Reinventing Tradition

Cultural traditions and heritage developed over many generations as ways to celebrate and remember the past. Many different civilizations developed their own unique societies with differing ideals and principles. As humans grew more educated and advanced, the ways in which they expressed themselves advanced. These cultures developed in relative isolation from foreign influences resulting in national pride that led to many self-righteous wars and conquests. However, with increased globalization due to rapid technological progress, societies are more open and interconnected than ever before. Some people are still proud of their heritage and wish to protect the traditions they have held for generations. On the contrary, some believe that tradition is an ever-evolving entity that cannot be tied to one distinct moment of creation. Italian chef Massimo Bottura is renowned for his provocative dishes that were initially rejected by fellow Italians for defacing tradition. However, he has modernized the Italian kitchen through the incorporation of contemporary perspective to accentuate the building blocks of tradition.

            Italy is steeped in history and tradition at every turn. It has developed culturally over millennia adding major contributions to art, architecture, science, religion, and literature. Within Italy, many unique regions formed with their own identities under the rule of the Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome, these regions governed themselves until once again coming together under a common flag in 1870[1]. Through this regional development, each region developed sustainably local economies. Resource availability varied by region due to stark geographical differences. Therefore, most businesses sourced their raw materials locally. Due to specialization, regional identities were tied to the economy creating allegiance to locality. This regional pride manifests itself most in local cuisine. For example, the Ligurian diet features the abundance of wild mushrooms and spices that thrive in the region[2].  Likewise, Emilia-Romagna is home to parmigiana cheese and balsamic vinegar which are used in many local dishes[3]. Through adherence to heritage, Italians developed such loyalty that tampering with tradition was seen as cultural blasphemy.

            Now, Massimo Bottura, owner and chef of Osteria Francescana, winner of World’s Best Restaurant in 2016 and 2018, is recognized as one of the premier chefs in the world, but he was not always popular with critics. He faced multitudes of criticism from some of Italy’s most well-regarded food writers who accused Bottura of betraying the Italian kitchen[4]. To Massimo, his vision was the embodiment of the roots of Italian culture. He describes the way he fell in love with food at the age of six with nostalgia that shows the true passion behind his work. Massimo grew up in Modena which is in Emilia-Romagna. As the youngest and most spastic, he was often victim to the wrath of his two older brothers. However, he found solace underneath the kitchen table and his grandmothers protection as she fended his brothers of with the matarello she was using to the roll fresh pasta. From beneath the kitchen table, he found new perspective as the flour dusted off the table around him. As his grandmother made tortellini, Massimo would steal and eat the raw tortellini.[5] This defined the cornerstone for his culinary journey and development into the chef he is today.

            Shortly after leaving university, Bottura opened his first restaurant named Trattoria del Campazzo. Unexperienced and understaffed, Massimo struggled dearly for a few months. One day an older woman walked into his restaurant named Lidia Cristoni who offered to help him. She lived across the street but her poor vision kept her close to home. After demonstrating the true skills that only Italian grandmothers possess, Massimo hired Lidia.[6] Lidia brought to Campazzo the homestyle methods that are revered across Italy. It was through her that Massimo learned traditional recipes and styles for rolling pasta. Lidia’s personal touch was also felt through her insistence that the restaurant all eat together before service starts.[7] This tradition that Bottura continues today helps to develop familial bonds between the staff which is then passed onto the service.

            After a few years, Campazzo was stable enough for Bottura to travel to New York City. He found work at a small cafe in the city called Caffé di Nonna.[8] On his first day, he met east Village resident, Lara Gilmore, who was also working her first day at the café. They struck a friendship that blossomed into something truly genuine. Their time in New York was cut short as Campazzo needed Bottura attention. Gilmore visited Modena and Massimo shortly later, but in her second week, Massimo received a phone-call from world-famous chef Alain Ducasse offering a position to teach homemade pasta to the staff at Hotel de Paris. Bottura accepted this opportunity and sold Trattoria del Campazzo. Caught amid this massive upheaval, Lara found that as Massimo’s life stood, there was no place in it for her. However, Bottura was unhappy without Lara and he left Hotel de Paris shortly soon after. He returned to New York to commit to his life to her. Together, they moved back to Modena and bought Osteria Francescana[9].

Massimo’s vision for Osteria Francescana was a modern rendition of the classic traditional Modenese food. He needed to try new things and to continue learning in order to prevent boredom[10]. However, this required tampering with tradition that Italians felt best left as is. His vision was muddy in the early days of the restaurant as he attempted to carve his own identity. He drew inspiration from art galleries that Lara brought him too. By sharing her love of art, Massimo began to develop an understanding of artistic intention. This culminated in his own awakening at the 1997 Venice Biennial. A particular exhibit featured classic Italian paintings from older generations, but what drew Bottura’s attention were the stuffed pigeons in the rafters. He was particularly struck by the implication of bird droppings painted onto the rafters, walls, and even onto some paintings. He connected with the exhibit personally exclaiming that he was the pigeon to Italian food. In order to redefine the Italian kitchen, he had to step on some toes to get noticed[11].

Massimo rejected strict adherence to boundaries and used the influences of his grandmother, Lidia, and Lara when building the menu of Osteria Francescana. He wanted his food to mean something more than a bowl of pasta. He wanted to provide an experience in the form of food just as art can conjure memories and emotions. One of the first dishes on the menu was tortellini in broth inspired by the memories of his grandmother. Onlooking the restaurant, Massimo was dismayed to find customers eating the tortellini too quickly. He wanted to distinguish it from just another bowl of noodles. Bottura then began serving a dish called “Tortellini Walking on Broth” that featured six solitary tortellini with gelatin enhanced broth. This dish forced the customer to cherish each piece of pasta[12]. However, the Modenese people did not appreciate the message and considered it insulting to the Italian kitchen. They could not see how tortellini could provide the comfort aspect of the Italian kitchen if there was not even enough pasta for one spoonful. Rumors spread of the measly portions of Osteria Francescana scaring off most of the locals. After several bad years of business, Bottura considered closing shop, but Lara, an advent believer in Massimo’s vision, pushed him to persevere for just a bit longer. He finally introduced a few classic Italian dishes onto the menu despite his vision. One of the dishes he introduced was tagliatelle, another Emilia-Romagna creation. His fortune changed when a popular food critic happened into Osteria Francescana and ate the tagliatelle. Shortly later, an article was published apologizing to Bottura and Osteria for never being given a chance and for being misunderstood by the Modenese people[13]. This article gave Massimo the platform and attention he needed to reach food critics that would understand his work.

Massimo’s success has risen exponentially since then with each milestone becoming more fuel for propulsion towards the next. As more critics recognized the significance of his creations, he began to receive more acclaim. Soon after that fateful article, he was recognized as the best young chef in Italy and Osteria received its first Michelin star[14]. This was the validation Bottura needed in order to be recognized both locally and globally. The new attention brought international diners, and Bottura’s quest for the second Michelin star forced him to take more chances and innovate new dishes. Although the praise and acclaim gave Massimo a platform for developing an international audience, the local Modenese people were inspired to open their minds to his interpretation of the Italian kitchen. What they found were dishes that captured the intimate details of memories past. For example, “The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna” serves to evoke memories of longing to steal the crispy top layer of a lasagna. He uses bits of ingredients from the entire lasagna, cooked and fried delicately to perfectly embody the satisfaction felt when eating that part of the lasagna[15]. Another of his dishes, “Five Ages of Parmigiana Romano” showcases the depth of flavor that exists in the locally made parmigiana cheese. The dish consists of five cheeses aged between two years and fifty months prepared five different ways. By doing so, he demonstrates the versatility and range of just one ingredient[16]. A third dish called “Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart” was born through a happy accident. When one of Bottura’s sous chefs dropped a lemon tart, Massimo saw the beauty by which the tart splattered. Massimo then created a dish mimicking a dropped lemon tart by splashing the cremes across the plate and breaking the crisp atop the filling[17].

Massimo has repeatedly shown that food stands for much more than just consumption. To many people, food is their livelihood. In 2011,the same year Osteria Francescana received its third Michelin star, an earthquake struck the region of Emilia-Romagna causing severe damage to buildings and goods including thousands of aging wheels of parmigiana cheese. Facing losses of an estimated two hundred million dollars, the parmigiana producers turned to Massimo for assistance[18]. Massimo created and began promoting a new risotto cacio de pepe recipe which forwent the traditional pecorino cheese in favor of parmigiana. Through a livestream, he debuted the dish with thousands simultaneously preparing and eating risotto cacio e pepe worldwide. The dish exploded across the world, helping the parmigiana producers to sell all the broken cheese wheels.[19] By using his status and genius, Massimo influenced the evolution of risotto cacio de pepe globally to help with local calamity. Driven by a developing sense of community, he sought more ways to better the world through food.

Having reached the pinnacle of his profession, Bottura’s drive and focus turned towards giving back to the unfortunate. Due to the severe economic upheaval following the Great Recession of the 2000s, many Italians fell on hard times, losing jobs and homes. On top of domestic issues, rising tensions and civil injustices across Africa and the Middle East displacing and disenfranchising millions to refugee status. By using the Mediterranean Sea, many refugees sought asylum in Italy. The rest of the European Union’s initial hesitance to aid the waves of refugees left the burden to Italy and Greece[20]. Already financially hurt, the Italian government did not have the means to provide adequate food and shelter for all the needy in Italy. Resentful that aid was being taken from Italians in need, portions of the country pushed to close the borders.

However, most acknowledged the crisis could not be ignored. Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola designated space across different church buildings for refugee use and advocated that the rest of the eleven hundred parishes in his region do likewise[21]. Thousands found sanctuary in Milan, and its shelters eventually reached capacity. Many migrants found their new living conditions materially worse than their home prior due to insufficient state funding[22]. With little to no knowledge of the Italian language and customs, much of the new population felt ostracized and found they were it difficult to support themselves, creating a drain on national and local resources. The potential growth of the labor force incentivized migrant assimilation into Italian culture.

2015’s Expo Milano featured the theme of “Feeding the Planet – Energy for Life.” Appalled by the 1.3 million daily tons of discarded food, Massimo recognized the opportunity to demonstrate the disparity between food waste and hunger as an opportunity[23]. Through a partnership with the local Catholic church, Bottura co-founded the Refettorio Ambrosiano, with his wife. Staffed by volunteers, the head chef changed daily as world famous chefs graciously came to participate in the event. The refettorio received daily shipments of damaged or soon to expire goods from the concurring expo. Inside a converted church adorned with contemporary and designer furnishings, the chef designs a three-course meal based not only on the morning shipment but also on leftovers from the day before. The guest chefs test their skills and flex their muscles by creating comforting meals reminiscent of their heritage from the ingredients provided[24]. Bottura explains the true beauty that Refettorio Ambrosiano provides goes beyond the tangible. He says, “These are the things that fill you up with humanity and genuine feeling…cooking is about love. It’s about getting the chefs involved to make the invisible visible. About putting our knowledge and using our knowledge of ingredients to fight against waste. This is going to be the example for many other chefs[25].”

Not only were meals provided for the hungry, food brought refugees and Italians together. The meal and fine ambiance gave the two groups commonality that sparked the easing of the migrants into Italian society. The refettorio brought people from all different backgrounds to share in dinner establishing community between them. At one table, an ex-drug addict could be seen discussing religion with a priest, an Italian grandmother, an Italian immigrant of Jordanian dissent, a Muslim refugee from Senegal, and a Christian refugee from Nigeria[26]. The impact of Refettorio Ambrosiano produced noticeable value that the community did not want to lose at the end of the expo. Thanks to Charitas, charitable organizations of the Catholic Church, the kitchen remained open and continued to provide aid to many Milanese[27].

Inspired by Refettorio Ambrosiano, Massimo founded Food for Soul in 2016[28]. Vehemently denouncing the label of charity, Food for Soul identifies as a cultural project. Through their three core principles: “Quality of Ideas, Power of Beauty, and Value of Hospitality,” refettorios provide community inclusivity, feed the hungry, and reduce waste[29]. Coinciding with the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, Massimo opened Refftorio Gastromotiva, Food for Soul’s first international project with the same concepts as the original. Using excess and discarded foodstuffs from the Olympic Games, notable chefs provided disadvantaged people delicious and nutritious meals. It has continued operating in the years following the Olympics. Since then, Food for Soul has opened two more refettarios, one in London and one in Paris with another schedule to open soon in Sydney[30].

Massimo Bottura embodies the traditional Italian values through modern perspective. Instead of focusing on the culture of today, he focuses on the roots of all Italian tradition. Deep in culture and history, respect is the foundation for Italian society. Respect of nature is seen through proud artisanal crafts such as Tuscan olive oil and Parmigiana cheese. The respect of fellow Italians is seen through allegiances to locality and strong familial units. For generations, grandmothers were regarded as the best chefs in Italy by their respective families. Now, with Italy’s first World’s Best Restaurant, Bottura has taken the crown from the grandmothers by utilizing care and attention to detail that captures the love that grandmothers pour into cooking for their families. Although visually his dishes hardly resemble Italian classics, his reimagining of famed dishes focuses instead on providing the feelings of an experience past by emphasizing oddly specific yet relatable details.

[1] Croce, The Classic Italian Cookbook, 8.

[2] Croce, The Classic Italian Cookbook, 10.

[3] Lbid, 14.

[4] Parisi, Jacqueline. “Massimo Bottura On Self-Doubt,”

[5] Khanna, Jasreen Mayal. “The 6 Dishes That Define Massimo Bottura.”

[6] Jenkins, Allan. “Massimo Bottura.

[7] “Massimo Bottura.” Chef’s Table.

[8] lbin.

[9] “Massimo Bottura.” Chef’s Table.

[10] lbin.

[11] lbin.

[12] Khanna, Jasreen Mayal. “The 6 Dishes That Define Massimo Bottura.”

[13] “Massimo Bottura.” Chef’s Table.

[14] lbin.

[15] Millington, Alison. “I Met the Best Chef in the World.”

[16] “Massimo Bottura.” Chef’s Table.

[17] Millington, Alison. “I Met the Best Chef in the World.”

[18] Olmsted, Larry. “The Biggest Italian Dinner In History.”

[19] Olmsted, Larry. “The Biggest Italian Dinner In History.”

[20] McKenna, Josephine. “Italians Throw Open Their Doors.”

[21] lbin.

[22] Olmsted, Larry. “The Biggest Italian Dinner In History.”

[23] Svatek, Peter, dir. Theater of Life.

[24] lbin.

[25] “Milan’s Zero-Waste Soup Kitchen.” Fine Dining Lovers.

[26] Svatek, Peter, dir. Theater of Life.

[27] “Food for Soul.” Food for Soul.

[28] lbin.

[29] lbin.

[30] Spring, Alexandra. “Michelin-Starred Chef Massimo Bottura to Open Community Restaurant.”

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