Massimo Bottura didn’t ask permission. Struck by sudden inspiration during a cocktail party in New York, the chef of Italy’s hallowed Osteria Francescana (which just reclaimed the top spot on the World’s Best Restaurant List) snatched the glass of Prosecco I was holding and poured a dark ribbon of 50-year-old balsamic vinegar into it. He swirled the glass and handed the impromptu cocktail back to me. Bottura arched his eyebrows above the frames of his glasses, urging me to try it. It tasted like a more complex kir royal, the aged nectar somehow both intensifying the bubbly with acidity and mellowing it with sweetness, as if toggling both the treble and the bass dials on a sound system. The drink was a happy marriage of old and new, of high and low. It broke the rules, and it was downright funny. In other words, it was classic Bottura.
On the surface, Bottura, an American Express Global Dining Collection partner, fits the stereotype of the Italian Chef: he speaks rhapsodically about parmesan cheese, with a ragú-thick accent and effusive gesticulations. But at his core, he is an iconoclast, as influenced by contemporary art as he is by traditional Italian cuisine.
The hijacking of my aperitif took place last Thursday at the Peninsula Hotel in New York, during the reception that preceded a spectacular dinner he cooked for select American Express Platinum members, part of Amex’s By Invitation Only program. Earlier in the day, Bottura delivered an exclusive presentation for the event’s participants, in which he explained the genesis of some of his most famous dishes, less a magician revealing his tricks than an artist explaining his process. He told the story, for example, behind “Oops, I dropped the lemon tart,” a visual gag of a dessert that looks, as advertised, like the spattered remains of a lemon tart. Bottura said the dish was the product of a happy accident, an almost literal case of turning lemons into lemonade. Late one night at Osteria Francescana, the restaurant’s meticulous Japanese sous chef, Taka Kondo, dropped one of the last two lemon tarts just as they were about to be served. Kondo was mortified. But Bottura, staring at the damage, saw a perfect metaphor for his rule-breaking approach. “I said, ‘Taka, what you did is perfect.’” From then on, the dish has been plated as a lemony crime scene, as it was on Thursday night.
I caught up with Bottura after his presentation to discuss his various inspirations, and why, despite the high-concept nature of his work, he refuses to call himself an artist.
JS: You mentioned earlier that the idea for your dish, Autumn in New York, came from listening to the Billie Holiday classic as you walked through the Union Square Farmers' Market. Your affinity for contemporary art is well known but what is the role that music plays in your work?
MB: The last thing I do when I go to bed, and the first thing when I wake up, is turn on my Spotify. When I’m finished working, I have a room in my house in which I keep all my records. It’s a music room far from everyone. And I use that room to decompress. Spotify is like when I want to listen like the latest album of, you know, Old Crow Medicine Show, Iron & Wine, whatever. When I cannot find the vinyl, you know, I listen to Spotify.
It’s fascinating to me that you find inspiration in things that have nothing to do with food. Taste is obviously a crucial component of what you do, but it’s only one of many.
Yeah, one of the many, many things. The layer of creativity is so complex, and there are all these things that inspire you and bring you to the end of the journey; which is actually never-ending. It’s evolving all the time because you are evolving all the time. You listen to Bob Dylan and you get the inspiration of memories. Or you look at a Mimo Paladino, and you get inspired to go back to ancient Greek and Roman culture. And you put together everything because at the end, the contemporary—I don’t want to say cooking; I say “contemporary,” in general—is about: knowing everything and forgetting about everything. Because once you know everything you can create something new, but if you don’t know everything you cannot say, “I’m using that technique. I’m using the other technique. I’m getting inspired by Hemingway, or Kerouac, or Charlie Parker, or you know, Bob Dylan.”
Just like Picasso had to know how to paint perfectly before he veered into Cubism.
Exactly. Before painting like a kid, he was drawing like Raffaello. That’s exactly what happened to me when, you know, I was really pushing hard the old local gourmets [in Modena, Italy] with my abstract creations. But I had to be accepted. I had to show them that I could cook traditional food better than their grandmothers. If you don’t make the best tagliatelle al ragù, or the perfect tortellini, they’re never going to say, “You’re the best.”
It seems like explaining the ideas behind your dishes, as you did today, is essential to what you do. Do you agree that your work wouldn’t be as meaningful without the cultural context you bring?
I agree. You know, people are traveling from all over the world to eat a piece of the terroir, the territory where they are. So they can taste the terroir, but they also can taste my brain. And I think that’s the most interesting expression. How I really find borders between taste, creativity, a mixture of art, and music, and literature, history, memories.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
No, no, no. I never consider myself an artist for this reason: because an artist is free to do whatever he wants. I always look at myself as a cook because at the end of the day I have to create good food because I have a 3-star Michelin restaurant. A cook has to cook good food; a great engineer has to build fast cars. So, the engineer who builds Sebastian Vettel’s car is an artisan, not an artist. But there is a word in Latin, in the Latin language, called “artiere.” It’s not an artist, it’s not an artisan, but it’s an artisan obsessed with quality. That’s, I think, what we are.
Chef Massimo Bottura is a partner of the American Express® Global Dining Collection, a benefit for Platinum Card® Members offering special access to reservations and experiences with some of your favorite chefs. To learn more, visit americanexpress.com/globaldiningcollection.