Massimo Bottura’s enthusiasm is infectious. The Italian chef has a way of speaking that brings you in on his schemes and sends you chasing multiple trains of thought.

“You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to serve an eel in Tokyo — the best eel you can get in the Po River!” he tells me, punctuating the sentence with a chuckle of delight.

Conversations with Bottura — whose Modena restaurant, Osteria Francescana, has earned three Michelin stars and ranks third on San Pellegrino’s list of best restaurants in the world — frequently begin somewhere in the middle. He’s referring to a dish called An Eel Swimming up the Po River, which he plans to introduce at an upcoming dinner event at Bulgari Il Ristorante in Tokyo. But this fact is not immediately evident as he jumps from topic to topic: bags of “gold garbage” filled with leftover bread (on the issue of food waste); the Capri Battery (a sculpture by artist Joseph Beuys, which uses the acid from a lemon to power a lamp); and the wisdom of books.

“We’re also going make a spaghetto that wants to be a lasagna — like the crunchy part around the edges that all of the children fight for,” he continues, breathlessly running through the rest of the menu.

The event, a collaboration with Bulgari’s chef, Luca Fantin, will run for two nights on March 30 and 31 and give Tokyoites the rare opportunity to sample some of Osteria Francescana’s signature dishes. Bottura and Fantin will prepare alternating courses on one tasting menu. The dinner is the third installment of Bulgari’s In Cibo Veritas series, which kicked off in January and features different guest chefs throughout the year.

The series was created to promote contemporary Italian cuisine, a concept that has been slower than other culinary trends, such as modern Spanish or New Nordic cuisine, to catch on both in Italy and overseas. At turns a staunch defender of tradition and trenchant provocateur, Bottura, who trained with Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adria, is known for utilizing innovative techniques to refine and reconstruct Italian classics. He opened Osteria Francescana in 1995 and helped pioneer the genre, but he still describes his work to move the Italian kitchen forward as an “uphill battle.” The main problem, as he sees it, is a reliance on nostalgia.

“As I wrote in my book ‘Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef,’ there are three things you cannot tamper with in Italy: the pope, football and your grandmother’s recipes,” he explains. “Do I want to remake my grandmother’s recipe again and again? No. I cherish those recipes enough to take them apart and put them back together in my own way — with technique, knowledge, cultural background and a contemporary mind.”

Bottura’s sources of inspiration reflect his voracious intellectual curiosity. He gets ideas from art (he and his American wife, Lara Gilmore, are avid collectors), music (he’s crazy about jazz and rock), and traveling (the debut episode of a new CNN program called “Culinary Journeys” documented a trip Bottura took to London). His diverse influences often converge on the same plate. Take, for example, Bottura’s Psychedelic Veal, a piece of beef cooked sous-vide (under vacuum) and rolled in charcoal, which arrives at the table looking like a grilled steak on top of a Jackson Pollack painting. When explaining the concept behind the dish, the chef mentions Damien Hirst, the Arte Povera movement and a travel book about Italy from the 1930s.

Many of his reinterpretations of Italian cuisine are deeply rooted in history and have a narrative quality. The eel dish, prepared using an Asian lacquering technique and served atop a puddle of polenta, tells the story of the dukes who fled from northern Italy to Modena in the 16th century after Clement VIII seized their eel marshes. Bottura’s famous Noah’s Ark tortellini encompass elements of recipes gathered from around the country, resulting in a complex dish of dumplings and broth made from a menagerie of meats — from frog and duck to pork and beef.

“Osteria Francescana is an Italian kitchen that uses culinary stories to get to the heart of flavor,” he says.

These days, he’s trying to instill a love of learning in the next generation of chefs. When I spoke to him in mid-March, he’d just returned to Italy from Canada, where he delivered lectures at a culinary academy in Toronto. Bottura worries that young chefs are in too much of a rush to get into the kitchen and should focus on broadening their horizons beyond the stove. “Studying brings culture, and through culture you can make visible the invisible,” he tells me, before describing his dream to “build a university” in Italy.

Bottura has already been working with agricultural schools to help improve training for farmers, cheese makers, and vinegar producers.

“We want to make smiling wheels of Parmesan, happy vinegar, better potatoes!” he exclaims. The statement conjures up cartoon-like images of dancing vegetables that bring to mind Takeshi Murakami paintings, and I find myself nodding along, eager to taste these products.

Bottura is also committed to spreading the message about how chefs can raise awareness and enact social change through food. Bottura is currently developing a project to create a contemporary dining hall for people in impoverished areas of Milan, as part of the city’s gastronomy-focused international exposition (Expo 2015), which begins in May and will continue through October.

“Chefs have a social responsibility,” he says, his voice taking a serious tone. “Food is about sharing with others.”

The Osteria Francescana tasting menu (with wine) costs ¥38,000 per person. For more information on the In Cibo Veritas series of events, contact Bulgari Il Ristorante at 03-6362-0555.

Waste not by feeding the planet with leftovers

Waste is one of the biggest issues facing the global food industry. Statistics released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2013 revealed that nearly a third of all the food produced around the world — roughly 1.3 billion tons annually — is discarded. An estimated 40 percent of these losses are edible products from restaurants, supermarkets, and households.

Chef Massimo Bottura came up with an idea to shed light on the matter and help people in need at the same time. Collaborating with charity organization Caritas Ambrosiana and an international team of architects, artists and chefs, Bottura will transform an abandoned theater into a dining hall that will offer free meals to students and residents in a lower-income neighborhood in Milan.

The project will utilize the edible food waste generated by the pavilions at Milan’s Expo 2015, a six-month exposition featuring more than 140 participating countries. The theme for this year’s Expo, Feeding the Planet, will focus on issues of sustainability. Some of the world’s best chefs — including as Rene Redzepi, Ferran Adria and Yoshihiro Narisawa — will fly in for the event and join Bottura in the kitchen to cook with leftovers.

“We’re going to use the leftover bread, ugly vegetables, and overripe bananas,” Bottura says. “Wasting food is the worst thing we can do.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.