Massimo Bottura: when art and food collide
Italy’s most feted chef has art everywhere in his restaurant, his hotel and his home. Visiting him in the summer of 2019, Maïa Morgensztern discovered how the artists in his collection, from Ugo Rondinone to Damien Hirst, have influenced him
‘Should I add some prosciutto?’ Fumbling around in his kitchen, Massimo Bottura, the chef behind the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, is making a snack.
We have just arrived at his home, a few kilometres from Modena’s medieval city centre. The motor of his white Maserati is still warm in the driveway. Around me, art is everywhere. Works by Ai Weiwei, Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman and Michelangelo Pistoletto are dotted all over the ground floor.
Downstairs, Bottura happily poses in front of a large painting by Ugo Rondinone. He and his wife Lara Gilmore had been lusting after the work for so long that they didn’t think twice before raising a paddle when it came up at auction. On the way home, they just hoped it would fit somewhere in the house. It did not. ‘We had to dig into the basement to accommodate the painting!’ Bottura laughs.
We move to the living room, a plate of fresh vegetables and prosciutto in hand, and sit on a purple sofa facing a huge sculpture by Allora & Calzadilla. A perfect view to start our conversation.
Art is everywhere around you: in your house, in your restaurant and in your boutique hotel, Casa Maria Luigia. When did you first start collecting?
Art and music have always been part of my life. I’m from Modena. At home, bel canto opera and 19th-century art formed the basis of our education. As I grew older, I started reading about Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, etc.
Until I hit a wall. For me, art was all over after Duchamp. I wasn’t planning on changing my mind until I met Lara in New York in 1993. She tried to pull me towards contemporary art, step by step. I eventually discovered things I could not see before. Lara made the invisible visible, and we started buying works together.
Your collection includes works by Piero Manzoni, Barbara Kruger, Duane Hanson, Maurizio Cattelan, Carsten Höller and Tracey Emin, many of which have a tongue-in-cheek undertone. Do you think humour is an easy way to draw people to art?
Absolutely. At Osteria Francescana, we regularly have customers complaining about a rubbish bag in the hallway. Gavin Turk’s bronze-cast sculpture Trash is a playful way to begin a conversation, but the piece also marks the location of our old kitchen.
It was so small we had to constantly take the rubbish out, sometimes during service. And look at where we are now.
Beyond collecting art, the restaurant’s menu is filled with dishes referencing specific works. Where does your inspiration come from?
Inspiration comes from everywhere, but invariably I come back to art because it has this capacity to quote the past while reinventing it. I am just adding a layer to the story.
In 2012, I was invited to cook at Casa Italia, the country’s official hub during the London Olympics. Damien Hirst participated in the festivities by loaning a spin painting to a fast-food restaurant. ‘Beautiful, psychedelic spin-painted veal, not flame-grilled’ was my take on Hirst’s collaboration. I used Chianina beef, not veal, rolled it in carbon ash and vacuum-packed it.
Once cooked, it was completely black on the outside and perfectly pink inside, as if it had been grilled. This was a nod to the so-called ‘flame-grilled’ image of the fast-food industry. I finished the plate by spinning a tricolour sauce on it, à la Hirst.
The sculpture behind you, called Sled, is by Joseph Beuys. The work refers to Tatar shamans who supposedly saved the artist’s life after his plane crashed. They wrapped him in felt and fat. My dish ‘The crunchy part of the lasagna’ refers to the sculpture. As an Italian, lasagna is part of our mythology, what children crave, what comforts us.
Your collection is clearly an inspiration. What do the artworks in the restaurant have to say about your food?
Look at Elger Esser’s photograph of the Po River, which is hanging next to Bosco Sodi’s burnt tondo. The works are begging you to ask: ‘What was better, 30 years ago when the river was healthy and filled with fish for everyone, or now?’
Bosco Sodi’s cracked soil is screaming: ‘Stop using chemicals, because I’m dying!’ If we don’t act now, our resources will eventually dry up. That’s why I put those two pieces there.
But is a restaurant the right place to start a debate?
I like to think so. I hope people who come to the restaurant have a good time, but I feel it is also my responsibility to talk about wider issues. Art is a great way to start a difficult conversation. For example, the dish ‘Burnt’ alludes to a work by Glenn Ligon, To Disembark, which deals with slavery.
Your activism goes further though. Sylvie Fleury’s sculpture Golden Bin sparked the birth of your non-profit organisation promoting social awareness about food waste and hunger. How did that happen?
I bought Golden Bin in 2014, and had a revelation: garbage is gold. Milan Expo was coming up, so it was the perfect opportunity to redefine what people think of as waste.
We came up with a simple idea: our Refettorio offered to feed those in need, with meals made using leftover ingredients from the fair. We repurposed unwanted food into beautiful dishes cooked by the world’s best chefs, and filled the place with what we love. Architects, artists, designers — everyone joined in.
I wanted to keep the concept alive, and Food for Soul was born in 2016. It was important to create something both meaningful and beautiful, because through beauty you can rebuild people’s dignity.
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Is beauty really enough to jump-start and maintain a sense of community?
You cannot start a revolution with beauty, but you will need it to make it work, because that’s what brings people together.
‘Oops! I dropped the lemon tart’ is probably your most famous dish. Could it be considered an artwork?
This is probably the only dish I could consider an artwork. I was in New York and stumbled upon a group show of artists attempting to perfectly rebuild the same imperfection, over and over again. The moment stayed in my head, and when my sous-chef Taka Kondo accidentally dropped a lemon tart, I connected the two.
We worked very hard to recreate the mishap. We also designed a plate that looks as if it has been smashed on the floor. It’s almost art.
But it’s not art?
A chef is an artisan. Take this Merda d’artista can. Manzoni was free to do whatever he wanted. I could never go as far as he did because, at the end of the day, a chef has to cook good food. This is our job.
You have defined your cuisine as an attempt to ‘reinvent the archetype’ of Italian food. Do we need to break with tradition to move forward?
Think about Ai Weiwei breaking a 2,000-year-old vase. It reminds me that tradition is always there, even if you try to erase it. My heritage, my grandmother, and the grandmother of my grandmother: they’re all there, no matter what I do.
My father had an oil company, which distributed gas and kerosene. I bought Allora & Calzadilla’s Petrified Petrol Pump because it is heavy and impossible to move, just like my past. I always look to the future, but I don’t have to forget where I come from. This is what I mean by reinventing the archetype.
Would you say you collect memories through art, and those memories help you to shape new ideas in the kitchen?
That’s a good way to put it. To me, artworks have a double meaning: the one intended by the artist, and the one we bring, according to our circumstances.
I cook Italian food because this is my heritage. But, just like with art, where the food is from doesn’t really matter. We all serve emotions.
This interview was first published in July 2019