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Massimo Bottura on breaking Italian culinary tradition: They wanted to crucify me…

The 3-Michelin star chef has overcome initial reactions to his modernisation of Italian cuisine to be a game changer in his native Italy.

Most cooking demonstrations start with an ingredient show-and-tell. Massimo Bottura, in Singapore on Saturday by invitation of American Express, starts his by showing Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a triptych depicting contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei shattering a 2,000 year-old artefact.

“You have to break tradition to rebuild it for the future,” says the 55 year-old chef behind Michelin three-star Osteria Francescana that topped the World’s 50 Best list in 2016, and again this year. Like Ai, Bottura has courted his fair share of controversy. Though considered as one of the best chefs in the world these days, the El Bulli alumni was once harshly criticised for trying to modernise Italian cuisine. “The people wanted me crucified at the piazza like a witch, because I was messing with grandmother’s recipe. That, alongside the Pope and the soccer team are things you don’t (fool around) with in Italy.”

Today, his avant-garde fare, what he calls “extreme Italian food, filtered through a contemporary mind” is lauded as the future of Italian cuisine. A lasagne is not served as a steaming, messy plate, but a crisp wafer – a representation of his memory from childhood, when he and his brother would be fighting to snag the crisp bits on top of his nonna’s dish.

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And to showcase parmigiano as a living ingredient, he created “Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures”: a multi-textured dish that uses the cheese at different levels of maturity as its sole ingredient. “Twenty years ago, when that dish was first made, the cheese makers were not happy, because ageing the cheese for longer than the usual 18 months was not good for business.” But in 2011, the 150th annual Italian Gastronomic Conference named this trouble-making item Dish of the Decade for Italian gastronomy. Similarly, the lynch mob that was after his head decades back are now thanking him for bringing the sleepy town of Modena back to life. In fact, many all over Italy see Bottura like a messiah to bring them into a new future.

Outside of Italy, Bottura is no less influential. Together with his New Yorker wife Lara Gilmore, he set up Food for Soul in 2016. The non-profit association has a dual mission: combating food waste and empowerment of the underprivileged through social inclusion. To this end, he has set up artfully designed community kitchens in Rio de Janeiro, Milan, Bologna, Modena, London and Paris, where culinary megastars like Rene Redzepi, even Ferran and Albert Adria, might be cooking with discarded food items for a community which has absolutely no idea who they are. He is currently talking to the Rockefeller Foundation to set up a soup kitchen in America. Tireless in his community work, Bottura also set up Il Tortellante in 2017 – a school in Modena that teaches youth with special needs how to make the pasta.

(Related: What Rene Redzepi fed us at Noma, Sydney)

Beyond artistic expressions, food has become a means for Bottura to demonstrate his love for a larger community. “Cooking is an act of love, that is what the food of my grandmother taught me,” says Bottura. So while his food might be the product of a complex creative process, they are first and foremost, designed to deliver deliciousness and to bring pleasure. And while he might cite Ai Wei Wei, Pablo Picasso and Joseph Beuys as sources of inspiration, Bottura highlights that his food are not esoteric art pieces. “As chefs, we create food, like how an architect designs buildings and an engineer creates fast cars. The poetry of Joseph Beuys and the art of Ai Wei Wei is free, but not the work from us. Our food is a representation of our thoughts and ideas, but we are artisans, not artists.”

  • Dishes at Bottura's 3-Michelin star restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. PHOTO: Paolo Terzi