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Massimo Bottura: art and revolution

Massimo Bottura: art and revolution

by Ollie Lloyd 17 July 2015

While his restaurant, Osteria Francescana, is ranked as number two in the world and holds three Michelin stars, Massimo Bottura is often thought of as a subversive figure despite these impressive credentials. A lover of contemporary art, Bottura himself also seeks to constantly challenge and question our notions of tradition, arguing that it lives on in evolution rather than preservation.

The concept of the artist as an outsider is something we have grown used to. We accept the idea that artists challenge convention and rip up the rules of previous generations. Over time, images of rebellion become decoration for mugs, plates and things to buy as souvenirs - the very meaning of the works are often forgotten. Artists like Francis Bacon, Ai Weiwei and Joseph Beuys sell for small fortunes and are often mistaken for brands or badges of taste rather than challengers of authority. For me, it is a given that the creation of great art should provoke and challenge but we don’t expect the food we eat to engage in similar tussles with authority and tradition.

Talking to Massimo Bottura, a chef whose restaurant recently ranked as number 2 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, is like talking to a contemporary artist. He holds strong views on the state of his native country, Italy. He is angered by the methods of the past but values the potential of dialogue with previous generations. He sees change as vital to society’s evolution. He sees tradition as something to be pushed against rather than hero worshipped. He sees the possibility of innovation and new approaches. He imagines - through his dishes - new stories that are both highly personal but provocative in a broader sense.

Bottura was in London recently to bring Osteria Francescana, his legendary restaurant in Modena, to Sotheby’s during their July contemporary art sale. His food was served alongside the works of Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Lucio Fontana and his dishes were in part inspired by these great artists. He has had a long relationship with art and has not only acquired work by Ai Weiwei but treats his guests to a revolving collection of art from the likes of Joseph Beuys through to Gavin Turk. His restaurant, in its previous incarnation, had a strong relationship with artists and in the early days, local artists traded works for meals and cases of wine.

Like Bottura himself, the Sotheby’s pop up blurred the lines between food and art
Coloured Vases by Ai Weiwei - an artist Bottura collects - was one of the lots available at the Sotheby’s contemporary art auction

However, to see the relationship between Bottura and the artists who adorn his restaurant walls as merely aesthetic is to misunderstand the very rhythm of the man. Bottura is concerned for his country. He feels that 'Italy is degenerating very slowly. We are losing that kind of allure. We are losing that sense of beauty, that warmness. The suburbs of Florence and Rome are bad, just bad.' He believes that Italy is trapped by its past and isn’t looking beyond the majestic creations of ancient times. Bottura’s medium is food and he is challenging Italy’s devotion to the past in a way that has certainly upset a few people.

When Bottura talks about bollito misto, a classic northern Italian dish that is broadly speaking boiled meat, his approach becomes clear. He explains how the traditional process of boiling the meat strips it of its flavour, colour and vitamins, turning the meat into a tasteless 'piece of fabric.' He has found, through sous vide, a method of catapulting this dish into the 21st Century. The texture and flavours are preserved and the 'heroic' meat can truly be at the heart of the dish, as it deserves. The dish has literally been re-born. One is reminded of artists who go back to a subject or genre with the ambition of opening our eyes to what it is really about; I thought of what Manet did with Olympia in 1865. He took the classical nude and modernised it, by clearly showing the nude to be a prostitute that was welcoming you to her boudoir. This painting changed the genre forever and shocked Parisian society.

Bottura, like Manet, picks battles with specific dishes and genres. His dishes challenge the assumption that there is an ultimate version of a dish. He believes that recipes can’t be cast in stone and that it is right to strive for something that 'could be a better recipe, more delicious, and more contemporary.' He believes that chefs should ‘get out of the kitchen and into the world’, and his advice to his own young chefs echoes this belief: ‘read books, go to art galleries, go to performances, travel, be contaminated, let the world tear you into a thousand pieces and you put yourself back together in your own unique and individual way.’ His approach applies to all of us and how we choose to live our lives.

With all great artists, there comes a complex time when they are accepted by their detractors. There were many who thought that Bottura was the devil and that his creations were nothing short of sacrilegious. Bottura may now be considered one of the finest chefs on the planet and other chefs may be copying his ‘style’ and his plating, but it must be known that Bottura’s food isn’t about style. It is a war with those that seek comfort from the past and believe that tradition is more important that evolution. Our conversation took place in the shadow of the Greek debt crisis. I asked him if he remained hopeful and the defiant optimist shines through. He explains how he has gone too deep into culture to step back, and he believes it is his role to do something. He talks of future projects in Modena, food banks and agricultural schools. One is left with the sense that we can all do more and that it is only by putting up a fight that anything ever gets done.

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Massimo Bottura: art and revolution


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