answer, he is well aware of how good it is. Before I can finish my mouthful to agree, he is already handing a piece to the lady next to me. Same excitement, same reaction. Bottura cracks a smile. He is in his element, thriving at the centre of attention with guests, quite literally, eating out of his hand.
We’re at Torno Subito, Bottura’s Dubai restaurant, and much like its creator, it is bustling. The restaurant is an ode to 1960s Italy, reflecting Bottura’s affection with the past and highlighting his fondest childhood memories of the seaside and La Dolce Vita. Black and white polaroids hang from the ceiling and the interior is an explosion of colours, patterns and neon signs. It is late December 2019 and the launch of the restaurant’s new Saturday brunch. Bottura is back in town for a manic couple of days to not only make sure the restaurant is still meeting his exacting (and demanding) standards, but also to cook for Cristiano Ronaldo et al. at The Best FIFA Football Awards the following evening—such is the life of one of the most in-demand chefs in the world.
The name Torno Subito playfully translates from Italian as ‘I’ll be right back’. It is the fourth time he has been ‘back’ since it opened a year ago, and he returns again this month on February 18 and 19 to host a series of dinners.
Watching Bottura work a room, he is the embodiment of charisma. He’s a livewire as he weaves through the diners, pop-up bars and food stations. He is funny, charming, talkative and tactile. The guests are revelling in it. Half of people who approach him asking for selfies (of which he
is happy to oblige); the other half asking if they can have a booking at his famed restaurant Osteria Francescana (to which he wearily explains that they are welcome join the nearly 30,000 people who every month apply to its first-come-first-serve online booking service).
Mr Bottura wears: Shirt and jeans, both by Gucci; Watch by Panerai
As he hands out morsels of cheese from behind a massive wheel of Parmesan, a ramshackle line quickly forms like worshippers waiting to take communion. It almost seems apt, as when it comes to nostalgia-driven Italian cuisine, Massimo Bottura is very much head of the church.
While Torno Subito is a fun side-project for Bottura, Osteria Francescana is his masterpiece. Based in the city of Modena, within the Italian culinary heartland of Emilio-Romagna, it is one of the most highly regarded restaurants on the planet—and officially voted the world’s best in 2016.
But Bottura’s accomplishments are by no means an overnight success story. Now 57, he first opened Osteria Francescana in 1995 following a decade of culinary apprenticeships under influential French masters Georges Coigny and Alain Ducasse, honing a solid foundation of regional Italian cooking and classical French training.
But as much as he learnt at the knee of those culinary giants, arguably his biggest influence during that time came from an older Italian kitchen hand, Lidia Cristoni. Bottura proudly cites Cristoni as not only the person who imparted her traditional pasta-making techniques and years of wisdom garnered from working in restaurant kitchens upon the eager chef, but also the value of humility. Cristoni played such a formative role in Bottura’s story that he is clearly still affected by her recent passing, aged 80, as we offer our condolences.
When Osteria Francescana was still in its infancy, Bottura sought out further mentorship from El Bulli supremo Ferran Adrià. Having rewritten the rules of what modern cuisine could be, it is no surprise that it was Adrià who encouraged Bottura to open his mind to the endless expressionism made possible in food. As a self-proclaimed art fanatic, he began to approach his craft with fresh perspective, harnessing traditional Italian ingredients and flavours in new forms.
Despite being a proud Italian, Bottura began chipping away at the cornerstones of Italian tradition, but it took a surprising catalyst to finally convince him to throw off the shackles.
“I always come back to a performance piece by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei,” says Bottura. He explains how in 1995 the dissident artist picked up a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty vase and smashed it on the floor. “In that moment he was showing that he was breaking from the past so that he could build the future. That was what I wanted to do.”
As Bottura and his chefs continued to riff on classic Italian recipes, a rabble of townsfolk was forming in Modena. People criticized the tiny portion sizes and the brutal changes to traditional recipes. In Bottura’s kitchen nothing was the way Italians were accustomed to it being, the way it had been done for centuries with recipes that every child was raised on and could practically recite. Some called it heresy, while others instead saw it as the avant-garde of Italian cuisine.
In 2002, the restaurant was decorated with its first Michelin star. A second followed in 2006 and then a nearly unattainable third in 2012. In 2011, the International Academy of Gastronomy anointed Osteria Francescana the number one restaurant in the world, in 2016 it topped the 50 World’s Best Restaurants list.
Mr Bottura wears: Blazer and jumper, both by Gucci; Glasses by Persol
But while the origin story is unquestionably impressive, those feats may be the least interesting thing about the impact that Bottura has had on the social and cultural energies of the contemporary culinary world at the nexus of food, culture, ethics and social justice.
Most people know Bottura from his episode of the popular Netflix original series Chef’s Table. His genuine love and passion for the power of food to change the world shines through in the documentary, and is replicated in person. When the episode was being filmed, he was already a bastion of the food industry. Osteria Francescana was triple-starred and was the reigning #1 Best Restaurant in the world. But what it did was transcend him into the wider cultural conscious, bringing him a higher level of fame and, more importantly for Bottura, it was a way to help him spread his values.
“Chef’s Table showed the world that being a famous chef wasn’t about being a foul-mouthed rock star,” he says sitting down with Esquire Middle East the morning after the brunch. He pours himself a glass of sparkling water and continues. “It showed the years and years of hard work and learning that goes into being successful. It is a very important message that people need to understand. Today, everyone wants instant success, but to really be successful and to create something new, you first need to know everything. To really know absolutely everything.”
Thirty years ago, a chef’s authority pretty much started and ended with the proper way to break-down a chicken or fillet a fish. Now, thanks to a decade of fascination with all things food, people like Bottura have seized the opportunity to leverage fame into lasting impact; on both social and environmental issues.
“Once your reputation is ‘up there’, then you have a responsibility to use your position for social good. Only by working to help others and for communities that need help will you find happiness in what you do,” he says taking a sterner tone. When Bottura talks about chefs having a “responsibility,” he means it. Having sated that need to revolutionise gastronomic culture by scaling the mountaintop of the restaurant business, he now thinks primarily of giving back to those in need.
The first signs of this came in Milan at the global Expo in 2015. It was there that he introduced the world to his Refettorio project—a seven-month pop-up ‘soup kitchen’ located in the city’s unfancied Quartiere Greco. The idea was to feed hard-up people by converting surplus food from the Expo site’s vast catering operations into nutritious meals. In the build-up he called in favours from his elite level of culinary contacts from around world to create recipes made from surplus food. Such was the success that he then received a call from the mayor of Rio De Janeiro asking if he could bring the project to Brazil during the Olympics. Delighted by its impact, Bottura obliged and established a foundation called ‘Food For Soul’ to seed the concept in other cities, raising awareness of the impact of food waste. To date Food For Soul has launched four full-time Refettorios (with another four in the works), having transformed more than 200 tonnes of surplus food, serving more than 80,000 people.
“We have brought a light to those communities,” says Bottura, “and ‘light’ can change the whole outlook of people.” When asked if he is bringing a Refettorio to the Expo in Dubai later this year, he seems immediately positive. “It would be an amazing step if we could build on what we did in Milan here as well. One of the first things we did when we signed the deal to open Torno Subito at the W Hotel, was to create an agreement between the hotel and the Food Bank here in Dubai, who redistribute surplus – not waste! – food to people in need outside of the city. We all have to think of the planet and have to have accountability for the actions that we take.”
Infinitely passionate about art (Bottura and his American wife and business partner, Laura Gilmore, own a remarkable art and vinyl collection), Bottura attributes his social ustice stance to the late German artist Joseph Beuys.
“He was a very green guy and he helped me understand the importance of communities, because only together are we the revolution. I am not a revolution by myself,” he says.
“You can strive to change the world, but it is by starting in small communities that you can really make a big impact.”
You don’t have to have met Massimo Bottura to know that he runs on pure passion. Each sentence is littered with charming little insights into how deeply he considers things and how personally he takes them. “If you cut me, I will bleed balsamic!” he quips when asked if he is proud to be Italian. So then the hardest question that traditionalists have always attacked him with is why he is so intent on disrupting tradition.
Mr Bottura wears: Shirt and jeans, both by Gucci; Watch by Panerai
“Italians have a heavy nostalgic culture,” he says, “It makes people feel safe. In food, you are dealing with centuries and centuries of traditional flavours and ingredients. What I want to do is pick the best parts of that culture and bring it into the future. Which means, at first, you have to break it.” For Bottura Italian food culture is the equivalent of Ai Weiwei’s vase.
“If you look at nostalgia with a critical eye, you can see a lot wrong with it. But before you try to reinvent tradition, you have to understand it. You haveto know exactly who you are and where you come from. Only then can you begin to modernize.”
While the Chef’s Table episode documents the ways Bottura has expressed this in his creations, as we order another round of espressos following his photoshoot, he uses a different analogy.
“It is too easy to look at the past in a nostalgic way. You can copy it but it is always a copy. Look at the Fiat 500, or the Maserati GT,” he says, again showing the depth of his interests across broader strokes of creative culture.
Mr Bottura wears: Jumper by Bottega Veneta; watch by Panerai; Glasses by Persol
“In the 1950s Maserati invented the GT, and you can still see that design influence in their cars today, but with totally new technology. The heart of the car is totally new, but the design reminds you of that nostalgic past. That is exactly what Gucci are doing too,” his stream of consciousness continuing. “[Gucci creative director] Alessandro Michele knows the archives of that brand better than anyone else, and every season continues to bring forward all the little details from the ’50s and ’60s into the future with new techniques.”
When it comes to cars and fashion Bottura applies the same ethos. He tells us about his customised Ferrari F38 Tributo that he has just ordered—in Modena yellow with black leather interiors, of course, and his long-standing relationship with Gucci is well-known. In essence, what Bottura is not against tradition, he just seems intent on not letting the past define who people are today. His goal is to stimulate creativity, and aims to do so by educating those around him enough to remove the constraints of the past.
Before he dashes off to prepare for his ‘cook off’ with Ronaldo (“Apparently he only eats chicken breast and plain rice…so I’m going to cook him ravioli with salted cod!”), he shares the story of one of his younger chefs.
In Bottura’s kitchen every person who works there is challenged to an exercise called ‘Who Are You?’ where they are pushed to create a brand new recipe that wholly represents who they are and what they stand for.
“One day I was at Osteria and there was a young guy standing outside in the rain. He didn’t have an appointment and had been waiting there for nearly two hours just to talk to me. I invited him in and he told me he was from Northern England and had left his job at a French restaurant that specialized in soufflé, because he wanted to work with me. I decided to give him a chance and sent him to go work in our bakery. He was a very shy guy, and worked there for six months without really talking to anyone. Then, one day, I was told that this guy wanted to make a ‘Who Are You?’ dish for me. He made me a tiramisu. And, honestly, it was the best one I had ever tasted. Here was this 19-year-old kid from Northern England, who flew to Modena to make a soufflé of tiramisu, with marscapone icecream on the side and an espresso gel—and it went straight on the menu and is still there. Until this day, I always keep the door open for the unexpected.”
February 18 and 19, Massimo Bottura will host dinner at Torno Subito. From AED600. Contact tornosubito.com for more.
Photography: Vaughan Treyvellan
Styling: Gemma Jones
HMU: Anika @ MMG
Location: Torno Subito, W The Palm