Chefs are more than the sum of their recipes. This appears to be the charismatic and celebrated Italian chef, Massimo Bottura’s favourite line. But over the last few years, our Modena man has rounded up some of the world’s starriest chefs to prove that there is more to being an iconic culinary name than just creating memorable food. Rene Redzepi, Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adria, Daniel Humm… all Bottura’s friends (some go back 20 years), they left their celebrity status at the kitchen door and set out to create astonishing meals from leftovers, for the homeless in Milan’s neglected Greco neighbourhood.
That was two years ago, when Bottura set up his first refectory for the poor, to tie in with the theme of the 2015 Milan World Expo – Feeding the Planet. He called it Refettorio Ambrosiano. While the diners, strangers who had fallen on hard times, did not even know these culinary giants in the kitchen, the project made headlines across the world. Bottura went on to set up the non-profit, Food for Soul, and seed the concept in other cities. More than 245 chefs have participated since, in Rio, London, Bologna and Modena, and the US is next.
Sixty of these chefs, their recipes and photos of them at work in the Refettorio, are being featured in Bottura’s new book,Bread is Gold, to be launched by Phaidon next month. With anecdotes, a personal introduction to each chef, and smart shortcuts born of necessity — did you know that popcorn and breadcrumbs can substitute for expensive pine nuts in pesto? — the book is going to be a hit with the home cook.
As for Bottura, 54, his three-Michelin star restaurant, Osteria Francescana, continues to have month-long waiting lists and famous guests like the Obamas and Mark Zuckerberg. It stands second on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants this year (#1 last year), with Bottura arguably the most influential winner at this Oscars of the restaurant world. A Netflix hero — he got the Aziz Ansari-starring Netflix hit,Master of None, to shoot in his private wine cellar, earlier this year, whileTheatre of Life, about the Food for Soul project, is also on the streaming platform — he travels extensively, and will be in India next month for an exclusive pop-up. More from him:
You have a knack
for uniting chefs towards a common cause and have said that the
chef of the future has a sense of responsibility.
I’ve always said “chefs are more than the sum of their recipes”. This was proved to be true from the great response I received from all the chefs I invited to cook at the Refettorio project. Not only did over 65 chefs say “yes”, but they gave so much more: their energy, their time, their creativity and know-how. Today, chefs are leading so many important initiatives and using gastronomy to change the world – one spoonful at a time.
When did you begin to realise the culinary potential of what we call ‘waste’?
I just looked to the past, at Italy’s very humble “cucina povera”, where nothing was ever thrown away and everything had the potential to be transformed into a delicious meal. In fact,Bread is Goldis about making extraordinary meals with ordinary (and even sub ordinary) ingredients. Each chef brought their culinary culture, heritage, but most importantly, their childhood memories to the table. It’s about personal stories and ideas about how to make-do with the ingredients you have.
in Rio de Janeiro involved many challenges and saw you walk into a tattoo parlour to get yourself a permanent reminder: No more excuses. How differently has each city accepted Refettorio?
Each project is, as I like to say, tailor-made. In Milan, we learned that beauty and art are a common language. Hospitality can lead to social inclusion through the simple gesture of serving meals at the table and saying, “Hi, how was the soup?” In Modena and Bologna, where there was not the same need as the big cities for a new Refettorio, we adapted the project, creating a Monday-night soup kitchen and invited chefs to volunteer. We welcomed families and individuals in need to our delicious supper.
Is Refettorio becoming a global movement and is India next?
I’m really looking forward to my first trip to India at the end of November and who knows what that would lead to. We receive inquiries from all over the world. Our project manager, Cristina Reni, just came back from Burkina Faso, Montréal and Paris. We’ll see what the future brings.
Was the titleBread is Goldinspired by your childhood and how one can transfer a memory into something “tangible, edible and emotional”?
It is a metaphor for giving value to the simplest things in life that we often overlook. Such as the milk soup that I and many other Italian kids grew up with, or the endless recipes that use day-old bread created by the chefs at Refettorio Ambrosiano, and included in the cookbook.Bread is Goldis a way of looking at the world, and your pantry and finding inner beauty in the humblest ingredient
Your first book,Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, was part memoir, with the recipes starting only on page 276. There was some criticism that it was only for the serious chef with professional kitchen equipment.
lNever Trust a Skinny Italian Chef
is a recipe book based on 20 years of experience at Osteria Francescana — recipes from the restaurant kitchen. Of course, they are complicated. On the other hand, the recipes from
Bread is Gold
come out of necessity to put a meal on the table in a few hours with the ingredients that were available that day. These are practical, direct, and easily repeated recipes that can be made for two, to 20, to 100 people.
You have said that cooking is a thinking man’s job… what about qualities like passion, talent and humility?
lFirst of all, talent is only 10% of any good chef. The remaining 90% is all hard work. Humility and passion are the most important ingredients. I advise all young chefs to get out of the kitchen and spend time in the world, travelling, but also reading, looking at art, listening to music, and letting their minds wander… the act of making a recipe is an intellectual one.
Recently, Sebastien Bras of Le Suquet restaurant wanted to be stripped of his Michelin three-star distinction. Burnout and pressure were the reasons stated. As a three Michelin-starred chef, your comments?
lIf you dream about Michelin stars, you have to know that they come from a lot of sacrifices and no free time. But if that is your dream, the reward is endless.
Music and art inspire you, and you have a vintage Victrola and an enviable vinyl record collection featuring Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk and other jazz artists and. What is a Massimo Bottura playlist like?
lI love jazz, I really get lost in it. But I love it as much as I love Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. My playlist is eclectic and goes from Brahms to the American singer, Iron & Wine. Music gives life rhythm, lyrics can change the way you look at the world and a good melody can live forever.
“These dishes could change the way we nourish the planet, because they can be cooked by anyone, anywhere, at any budget. To feed the planet, you first have to fight the waste.”
Chefs are becoming ambassadors of culture, influential thinkers, and activists. There is more we chefs can do to make the world a better and more delicious place.
— Massimo Bottura in Bread is Gold
“Do you know the first memory I have of you, Massimo, is overcooked pasta at elBulli? Somebody overcooked the pasta and you freaked out, really freaked out and you threw it into the ocean . . . the pasta! Do you remember that? So I guess the pasta needs to be cooked right . . . otherwise it gets wasted!”
— Rene Redzepi in Bread is Gold
“People protect and respect what they love (Cousteau’s quote). That is exactly what we, chefs, must do: make the ‘no waste’ attitude desirable—a happy and delicious way of eating.”
— Alain Ducasse quoting underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau in Bread is Gold