Where I’m from, there is an age-old expression used to explain why certain Southerners stick to what they know. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, my dad would say when I asked why he wouldn’t turn in my Ford Focus for a Ferrari. Or why we couldn’t get the latest, greatest Apple advancement to replace our home PC…that one that still managed to barely load Windows in the time it took Dad to create and eat the same egg, ham, and cheese sandwich every morning. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. What was the point of reinventing something that already works just fine?
Perhaps it was this exposure to the manifestation of the just keep on keepin’ on mentality in my small Georgia hometown which allows me to well empathize with a similar commitment to tradition and aversion to change in Italy. As a whole, Italians are also deeply rooted in the habits of past: until recently, it was rare to find an Italian who moved outside of his or her home city, generations lived in the same house for hundreds of years, and what worked in the kitchen of your mother’s mother’s mother will work just fine for you, too. In fact, the family recipe is one of the most sacred staples of the institution of Italian tradition. As one internationally acclaimed Italian chef once put it: “There are three priorities in life to us Italians: 1) The soccer team; 2) The pope; and 3) The tradition of food. You’d better not screw up your nonna’s recipe”…a.k.a. don’t fix [nonna’s recipe] if it ain’t broke.
And yet it is precisely the same famous chef who has made more than a few significant cracks in his nonna’s cuisine, a chef whose doing so has landed his restaurant on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for six years running and himself on the radar of every foodie in the Western Hemisphere. But this chef, who compared his work to Ai Wei Wei’s “Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn” isn’t breaking tradition in order to “fix” it, he is breaking tradition to keep it alive.
An Italian Chef’s Contemporary Expression of Tradition
Chef Massimo Bottura is a native of Italy’s Emilia Romagna and well known for his artistic, innovative menu at the three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena, created to evoke emotion, passion, and new perspective for diners. But, unlike some of the nouveau cuisine whose sole purpose is to create these reactions using plates that present an entirely new sensory experience, Bottura’s dishes instead appeal to memories. Memories of what on the most basic of levels is a shared experience of emotion and passion for any Italian: food. Like Ai Wei Wei, Bottura smashes the figurative urn of Italian food tradition, but then he picks up one of the pieces, examines it with his contemporary mind, and creates a new experience, using the past to catapult into the future.Take Bottura’s famous Cappuccino dish, for example. Contrary to what it the name suggests, this dish is rooted in three staple ingredients of the Emilia Romagna cuisine: potatoes, onions, and pork. When plated, Cappuccino‘s familiar shape creates an expectation of the sweet Italian breakfast, but when eaten its flavors are a savory tribute to Bottura’s home cuisine. It is here that this Italian chef’s genius shines, in his ability to share a piece of tradition and his create something entirely new, while at the same time appealing to an international clientele’s memory of a familiar universal symbol of Italy, the sweet Cappuccino e cornetto.
The same concept of “synthesis of respect of tradition, projection towards the future, and artistic creativity” applies to Bollito Not Boiled, arguably the chef’s other most famous dish. In utter defiance of an ancient recipe called bollito misto in which mixed meat is boiled, Bottura chose to make a version of this beloved dish by not boiling the meat. “It was about respect,” he says, “One day I had decided to make bollito misto and received a shipment of beautiful meat from a local producer. Know what boiling does to the meat [by taking all of the nutrients and flavor from it], I had to make a choice: respect an ancient recipe that was created under much different circumstances or respect the farmer who brought me the meat. I chose the farmer.” After months of research and collaboration with the Univeristà di Parma, Bottura’s team found a way to create a “bollito” dish optimizing the nutrients of the meat by using the sous-vide technique; slowly steaming meat in vacuum-sealed packs over a period of days. The dish plated to resemble the Manhattan skyline (“This was inspired by the fact that Americans hate boiled meat!” Bottura says) and although much criticism was originally expressed for what was taken to be blasphemy of Italian nonna recipe, it has climbed to be one of the most influential and successful dishes in Bottura’s repertoire.
Modena Cuisine From Under the Table
Bollito Not Boiled and Cappuccino are successful because Bottura is able to evoke the emotion and passion of his diners with familiar soulful flavors while introducing a completely new perspective, his perspective. “When I was a boy,” he says, “I grew up with my mother and grandmother always in the kitchen rolling pasta – large sheets which they would eventually fill to make tortellini. I would run into the kitchen and hide under the table, stealing raw tortellini almost as fast as they were made. Those tortellini are for me the essence of my childhood and my memory of our cuisine. The way they tasted raw when stolen from under the table is the key to my appetite, and in essence that is what we do now. We are making the cuisine that has shaped our identity, seen from under the table.”Bottura’s work does not stop in his kitchen. He is widely known as a champion of local products and producers in the Modena area, and was instrumental in aid for the region after the 2012 Earthquake destroyed much of its precious supply of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Bottura is also a producer himself of balsamic vinegar after having been convinced to do so by his close friend Mario Batali, and last year the three-Michelin-starred Italian chef acted as Italy’s Ambassador of the 2013 Food for the Year of Italian Culture in the United States. Massimo Bottura will also be collaborating with other famous chefs and even Pope Francis on a project presented at next years 2015 Expo in Milan, whose theme is “Feeding the Planet,” in which they will cook the leftover food from the other pavilions in a very poignant statement of “waste not, want not.”
Massimo Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana, is Select Italy’s Tip for Travelers of the Month. It is located in the Italian iconic foodie town of Modena. Bottura has also written several books, the latest being Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, which humorously takes the reader through his mind’s process in creating many of his most famous recipes. To plan your trip to Emilia Romagna and visit to Osteria Francescana, please contact Martina at firstname.lastname@example.org.