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Internationally renowned Italian chef Massimo Bottura combines tradition and revolution in his award-winning culinary style. He heads up Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana – officially the best dining establishment in 2016 according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – while you may also recognise him from Netflix’s popular ‘Chef’s Table’ series, which featured his signature dishes such as ‘oops! I dropped the lemon tart’ and ‘five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano’.
But in November, British diners didn’t need to travel to Italy to sample Bottura’s legendary food. As part of Gelinaz, an international culinary collective, he surprised diners with a ten-course menu at Hedone restaurant in west London.
Dining with Bottura is a feast influenced by the full artistic canon, from contemporary art right through to jazz melodies. And, though Bottura travels often – he has recently cooked for Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Robert de Niro – his hometown of Modena remains his main source of inspiration. This food-centric area of northern Italy defines both who he is as a person and as a chef. Only when you understand this about him, can you appreciate his obsession with destruction.
Yep, destruction. Bottura smashes ideals and expectations. “Once you break something, your mind then tries to distinguish whether or not you can rebuild it. Then you learn,” he says. “When you fully understand something, then you can reinvent it.” Indeed, his signature dessert ‘oops! I dropped the lemon tart!’ came about after one of Bottura’s pastry chef, Kondo Takahiko, accidentally dropped a dessert.
But what he is really talking about is something much deeper. Something rooted in history, heritage and culture. With travel a constant and ever-growing part of Bottura’s schedule, often speaking to thousands of people at gastro-gatherings and food fairs, he is working hard to engage and educate people about food waste. Through education and creativity, he hopes to spread ideas of how best to address food wastage and hunger.
This is no paltry challenge. By setting up his ‘Food for Soul‘ organisation, Bottura has created Refettorio Ambrosiano, a Milanese soup kitchen set up in a once-derelict theatre. Inviting volunteer chefs from across the world, 15 tons of food waste was sourced from 2015’s Expo Milano and turned into more than 10,000 meals.
Bottura also successfully took Food for Soul to Bologna, before arriving in Rio de Janeiro in time for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Refettorio Gastromotiva opened in Rio’s Lapa neighbourhood, serving around 108 free dinners each night for those in need. Through these kitchens, Bottura hopes to put food waste and sustainability front-of-mind for local authorities and governments.
“What is waste?” Bottura contemplates. “In Rio we turned banana skins into ice cream. You have to open your mind, approach things with a critical eye.” He speaks like a freight train, fast and rumbling, gesticulating like a caricature Italian. “Rio is challenging. The favelas (slums) are dangerous. Why? Is it because life is difficult? People want work and money and food.”
Beyond the Games, Refettorio Gastromotiva has become a real working space and an integral part of the Lapa neighbourhood. The ambitious project has shaped into a precious part of the Rio landscape, feeding the homeless and working poor as well as training students and working with guest chefs, including Brazilian chef Alex Atala.
Back in London, as he approaches Chiswick Park en route to Hedone, Bottura snatches his iPhone to photograph of a Turner-esque sunset. Pink and powder-blue brushstrokes sweep across the horizon. “This is beauty,” he exclaims. “With everything that is happening in the world, this makes you smile.”
The Grand Gelinaz Shuffle is an international chef exchange in which 40 chefs cook simultaneously across five continents.
Food for Soul is a non-profit organisation founded by Massimo Bottura to promote social awareness about food wastage and hunger.
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