The Inspired Series with Massimo Bottura
In April 2017, I had the honour of meeting the owner of the 2nd Best Restaurant in the World, the eccentric and very talented Massimo Bottura of Italy’s Osteria Francescana.
I interviewed Massimo at our Melbourne Inspired Series event at Higher Ground cafe last year and was blown away by his story and philosophy as much as the young apprentices sitting in the audience.
There’s a reason Massimo’s restaurant in Modena is in its 22nd year and has 3 Michelin stars to its name… and it’s got a lot to do with him following his passion, sticking with his gut and being humble.
You might not know this but Massimo wasn’t at all destined to be a chef. At 17 he thought he was going to be a soccer player but his papa had other plans for him.
Massimo’s dad was very tough on him and enrolled him into law school. He hated it, hated studying and wasn’t doing very well, which is something I, and I’m sure, many other young chefs today can sympathise with.
The amazing thing was his mum saw this and told Massimo to stand up for himself and do something he’s truly passionate about.
Having always been known as “the cook” to his friends, Massimo took the plunge at 23 and dropped out of law school to become a chef. Massimo aware of his dad’s disappointment in him, had something to prove to his father and told him: “One day I’m going to get 3 Michelin stars.” And in 2011 he did. His father passed away four months later…
After he realised his true calling was to be a chef, Massimo bought a restaurant in the outskirts of Modena, Trattoria del Campazzo.
Working as an apprentice under chef Georges Coigny, Massimo built his culinary foundation, a combination of regional Italian cooking and classical French training.
He then got scouted by Alain Ducasse in 1992 after he came for a surprise lunch and ate what is now Massimo’s signature dish… Three Textures and Temperatures of Parmigiano Reggiano.
“I want you to come with me to Monte Carlo,” Alain told Massimo straight after the lunch. He dropped everything and went to work at Le Louis XV. When I asked him why he dropped everything, he said: “I had to learn a lot about his idea of obsession.”
“I wasn’t ready for sacrifice at 17,” Massimo said. “When you want to achieve something, you have to sacrifice your life for it. You have to be obsessed.” Massimo’s mum instilled a love for food in his DNA since he was young, just like my mum did with me, and was the driving force behind him dropping everything to fulfil his dreams and be happy.
When an opportunity arises and you have this feeling like it was fate it came to you, you have to grab it and not let it slip through your fingers. Otherwise, you’ll never know when the next opportunity will come along and don’t to regret it later in life having missed that one chance.
When opportunities came about for me, like when Mr John Hemmes offered me job at one of his restaurants, I jumped at the offer because I knew If I was persistent enough he’d eventually offer me Head Chef at Hotel CBD… and I was right.
During our chat, Massimo also said something that was really inspirational, you have to trust yourself and your abilities.
Influenced by art and music, Massimo began breaking the boundaries of traditional Italian cuisine and creating contemporary dishes at his Trattoria.
“The critics very harsh but I stuck to my guns,” Massimo said. “I was sure that I was right and they were wrong. I knew it.
“I always trust my palate because the chefs that I worked with before, like Alain Ducasse or Georges Coigny said that I had an incredible palate and that I had to follow my palate and trust my palate. That stays in my mind,” he said.
The critics were saying he was “ruining the image of Parmigiano Reggiano” serving it 5 ways and making jokes about his ‘6 Tortellini Walking on a Broth’
But all he wanted to do was express the aging process using just 1 ingredient and whether the traditional critics liked it or not, Ducasse did!
There’s a quote that expresses this really well: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” It’s so important for people to stay true to what they believe in, and in this industry, that means your own career path style of cooking. You can’t please everyone or every restaurant critic, but if you try then you cheat yourself and won’t achieve what you set out to.
And Massimo is a clear example of this.
He has this incredible way of telling a story through his contemporary creations and said creativity comes when he simultaneously “knows everything and forgets about everything.”
Massimo then said something, which most chefs would agree on… “Before everything you have to know everything. If you don’t know how the French make the classic sauces or how the Japanese touch the fish… If you don’t know this, then how can you create something new?” This is something I touch on in the post 'Advice for Young Chefs'.
Despite being the owner of the 2016 Best Restaurant in the World, Massimo said he’s “always learning.” To be a great chef, it’s extremely important to be humble and respectful of your teachers, your team and your competitors because your job is pretty much your life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So, having a good attitude towards those around you and passion for the work you do is vital.
You need to be able to look in the mirror every single morning with sparkles in your eyes and be ok with putting in the hard work, and at the end of the day, still be happy.
As Massimo perfectly put it: “If you know yourself and you know your limit, you know what to achieve and how to achieve it… You’re going to make it.”