30 September 2020

Massimo Bottura - chef and food activist

Leading restaurateur who set up project to feed hungry

Massimo Bottura
Massimo Bottura is seen as one of
the world's best chefs
The chef and restaurateur Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in his hometown of Modena has twice been named as the world’s best restaurant, was born on this day in 1962.

Bottura is also the founder, in partnership with his American-born wife, the former actress and artist Lara Gilmore, of Food for Soul, a non-profit organisation that sets out to combat waste and feed the hungry through a network of refectories in major cities around the world.

The Food for Soul project was launched in 2015 with a refettorio in Greco, a poor district of northern Milan, and has expanded to the extent that it now numbers seven similar dining rooms for the hungry and homeless, in London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro as well as at three other locations in Italy.

As a young man, Bottura’s passions were food and football. He drew inspiration from the cooking of his mother and grandmothers in his dream of being a chef but envisioned a career as a footballer first, believing he had the talent to play professionally.

Lara Gilmore and Massimo Bottura met in New York in the last 1980s
Lara Gilmore and Massimo Bottura met in
New York in the last 1980s
His father, a successful businessman, insisted he followed a different path, and Bottura enrolled instead to study law at university.  In 1986, however, before he had completed his degree, he made the bold decision to buy a dilapidated roadside trattoria on the outskirts of Modena, determined that if one of his dreams had been dashed, the other would not suffer the same fate.

He worked round the clock to restore the building and a week later his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, opened for business.  Encouraged by his mother, who argued with his father on his behalf, he was determined to make a success of it.

Bottura’s horizons were broadened by a surprise visit to Trattoria del Campazzo by Alain Ducasse, head chef of Le Louis XV, the restaurant at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo. Ducasse invited him to the kitchen at Le Louis XV, which is where effectively he had his apprenticeship.

Bottura's restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena has twice been named best in the world
Bottura's restaurant Osteria Francescana in
Modena has twice been named best in the world
He had met Lara while he was working in kitchens in New York in the late 1980s and she was an actress in experimental theatre.  He returned to pursue his education under Ducasse but they stayed in touch and in 1993 he invited her to Modena, to help him fulfil his ambition to open a new restaurant that combined food with contemporary art and design.

The culmination of their joint enterprise was the Osteria Francescana, on the corner of Via Stella and Via delle Rose in the centre of Modena. It opened on 19 March, 1995.  Bottura proposed to Lara the same day.

Bottura’s cooking took traditional Italian dishes and gave them a modern twist with a heavy accent on experimentation. At first, he struggled to win over local diners but had something of a lucky break when a renowned Italian food critic happened on the restaurant by chance in 2001 and gave the osteria a rave review.  It sparked a new wave of interest and within a year he had been awarded his first Michelin star.

The Osteria Francescana, which even in normal times serves only 28 guests at lunch and dinner, now has three stars and was named as one of the top three in the World’s Best Restaurants - a list compiled annually by the UK media company William Reed Business Media - for six consecutive years between 2013 and 2018, taking first place in 2016 and 2018.

Bottura launched a project to feed the hungry and homeless
Bottura launched a project to
feed the hungry and homeless
Bottura did not open another restaurant until Francescana 58, a more informal brasserie launched in Modena in 2011, in Via Vignolese. He moved outside Italy for the first time in 2014 with Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura in Istanbul. Subsequent ventures include restaurants in Florence, Dubai and Beverly Hills.

The idea behind Food for Soul developed during Expo 2015 in Milan, at which Bottura was invited to cook. The scale of the event within a city not without social problems set him thinking both about food wastage and social vulnerability, and he decided to take unused produce from Expo’s pavilions to create meals for the city's most vulnerable population. Rather than serve up those meals in the manner of a traditional soup kitchen, Bottura wanted to create a setting in which the diners could feel at least momentarily sheltered from the reality of their everyday lives, connecting with others at long refectory tables.

The first refettorio - the Refettorio Ambrosiano - opened in Piazza Greco in a disused concert theatre next to the parish church of San Martino in Greco. Under a giant mural of The Last Supper, seated at 14 refectory tables, each crafted and donated by a celebrated Italian designer, guests are served a three-course menu, nowadays made from food donated by local supermarkets.

In addition to the seven locations already established, Bottura has plans to open more in Mexico, California, New York and Quebec.  He regularly invites renowned chefs to cook for the project and they willingly oblige, in many cases serving the food themselves and sitting to talk to diners. 

Modena's grand baroque Ducal Palace is one of the city's major attractions for visitors
 Modena's grand baroque Ducal Palace is one of the city's
major attractions for visitors
Travel tip:

Modena is a city on the south side of the Po Valley in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It is known for its car industry, as Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati have all been located there. The city is also well known for producing balsamic vinegar. Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti and soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena.  One of the main sights is the huge, baroque Ducal Palace, designed for Francesco I by the architect, Luigi Bartolomeo Avanzini, who created a home for him that few European princes could match at the time. 

The imposing facade of  Modena's duomo
The imposing facade of 
Modena's duomo
Travel tip:

Dominating Piazza Grande, Modena’s 12th-century duomo - the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano - is regarded as one of the finest products of the Romanesque period in Italy and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The portal of the west facade is supported by two lions created by the sculptor Wiligelmo, who also did the larger reliefs that run along the wall. Inside, the plain stone coffin of San Geminiano - the patron saint of Modena – sits under the choir. On his feast day, January 31, crowds come to see his coffin, and a market is held in the square.

Also on this day:

1530: The birth of physician Girolamo Mercuriale 

1863: The birth of ballerina Pierina Legnani

1885: The birth of Carabinieri general Angelo Cerica 

1964: The birth of model and actress Monica Bellucci


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