Massimo Bottura: "Learn Everything, Forget Everything"

We chat with the Italian chef Massimo Bottura, judge in the final of S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015, as he offers his advice to the young chefs of today.

Massimo Bottura is a truly charismatic chef, loved by all, he’s just come off the back of a step up the culinary ladder with a second place position on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for his Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena, Italy.

He’s just opened his second restaurant, in Istanbul, and published a widely successful book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. On top of all that, he’s been busy with an exciting project at Expo Milano and he’s also signed up to be one of seven international judges at the grand final of S.Pellegrino Young chef 2015.

We caught up with Bottura to discuss his role in the event, his own career and get some of his advice to young chefs working all over the world.

Here’s what he had to say.

Tell us your best piece of advice for young chefs?
I often suggest that young chefs read, travel and dig as deep as they can into their culture to understand who they are and where they come from. Then and only then can they discover their true motivations, passions, and their inspirations. This is what I have done over my 26-year career. So, to answer your question, what motivates and inspires me is the world around me – a juxtaposition of who I am and where I a have come from. Living in the present but never forgetting all that came before you. I often say, ‘learn everything, forget everything’. It is so important to fill one’s suitcase with culture, books, music, literature and art, travels and then, kitchen experience. Cooking is only not manual labour but also a thinking man’s job. One of the most valuable ingredients or tools in the kitchen, and one often left behind, is the mind….and if you really think about it, the only 0 kilometre cooking going on is taking place in our minds.

Tell us about a time when you remember making a mistake as a young chef?
What happened, where were you working and what did you learn? The problem is that when you are a young chef you don’t see your mistakes. It is only when you mature that you realize how many you made, and are making, everyday. Thus, my best advice is to embrace a kind of tremendous doubt. Be humble; Be brave. Always leave a crack open for poetry. Otherwise you may miss that flash in the dark.

One of our core team Takahiko Kondo was preparing a dessert one night, a lemon tart. As he was finishing the plate it slipped across the counter and broke into a mosaic of lemon, capers, bergamot and oregano. He was devastated but I was elated. “Look at that Taka,” I said, “It’s the most beautiful dessert I’ve ever seen!” and that is how the iconic dish Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart came to be – by making a mistake but not surrendering to it but turning it into a moment of celebration. Find the poetry in the everyday; imperfections are what make us human.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given to you?
Be careful of what you wish for.

What’s the worst mistake a young chef can make?
The worst mistake is to dedicate night and day to the kitchen and only the kitchen. On second thoughts, maybe the worst mistake is to strive for perfection. Young chefs, old chefs, all chefs need to continue learning inside and outside the kitchen. It is not enough to perfect your skills and technique. Keep asking questions, reading books, and travelling. Stay humble, hold onto your dreams and never let anyone get between you and your passions. If you love music let it into your food. If you love nature, let it find its way onto the plate. If you are a writer or an anthropologist, let that shine. We are all unique in our talents and our passions. Perfection can sometimes get in the way of letting emotion flow through the food.

What do you think about the idea to pairing young chefs with young designers?
There are certain designers that I absolutely adore and I collect their clothes like artworks. Martin Margiela for example is an inspiration to me. The way he deconstructs or rather re-constructs ideas about clothing, fabric, color and texture is very similar to what we do with recipes at Osteria Francescana. I wear his clothes because I love his ideas…more than the way the clothes fit…it is about how they make me feel, part of dialogue that fits my personality and my world view. I’ve never met Martin Margiella. I only know him through his designs. But I don’t think that chefs and designers need to become friends or drink tea together. It is enough to see the clothes or see the food, taste it and listen to what the chef and designer has to say to see if they are on the same page. Virtual dialogues are so much more interesting than real ones, no? How banal is the etiquette, “Come stai?” (How are you?). I think that creative people play by other rules and go straight for the heart. So, yes, maybe it can work.

Why in your opinion is S.Pellegrino Young Chef important?
We all need challenges to keep us on our toes and make us feel alive. This competition is exactly the kind of challenge that takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think differently and question your daily routine. Gathering a random group of young chefs together offers them a great opportunity to share and learn from each other. Our job as mentors is to bring out the best in everyone and make sure no stone is left unturned. I only wish I had had similar challenges as a young chef because of the bonds that form between chefs during these occasions and the connections you make to worlds of people and ideas.

How are the plans for your Expo project? Have you confirmed which chefs will be cooking at your Expo restaurant? Who are they?
Together with the Caritas Ambrosiana and Davide Rampello, as well as sponsors and volunteers, an abandoned theatre in Milan’s Greco quarter has been renovated into a Refettorio, communal dinning hall for Milan’s neediest residents. The Refettorio Ambrosiano will open its doors on May 25th with a charity dinner to raise money to help sustain the project. From the 26th of May until the 31st of October we will be serving lunch and dinner from Monday to Friday for about 200 guests selected specifically by the Caritas among the many needy cases they are helping in and around Milan. We will not only have a full kitchen staff provided by Caritas but we will have Italian and international chefs visiting us weekly, each bringing recipes, ideas and energy to the platform, to our guests and to the kitchen. We continue to sign up chefs and there are already too many to mention. What they have in common is generosity. They share my vision and have consequently cleared time in their schedules. You can read more about this project here.

Tell us one of your upcoming exciting plans for 2015?
The Refettorio Ambrosiano is actually the most interesting project I am working on now and one that I hope to continue with in the future. The Refettorio Ambrosiano will be a unqiue setting for a soup kitchen as it will bring great value and dignity back to the table with art and design, beauty and light. We hope this will make our guests feel good, cared for, and part of a larger community. We believe in the power of beauty and art. We believe that man cannot live on bread alone. We believe that the Refettorio is a place where things can happen. Food that could have been wasted can be transformed into a meal. A theater that was abandoned can be transformed into a communal dinning hall. When you put poetry next to necessity magical things happen. It is important to note that this project is an experiment, not an attempt to save the world, but to make a gentle mark, a small difference, that shared among many people could become something larger, like a movement or a trend. What if we were able to open many refettorio soup kitchens around the world? Renovating urban decay and abandoned buildings, teaching staff how to re-cycle and use ingredients in a new way, learning how to waste less and feed more, engaging our artists and designers in the creation of spaces that inspire, not only for paying customers but for those who need it the most. Ideally, we hope this project is a trigger for more to come.

If you could be a young chef again, what would you do differently?
I didn’t really chose to become a chef, it just happened. Circumstance and serendipity, or you could say, the profession chose me. So actually I don’t know if given the choice, whether I would become a chef or not. The hours are terrible, you have to sacrifice everything, and there are no guarantees in this profession. I certainly wouldn’t advise my daughter or son to enter into this profession but neither can I imagine doing anything else. I am addicted to Osteria Francescana, the physical place, the people, the neighbors who say hello to me on the street, the mailman, the glass bottle collector, the interns that pass through and my core team that has been with me as many as 15years. Since we grew organically as a restaurant and a team, the past 20 years in Osteria Francescana could have never been planned by an architect or a business manager. The choices we made were always desperate and reaching beyond our means and our ability but it is exactly that kind of stretching that enables you to grow…slowly. This is the key word that often gets left out when we talk about chefs. My father-in-law always consoled me when I felt underappreciated or frustrated, “Grow slowly like a tree.” That advice has defined my career and my point of view. Festina Lente: Hurry Slowly.

You were recently given a very special piece of art as a gift, can you tell us more about it?
Yes, an artist I esteem very much sent me a message on the 2nd day of January 2015. He read Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef and noted that I dedicated a recipe to him. The recipe is Beautiful, Psychedelic, Spin-Painted Veal, Not Flame Grilled and the artist is Damien Hirst. This recipe was created for he 2012 Olympics in London and we were cooking at Casa Italia. That summer Hirst installed one of his spin paintings Beautiful, Psychedelic Gherkin Pickle Exploding Tomato Sauce All Over Your Face, Flame Grilled Painting at Burger King in King’s Cross. And so the artist, who was introduced to me but the Italian chef based in the UK Giorgio Locatteli, felt it was only fitting that Osteria Francescana display a spin painting. It arrived on our 20th anniversary and now graces the entrance. Who would have ever thought so much could have happened in 20 years? Who knows what will happen in the next 20?

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