The celebrated chef and owner of Osteria Francescana reveals the test he puts all his chefs through.
There are few luminaries in the culinary world whose names conjure as widespread adulation as Massimo Bottura, restaurateur and chef patron of Osteria Francescana, which has ranked top-five in 'The World's 50 Best Restaurants' list for the past seven years. Even if you've never traveled to Modena, Italy, to dine at Bottura's 28-seat shrine to conceptualism and innovation—it's super-difficult to get a table anyway. "We open the reservations four months in advance and the demands close in 30 seconds," he says—Bottura's cerebral brand of food artistry has permeated mainstream pop culture. His episode of Chef's Table was "the most successful episode ever—I think 25 million people watched it," he tells Food & Wine. So much so that "Netflix called me to try to buy the rights for my life—to shoot my life," he says. "I said no. It's too much, we already gave a lot." Osteria Francescana also starred in a second-season episode of Aziz Ansari's hit Netflix series Master of None.
Earlier this month, the American Express By Invitation Only program, which organizes dozens of exclusive experiences and special events every year for Platinum Card Members, and the American Express Global Dining Collection, which provides unparalleled access to some of the best chefs in the world, hosted an exclusive one-night-only Osteria Francescana dinner party at the Peninsula Hong Kong—with the celebrated chef himself at the helm. Food & Wine sat down with Bottura ahead of service to talk about his philosophy and approach to work.
Here's the best story he told us.
Massimo Bottura: I have a test that I do with my chefs—it's called "Who Are You?" You have to express yourself in an edible way—or even in a different way. You have to express yourself and tell me who you are. I do this test all the time—if I come back on a Monday, I send a message, "Wednesday, I'm going to taste something, so everyone has to be ready for that." So you learn how to think.
There's a young guy—19-years-old, called Ed, from northern England. He grew up and trained as a cook in a French restaurant specializing in soufflé. His passion has always been Italian cuisine—and his big, high goal has always been Massimo Bottura. So he went to London, flew from London to Bologna, and from Bologna came to Osteria.
One day, I met him outside the restaurant, in the small street by the kitchen, but I didn't pay attention because there are so many people that are there all the time. I said, after a couple of hours, because it was raining, "What are doing there?" And he said, "I was waiting to meet you." I said, "Why didn't you say that before? I would have said something."
"I didn't want to disturb you," he said.
I said, "OK, come here, who are you? Do you have a work permit? What's your passion?" I gave him a jacket and an apron and I put him in the bakery and left him there for six months. He spent six months in the bakery and one day he said, "Chef, I want to do something. I want to do 'Who Are You?' and express myself."
He served a tiramisu soufflé—melting in the center with tiramisu, but very classic in style, not like those fake soufflés you see all over the world—with this perfect balance in which you don't even taste the egg, with hot coffee sauce, with the crunchy chocolate top, with an ice cream of mascarpone chauffoir. You break the soufflé, you put the mascarpone inside, you pour the coffee, and you go deep into that.
That was my best tiramisu I've ever tasted in my life. The best, absolutely–and created by a 19-year-old kid who lived his whole life in the north of England with a village of, like, 1,000 people. He came to Modena and he did that.
You know what that means? You have to listen to people, you have to learn how to listen to people. You have to give to these guys the possibility to express themselves—because they're going to surprise you. Always keep a door open for the unexpected—that's what really makes the difference.
. . .
In Hong Kong, Bottura was accompanied in the kitchen by his chef de partie Jessica Rosval—and his longtime sous chef Davide di Fabio had already gone ahead to New York to set up for Bottura's next event, taking place just days later. Would Bottura ever consider taking up a more permanent business endeavor in the Big Apple? Not a chance.
"New York is a place I feel at home," Bottura told Food & Wine. "I have so many friends, so many friends—I can walk into the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin, Daniel, Mario [Batali], Dave Chang—and, you know, they feed me as a friend. It's not as a chef—that's what makes the difference. Since I don't have my mother and my father anymore, and we don't have these long and big family meals, being able to go places where I really have friends, New York is one of these—they feed me with emotions—as if it was my big brother. That's what really makes the difference for me."
"I live in New York as a New Yorker," Bottura says. "I have all the time in the world, because I'm not sucked in by the city. That's why I won't open a restaurant in New York—and I never will—because I want to live in New York and enjoy. These are the days I really feel—walking around New York and breathing freedom is one of the most amazing things ever."