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Life Lessons from a World Renowned Chef

Massimo Bottura, the chef and owner of Italy’s three-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana, shares his philosophies

Massimo Bottura had a somewhat predetermined career path growing up—but that path wasn’t to become a chef. The Botturas were a well-off family from Modena, Italy; Massimo the youngest of four brothers. Early on, Massimo’s father decided that the eldest of his sons would become an engineer; the second oldest, a doctor; the third, an accountant; and the fourth (Massimo), a lawyer. Cooking—a true passion of Massimo’s—was something his mother did for large family gatherings on Sundays; it wasn’t what Mr. Bottura considered a “career.” But after two uninspiring years studying law, Massimo bought a roadside trattoria just outside Modena. He had zero restaurant experience but aligned himself with the right people, and eventually apprenticed for the likes of Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià.

He went on to open the famed Osteria Francescana in 1995. Today, the Modena restaurant holds a prestigious three-Michelin star rating and is currently ranked number two on the World’s Best Restaurants List. We chatted with the culinary master about his philosophy on food, life and more. He shares these theories in his own words, below.

On a New Camaraderie Among Chefs:
When I’m in New York, I go to my friends’ restaurants—people like David Chang, Daniel Boulud, Wylie Dufresne and Alain Ducasse if he’s in town. Things have changed over the last ten years in gastronomy—chefs don’t close their kitchens to other chefs anymore. It’s about sharing. We travel all over the world and share techniques, experiences and ideas with one another.

On His Relationship With Alain Ducasse:
I just came back from Paris because Alain Ducasse asked me to cook lunch for the opening of Le Maurice. For a French chef to ask an Italian chef to come to Paris—and cook at Le Maurice—it’s a big deal. A really big deal. And what I’ve learned is that a man like Ducasse—who everyone thinks is cold and tough—can be very emotional. He almost cried. I started my career with him, and to see that after 20 years we’re still friends and sharing these moments… To me, it was the most beautiful thing ever.

On Pushing Italian Cuisine Forward:
In Italy, there are certain customs you can’t touch: the pope, the soccer team and the traditions. The rest? You can do whatever you want. I tried to evolve Italian cuisine in the past and it was very hard to confront the tradition. Most of the time I ask myself, “Is the tradition really respecting the ingredients?” If it’s not, then I have to change the recipe. In the beginning, it was difficult to do, but after we showed people we could evolve the traditions by taking a different approach, everyone accepted it with open arms.

Contemporary cuisine is not just about the ingredients—it’s also about the quality of the ideas. At Osteria Francescana, I look to the past all the time, but not in a nostalgic way—in a critical way, to bring the best from the past into the future. Contemporary Italian is not a cuisine of revolution, it’s a cuisine of evolution.

On Sustainability in Italy:
Where I come from, there are fast cars and slow food. It’s where Ferrari, Maserati, Ducati, Lamborghini are all built. But also it’s a place where they grow balsamic vinegar, parmigiano regiano, ham and mortadella. It’s an incredible place, and I have a big responsibility to the region. After the earthquake a few years, ago, I realized I had to do something deeper than just win awards. So I started helping everyone from the cheesemakers to the farmers to the fisherman. I try to help them evolve, to create better products. It’s not just about my restaurant—it’s about all the artisans. I take the spotlight, and I move it from me to them.

On Advising Young Chefs:
Trying to influence young chefs is a beautiful thing and a great responsibility. I usually tell them not to be in a rush to get into the kitchen. I tell them to study a lot and to find a deep interest. In the future, this interest can become passion, and through passion you can transfer emotions to food. I tell young chefs to always have their feet on the ground… to travel with their eyes and ears open and absorb everything, but never forget who they are or where they come from.

On Remembering to Enjoy Life:
In my life, I always leave room for the unexpected. If you leave a little space in your everyday life for imagination, that’s the secret to happiness. Don’t lose yourself to obligation. It’s important to dream. Dreaming is the secret of happiness.