Just as the women of the MAD SYD line-up were dominating, the colourful, charismatic, brilliant mind of Chef Massimo Bottura enters the stage to a rock-star welcome. Admitting to the crowd that “it’s good to feel butterflies in your stomach after many years” because it means you still care.
Unlike other chefs, you find yourself referring to him as simply Massimo; it’s like meeting one of your friends. Massimo opened Osteria Francescana in his small hometown of Modena, Italy, in April 1995. Despite being applauded across the world, Massimo spoke about barrage of criticism from Italians for his innovative, molecular-style, 3 Michelin Star ‘Italian’ food. Speaking of the 3 taboos in Italy – you don’t mess with the Pope, you don’t mess with the national football team, and you don’t mess with your Grandma’s recipes, and Osteria Francescana are not plating up Grandma’s recipes, well, not as you know it.
Food is very much a fabric of a country, especially for Italians. So, in 2009, when Massimo was in London picking up his ‘50 World’s Best’ award, the Italian media had planted hidden cameras inside his restaurant, asking questions like ‘does this look like mortadella or parmigiano reggiano?’ and questioning tradition vs. innovation, authenticity vs. ‘real food’. Massimo was the talk of the town, but not for the right reason and this series of attacks carried on for a massive 10 months.
Massimo and the team at Osteria Francescana reacted by doing the thing they knew best – cooking. Then it was the turn of their suppliers to speak in their defence – the artisan, the butcher, the dairy farmer, the cheesemaker, they all knew the quality of ingredients being used, but also the quality of Massimo’s ideas. Slow Food Italy also responded and showed their support, and rightly so.
“Cooking is a Call to Act”
Over the next few years there was a shift in the role of the chef. For the ‘Cook It Raw’ convention, the chefs had to speak about something that mattered to them; Massimo used pollution as a seed of an idea. He created a dish called ‘An eel swimming up the Po River’ that “looked like doomsday, but tasted like hope”. The dish was based on dark, bubbling, polluted waters, but the flavours were bright. “Cooking is a call to act”. 1 year on, Massimo went to the river expecting to see beauty, but instead saw neglect and despair, with angry and defensive fishermen. The place that was once a visited by school children and tourists, was full of rubbish. He shot a short film and presented a case to the Minister of Agriculture. 15 million was invested to clean up the park, to bring back tourism, wildlife and hope. “Cooking is a call to act”.
If you’ve seen Chef’s Table on Netflix, you may be familiar with how an earthquake hit Italy in 2012, damaging 360,000 wheels of parmigano reggiano. 100s of dairy farms lost years of production in that sudden moment. The cheese makers called Massimo for help. Massimo created a dish that used “lots and lots of cheese” – he created a dashi out of shaved parmigano and cooked rice in this broth. It looked like plain white rice, but it tasted like cheese. Massimo shared this recipe online. By the end of the year, not 1 piece of parmigano reggiano was unsold, not 1 dairy farm closed, and not 1 farmer lost his job. “Cooking is a call to act”.
The mood shifts.
“It’s never the change you want that changes you”
In 2014, Massimo’s Mother passed away. In her final months, Massimo vowed to ‘use my voice to make invisible, visable’ by creating a community through cooking, to show that ‘chefs are more than the sum of their recipes’. Refettorio Ambrosiano is not your average soup kitchen; it’s a cultural project, made by the people, connecting food, art and waste. Fighting against food waste and feeding those in need of their next meal, “65 friends from an all over the world turned 15 tonnes of food into 10,000 healthy, beautiful meals,” said Bottura. 100 volunteers mop the floors, wash the dishes and serve meals for guest, everyday. Every morning a truck delivers food ‘waste’, and then the magic begins.
“I’ve seen things that you people wouldn’t believe! Alain Ducasse at 8.30am was unloading the truck with ugly eggplants and start chopping the eggplants in the kitchen. Ferran Adria in the kitchen – cooking!“ Bottura told us flamboyantly. “ Cooking is a call to act”.
Speaking about ‘Food For Soul’, a non-profit cultural project, it’s a place to ‘unite people at the table’. Massimo adds that ‘we need more places that revive neighbourhoods, we need more places that restore the body and the soul’.
“If we change the way we think about ingredients, nourishment and community, if we stop throwing away our food, if we revive ethical practices in the kitchen, this can be the start of the new culinary tradition”.
Similarly to Zimbabwean mushroom grower/food activist, Chido Govera, who graced the MAD SYD stage before him, Massimo ends with his thoughts on ‘Tomorrow’s Meal’ and the future of food by touching on culture. He simply said:
“Think about ingredients – what is the single most important ingredient for the future? Culture. Culture brings knowledge, knowledge leads to consciousness, from consciousness to the culture responsibility is a very, very small step”.
The Refettorio Ambrosiano framework has been rolled out in other countries and now across Italy. “Cooking is a call to act”. I left this talk reshaped, stripped back, and inspired. Just like the MAD SYD talks before, the way I look at food has changed forever.