Please forgive me if I seem a little star struck, but it’s not often that I get to meet Massimo Bottura, who has been named number one chef in the world. You may have seen him in an episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” where he explains the evolution of some of his iconic dishes such as “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart,” or “An Eel Swimming up the Po River.” His three-star Michelin restaurant in Modena, Italy – Osteria Francescana – has also taken top honors for best restaurant in the world, and is consistently on the top five list. I still haven’t been to his restaurant on any of my trips to Italy, since snagging a reservation is harder than getting a private audience with the pope. So when I read that he’d be in New York, I jumped at the chance to experience some of his food.
He was in town recently for several reasons — one of which was to lecture and host a lunch at Eataly’s birreria. It was a perfect fall day to sit outdoors on the rooftop terrace (with about 50 other lucky people) and enjoy a sampling of Massimo’s food, accompanied by perfect wine pairings.
Massimo’s passion for people and food were evident during the lecture, as he described the various dishes and reasons why he came up with some of his creations. He never stood still, pacing back and forth, gesticulating all the time he spoke, even imploring one of the day’s sponsors who was present, to shift away from its plastic bottles into more environmentally friendly packaging,
He brought many of his staff with him from Italy, and they were kept busy cooking, while Massimo regaled us with stories – some about his food, and some about his employees love life!
After some prosecco and foccaccia to whet our appetites, the first course arrived – a simple halved fig roasted in a wood oven, topped with some aged parmigiano cheese and a drizzle of cherry balsamic vinegar. Never have three simple ingredients tasted so perfect together.
Massimo is a lover of contemporary art, and his culinary philosophy toward cooking incorporates many ideas from artists who veer away from tradition while embracing its roots. “It’s looking at centuries of history, but filtered by contemporary minds,” he said, citing Ai Wei Wei, an iconoclastic Chinese artist who took ancient Han Dynasty earthenware vases and dipped them in industrial paint.
The first course was a perfect example of that philosophy, and an homage to the region of Emilia Romagna, where Massimo’s restaurant (and my mother’s home town) is located. The innovative chef gave a traditional dish his modern interpretation. The metamorphosis started with two classic Renaissance dishes – sbrisolona, (recipe here) a buttery, almond shortbread-like cake normally served as dessert, and cotechino, a large pork sausage typically eaten on New Year’s eve. Massimo transformed the sbrisolona into a savory base for this first course, reducing the sugar and adding some salt. Above the sbrisolona was a disc of cotechino, not prepared in the typical way of boiling, but instead, first cooked sous vide (slowly under vacuum in a very low temperature water bath), then browned in a wood oven and finished in ashes. Enveloping it all was an eggy, foamy zabaglione sauce, drizzled with an aged balsamic vinegar, also a product of his home region. Massimo likes to call this a “breakfast dish” that evokes bacon and eggs, but I’d be glad to eat this any time of the day.
For the main course, Massimo broke with tradition again to conjure the ancestral flavors of a typical pollo alla cacciatore made by families throughout Italy. He combined it with trout in an unexpected, but delicious way. “The best part is the sauce, not the chicken,” he said, noting that the cacciatore is slowly cooked in a copper pot, and the flavors are extracted by steam, then dehydrated to make a powder. The trout is seasoned with the powder, and a pesto with those flavors is used to sandwich the two pieces of trout together. A light flavorful broth is poured all around it. “Cooking is like art,” he said, “You have to pay respect to the flavors from grandmother, but use it in ways to break borders, to evolve.”
Dessert was also a tour de force. A edible bright red wafer-like disc resembling a piece of origami was made using flavors extracted from the unusual combination of oak trees, strawberry grapes, roses and bay leaves.
The fragile disc broke away in shards to reveal a small portion of rosemary and olive oil flavored gelato. I could have easily quaffed three more of these.
Osteria Francescana may be the mothership, but he has since branched out to other locales, including a partnership with fashion house Gucci in Florence and a restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey. In the last year, he opened a high end guesthouse in Modena – Casa Maria Luigia – with its own dining venue.
While eating at his restaurant doesn’t come cheap, Massimo is not deaf to those less fortunate. After Milan’s world fair “Expo” in 2015, whose theme was “Feeding the Planet,” Massimo took that project to heart, starting a nonprofit with his American-born wife Lara Gilmore called “Food for Soul.” They opened what they call a “refettorio” (the Italian word for a dining space where monks eat) in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Milan and set out to provide nourishing meals for the underprivilged, using donated food that would otherwise have been thrown away. Since then, they have opened rifettorios around the world, in an effort to reduce food waste and provide multi-course meals to the needy. His visit to New York also included a talk to the United Nations on food and sustainability, and a collaboration with Sotheby’s auction house for its “Contemporary Curated” sale.
As if my afternoon with Massimo and his food weren’t enough, the cherry on the cake was meeting tv personality Phil Rosenthal and restauranteur Nancy Silverton, who are friends of Massimo’s and were in town coincidentally. Phil was a writer on TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” and is the host of the show “Somebody Feed Phil,” where he travels around the world exploring local cuisines, including an episode where he visits Massimo in Modena. If you haven’t yet caught this feel-good show, check it out on Netflix. Nancy founded Los Angeles’ La Brea bakery and Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles, and is co-owner of Pizzeria Mozza in two California locations, and has also been profiled on Netflix.
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