«Culture attracts culture»
Some time has passed since I last spoke with Massimo Bottura. A lot has happened in the meantime, Bottura is no longer listed among the best 50 chefs in the world (in 2016 and 2018 he was still number 1). Corona came along, but he has fulfilled a lifelong dream with the country house “Casa Maria Luigia”, opened half a dozen more restaurants around the world – and landed a great public success on social media with the “Kitchen Quarantine” initiated by his daughter Alexa. Bottura has become greyer, his beard longer. But his eyes sparkle as ever. But Bottura is and remains above all probably the most grandiose self-promoter in the gastronomic industry, which is not lacking in peacocks; the art collector has become a work of art himself, his menus are more operetta than classical cuisine.
radical: Do you cook for your family, Mr Bottura?
Massimo Bottura: Where are you going, I don’t have time for that. We are all one big family here, everyone gets something to eat at any time. It was only different during the lockdown, when I was at home with my family, we cooked all the time. But now it’s different again.
Bottura is married to Lara Gilmore, an American who has made a brand out of the cultural philistine. He has two children, Alexa and Charlie. Meanwhile, around 200 people work in and around his Osteria Francesca in Modena. He shouts, he whispers, he draws, talking to him is a spectacle, he is clever, he is charming, he contradicts himself. But the question was quite simple:
radical: what makes Emilia-Romagna so unique, extraordinary? Why is the food so great, why do the most famous car manufacturers come from the area, why is the quality of life so high?
You have to be able to bear what follows this question. Bottura, born in Modena in 1962, speaks with his hands and his eyes, loudly, clearly, with commitment, first of all about the enmity between Bologna and Modena, Bologna, he says, has always been dependent on the Pope and is therefore strong and fat (which is why the city is also called “la Grassa”), while in Modena the secular rulers have built up a culture of art, craftsmanship, hard work over centuries. Bottura knows when the university was founded (1175), he tells the story of the Este family, which shaped Modena from the 13th century onwards, in a flowery and detailed manner – and concludes it with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which led to the outbreak of the First World War. Yes, he knows his way around contexts, Bottura, and he finds them even where they don’t exist.
radical: Back to the subject, please, Mr Bottura – why is the food so great in Modena and the surrounding area, why the high art of Aceto Balsamico, where does the Culatello come from, why ham, cheese, pasta of wonderful quality?
Bottura: Culture attracts culture. The Dukes d’Este hired the best builders, the best craftsmen, the best artists. These stayed in Modena, passed on their skills, trained their successors, became rich and richer. They then wanted to live beautifully and also eat well. Agriculture profited from the fertile land – and from the money of the townspeople. So one thing led to another, it was all a logical consequence – including the fact that only the best workers ever moved in. And that the best racing drivers come from the city’s environs.
So he then also transplants his friend Valentino Rossi to Emilia-Romagna, even though he comes from the Marche. And he shows off his motorbike helmet, adorned with a “tortolino”: “We have courage here, we love speed”. Bottura is Modenese through and through; apart from his short apprenticeship, he has always lived in Modena (and yet met his wife in New York). Of course he loves automobiles, “I knew Enzo Ferrari”, he says, on his work table there is a framed portrait of and signed by the “commendatore” (whom his employees, however, called “il drago”, the very evil dragon); one of his most important sponsors is Maserati (founded in 1914 in the hated Bologna, but welcomed with open arms in Modena).
That Bottura, of all people, redefined Italian cuisine is not surprising. He was often in the right place at the right time in his life, he dropped out of law school and bought the Trattoria del Campazzo in 1986, Alain Ducasse happened to walk in there – and invited him to Monte Carlo for cooking classes. In 1995, he bought the Osteria Francescana in the old town of Modena, met Fernan Adria from El Bulli, studied with the Catalan for a few months, and received his third Michelin star in 2005. It was a time of culinary emptiness in Italy, the best chef in the country at the time was a German, and with his mixture of the traditional cuisine of his grandmother, mother and aunt, modern techniques from molecular cuisine and his clownish imagination, the Modenese quickly became the figurehead of Italian gastronomy. The fact that the most famous contemporary artists have taken up residence in his restaurant has certainly also contributed to his fame: Elliott Erwin has portrayed the chef, Maurizo Cattelan has stuffed extra pigeons, Eliasson and Borofsky and Schifano hang on the wall, there is, very symbolically, “trash” by Gavin Turk near the entrance. Oh yes, Damien Hirst is everywhere, but that goes without saying.
radical: You now have almost 200 employees – how do you find talent?
Bottura: I look people in the eye. If they sparkle, if they sparkle with passion, then they’ve come to the right place. I don’t read CVs, that doesn’t interest me.
radical: With Casa Maria Luigia you have fulfilled a lifelong dream.
Bottura: Yes. (Then he becomes very quiet.) You know that I dedicated this house to my mother? It has turned out so great. It took us five years to cultivate the land so that we can now grow our own vegetables. And herbs. And these trees. That’s where my Maserati Mistral is. When it’s not being driven by Michael Stipe (editor’s note: creative mind behind the rock band R.E.M.), who has fallen in love with this car. And Maria Luigia.
This is only an excerpt from a long interview, made possible by Maserati. The interview first appeared in “auto-illustrierte”. We have already attempted an explanation of what makes Emilia Romagna so special: the italian jobs.