| Ruth She

An Icon of Italian Culinary Arts – Exclusive Interview with Massimo Bottura

Known as one of the greatest Italian chefs in the world, Massimo Bottura of three Michelin starred restaurant Osteria Francescana, sat down for an exclusive interview with The Sybarite.

The ‘Food for Soul’ project focuses on the vulnerable in the community by providing them sustenance, nourishment and encouragement. Through this cultural project, you have opened your doors in a very unique way and paid attention to those whom others might ignore. You’re giving them dignity and respect, and instilling a moral understanding that no one should be excluded and not provided with food due to social status. How has this project fulfilled your personal journey and what part of this project has impacted you most to carry on in this mission?

I always felt that cooking meant more than just feeding people. It’s an act of love, the chance to gather the whole family around the same table. Over the years, my idea of family has expanded to include the people I work with and cooking has also become an excuse to meet people who are curious about my personal approach to food and gastronomy. In 2015, when we opened the first Refettorio in Milan with Caritas Ambrosiana, we wanted to express that cooking could also be a call to act and a tool for change – mind, vision, culture, society. 

We called chefs from all over the world to join our community kitchen and cook with the food surplus coming from Expo. Everyday, we had to be as creative as we could be, to serve our guests – people living in vulnerable situations from Milan’s neighborhood of Greco. We wanted it to be the best three-course meal they had ever experienced and serve it in a warm and welcoming place.

After Expo, it was clear to me that food could be more and create new communities around nourishment. The shift happened when we realized that nourishment is not just about providing a warm meal to those in need, but it’s conceived in a more holistic sense: not only to fill the empty bellies but also to feed the hungry souls. 

Food has the power to enable human connections, and it is a powerful vehicle to inspire a change of mindset. It helps restore personal dignity and open opportunities to celebrate the hidden potential of people and communities while giving them the chance to discover themselves and thrive. This is what we do with Food for Soul, the non-profit organization I founded in 2016 with my wife Lara to shine light on the invisible potential of people, places and food. Since then, we opened 8 other projects around the world with different local partners and we’re about to open our 9th project in Lima in September. Partnering with different organizations allows us to offer a wider variety of services. We can work together because we share the same vision and values. Our focus is to act, and give a concrete sign that change is possible. 

Tell us about your ‘no more excuses’ tattoo.

It is a message for myself, a call to action. It reminds me of the impossible mission (in 2016, opening a Refettorio in Rio de Janeiro despite all difficulties) that we made possible. There wasn’t one moment of calm or peace. Nothing worked. The day we opened there was no electricity, no running water, and no gas stovetops. We smoked banana peels in the courtyard for a banana peel carbonara pasta cooked on a campfire gas burner for 100 + guests. It was amazing and surreal. The day before we opened I got the tattoo on my arm, so that I would never forget this time in my life. It also reminds me that chefs can no longer content themselves with cooking in their restaurants. They have a responsibility to the future of global food security as nowadays they are so much more than the sum of their recipes.

This is a common question during this time but something we need to ask, how has the pandemic impacted your life, restaurant and initiatives both personally and professionally? How have you had to adapt? And what would be a key takeaway for you from all of this? Any advice to offer those in the restaurant business, especially those starting out during this time, and for the foreseeable future?

Personally speaking, I’ve learned that we always have to keep ourselves motivated, curious, passionate, and never let creativity be locked in a cage. Being flexible and able to rearrange the business, when possible, is a good way to open up to new possibilities.

This virus has taken many things away from us but it has also given us something very precious: time, an element that I never have enough of. Having a great amount of time gave me and my team the possibility to open our minds and be inspired by new ideas. To work on them and experiment. To go deeper on our seasonal and local ingredients in order to take out the best from each of them. It was such a precious exercise which led us to creating a new journey, a new menu and also our Instagram direct series Kitchen Quarantine! This was a very special project for me and my family, all about sharing and bringing joy into the home kitchen especially through this time. This type of activity was totally unexpected for me, and seeing the enthusiasm of people participating really made my quarantine more serene, as cooking is truly an act of love to me. If my little everyday effort of sharing is able to spread joy, it means I’m on the right path. And who knows what will be next! 

If you could tell your younger self one thing what would it be? 

Keep strong and always believe in your intuitions. 

I would also say the same thing my father-in-law said to me 20 years ago. 

Ken Gilmore said, “Be like a tree; grow slowly.” This was not only an advice for us, that we took literally, but also a blessing in disguise because we have had the time to grow and create our solid ground. Every year we worked harder and harder to improve the restaurant and mature as chefs. Recognition came slowly but it did come a little at a time. Now we have great foundations that enabled us to build our dream in different ways: Osteria Francescana, Casa Maria Luigia, Food for Soul, Franceschetta58, Gucci Osteria, Torno Subito, are all different expression of what we love to do, welcome people to beautiful spaces able to nurture bodies, minds and souls.

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