The ingredients that make up Massimo Bottura #3
We break the 50 Best Restaurants #1 chef down into his constituent parts. How his family influences his cookery
“There are three things that cannot be tampered with in Italy,” writes Massimo Bottura in his book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, “football, the Pope and your grandmother’s recipes.”
Of course the Modena chef, widely credited with reinventing Italian cuisine, has done nothing but tamper with his family recipes. Nevertheless, familial traditions, skills, insight very much form the basis for the chef’s initial skills and inspirations.
“I grew up under the kitchen table, escaping my older brothers.” he writes in the book, “I clung to my grandmother Ancella’s knees while she rolled out the pasta dough, and stole raw tortellini from under her nose.”
Many of the dishes featured in Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, such as A Compression of Pasta and Beans interprets the kind of food served at his family table. “My mother, Luisa, made an incredible pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup) when I was growing up,” he writes. “My brothers and I would race through bowls of it, fighting over second helpings until the pot was clean. We took a family recipe and changed everything.”
In keeping with the kind of cuisine you’d expect to be served in a restaurant which just won the top spot on The 50 Best Restaurants list, Massimo’s version of the dish is separated into layers and served in a 15cm shot glass, topped with rosemary air.
Other food prepared by his mother but spurned by Massimo still finds its way into his cookery. Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich recalls all the sliced Bologna sausage sandwiches his mother made that he never ate.
He writes, “Italian mothers spoil their children. I was a skinny kid; too busy to eat because I was always running off to play soccer. In a concerted effort to feed me, my mother would chase me down the street every morning on my way to school with a mortadella sandwich. Can a recipe ever replace a memory?” Perhaps not, but this confection of mortadella foam, gnocchi and pistachio powder is a great response to this simple dish.
The familial influence doesn’t end with the food his mother made. A simple tale she told him of farmers digging up truffles, mistaking them for potatoes, and boiling them, informed his dish A Potato Waiting to Become a Truffle.
And not every member of Bottura's gastronomic family is a blood relative. Lidia Cristoni, the motherly country cook who lived close by the chef's first restaurant Trattoria de Campazzo, taught Massimo many Italian cookery techniques and told the Observer newspaper recently, "he is like my son.”
Meanwhile other family members have also changed the way he cooks. His wife, Lara Gilmore, whom Bottura met when they both worked at an Italian café in Manhattan, introduced him to the delights of contemporary art, while his father-in-law, introduced him to some distinctly American interpretations of Italian cuisine.
“I ate my first Caesar salad when my father-in-law, Ken Gilmore, invited me to lunch at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York in 2005. He ordered the Caesar salad and warned me, ‘You’ve never seen anything like it.’ The Italian maître d’ prepared the dressing at our table, adding the ingredients one by one and emulsifying them as effortlessly as if he was combing his hair. Nothing will ever top that theatrical production, or the emotion of sharing a meal with Ken.”
That meal with his father in law inspired Bottura’s own take on the dish, with faux leaves made from mustard greens and mustard oil gelatine. Mr Gilmore, a former edtitor-in-chief of the Readers’ Digest, also offered the chef a little advice: “Be like a tree, Max. Grow slowly.” Proof, perhaps, that it’s family that helps Bottura stay rooted.
Look out for more 'ingredients' that make this chef special over the coming weeks. And if you missed our previous stories, read about how music influences Bottura’s creative cooking here, and how contemporary art finds its way onto his menus here. Meanwhile, to get to know Massimo and his creative cookery even better, buy a copy of Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, here.