Hubert Burda Media

In the kitchen with Massimo Bottura

What do Massimo Bottura and Ai Weiwei have in common? We find out how art and ancestry have equal pulls on the celebrated Italian chef.

Massimo Bottura. Photo: Paolo Terzi

As legend has it, the Caesar salad was invented when a restaurateur by the name of Caesar Cardini found his kitchen depleted of resources over a holiday weekend. Instead of admitting the gaffe to a salad-starved customer, Cardini thought on his toes – inventing the world’s most well-known salad as a cuisine spectacle made tableside. When life gives you lemons, chefs, of all people, know how to make lemonade.

When faced with an equally formidable dilemma, chef Massimo Bottura didn’t make lemonade, but he did end up creating one of his restaurant Osteria Francescana’s most remembered dishes: Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart, a shattered version of the typical tarte au citron. The tale is essentially told in the dish’s name, but here it is from the horse’s mouth: “My sous chef [Takahiko Kondo] is the most precise man, and he was ready to serve his lemon tart and he dropped one of the two, and he was ready to kill himself. I was close by, and I looked in his eyes and at the plate, and that was the moment in which I got the inspiration, and I saw it with different eyes.

“The lemon tart is like Capri Battery by Joseph Beuys; it’s the poetic gesture of choosing the lemon as a metaphor for the sun that is healing, helping Beuys to cure his Lyme disease. It’s plugging in the yellow bulb, and with the acidity of the lemon, the yellow bulb is giving light.”

I’m quite sure I’ve lost the train of thought, or that something has been lost in translation, when Bottura notes, “It’s just a poetic gesture. If you have poetry in yourself, you can see the beauty of a broken lemon tart. If you don’t, it’s just a broken lemon tart and you throw it out. For me, the imperfection could be a metaphor for the south of Italy – a broken place, nothing is perfect, but when you swim at Capri, you forget about everything, because it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”

Bottura is as Italian as they come – exuberant, loquacious and highly passionate. His establishment may hold three Michelin stars and a second-place ranking on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but those aren’t topics he particularly discusses during our interview, and unlike hyped-up social-media darlings such as El Celler de Can Roca and Noma, Osteria Francescana isn’t so often defined by its ranking on critical lists.

In fact, Bottura has arrived in Hong Kong with relatively little fanfare. Compare his guest gig at the Hong Kong Jockey Club that came and went earlier this year – with nary an Instagram fan selfie – with an homage dinner at Amber hosted by Richard Ekkebus and overseen by Ferran Adrià of elBulli, which commanded a $10,000-a-head price tag and sold out before the press statement had been approved for release. Yet Bottura is beloved, to those in the know, for his ability to construct and deconstruct the finest Italian culinary traditions with an approach that is academic and artistic.

As with most Italian chefs, his story begins in his mother’s kitchen, where the young Bottura picked up his early culinary skills. “For us, cooking is staying around the table, fighting with your brothers, making peace, planning the future, staying together — it’s about family.

“French [cuisine] is developed by the upper [society], so when the nobles were killed in the French Revolution, all the chefs lost their jobs and they opened and rebuilt, like [Antoine] Beauvilliers [who opened the first real “restaurant” in Paris]. They reinvented themselves, but they were the chefs of the nobles. Italian cuisine comes from the lower part, from the people. For example, the two major books – [Le Guide Culinaire by] Escoffier and [La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene by] Artusi – Escoffier talks about technique while Artusi is talking about people and the kitchen. So for us, the first thing we learn is who we are and where we come from with traditional cuisine. The French, they learn the classics, the codified cuisine.”

Bottura’s culinary training didn’t end there – he went to New York, he worked under Frenchman Alain Ducasse, he sold his records and his motorcycle to make ends meet. He learned from a melting pot of peers who came from all over the world. And once he had learned tradition and technique to perfection, he decided to take it apart. Was it popular? Not at first.

“People that call me maestro, just five years ago they were looking at me like the devil,” he says, “and they wanted me to be crucified because they didn’t understand what I was doing.” Italian is, unusually, a cuisine revered most when it stays faithful to tradition, and even in this age of molecular experimentation it seems resistant to gastronomic licence.

Bottura likens his process to that of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s. “When he breaks a 2,000-year-old vase and shoots a picture [for the work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn], it tells me exactly what I think my cuisine is. I’m not defiling my past. I’m breaking my past to rebuild it with a contemporary mind, but the heritage from my grandmother is there – my grandmother, the grandmother of my grandmother. I have that piece from Ai Weiwei in the restaurant, and I look at the past not in a nostalgic way, but in a critical way, to bring just the best of the past to the future.”

Besides the pop-up at the Jockey Club, Bottura takes an evening in Hong Kong to promote his book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef (available at phaidon.com), which celebrates the first 25 years of Osteria Francescana. Perhaps he’s establishing some new traditions by putting his recipes in print. He shrugs. “Today I’m like this; tomorrow I’m totally different. Being contemporary means to live in the moment, but keep evolving all the time. So the recipes – they’re OK now, but for me, they’re not interesting in a couple of months.”