To meet Massimo Bottura is to connect with him and the heritage of Modena

Chef Massimo Bottura seems to be everywhere these days.
Chef Massimo Bottura seems to be everywhere these days. Photo: Simon Hewson

It's impossible to think of Massimo Bottura without picturing Modena, the northern-Italian town that is home to Osteria Francescana, the tiny 28-seater that has taken out the World's Best Restaurant title for two of the last three years.

In fact, if terroir comes in human form, it's the world's No. 1 chef.

Sure, Bottura's everywhere these days. Guest judging Australia's MasterChef – the only version of the franchise he'll entertain, he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age earlier this year, because "in Australia are such open minds; they're hungry for things. And Matt and George are so incredibly smart that I want to go there … they [MasterChef] invite me in Spain, they invite me in UK, they invite me in Italy every year in Italy. And I say no."

Or on US TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live, cooking up ingredients scavenged from the staff fridge to demonstrate the food-recycling principles behind his global network of Refettori, or high-end community kitchens feeding the poor.

Or calling in contributions for this issue of Good Food from a global network of stars that includes British design queen Ilse Crawford, French culinary king Alain Ducasse and fellow Italians Andrea Bocelli and Gucci president – and Bottura's childhood friend – Marco Bizzarri.

In Australia are such open minds; they're hungry for things.

Massimo Bottura

What anchors that network, however, is the almost magical connection – at once individual and authentic – that he seems to forge with any living thing that crosses his path, from the 70-strong football team that is the staff Osteria Francescana – literally, they all play together, including Bottura, at his villa outside town – to Barack Obama or Patti Smith, who was supposed to file for this issue, but missed deadline because she was on tour. 

Of course it's not just charm. It's purpose; the almost visceral sense of urgency and mission he imparts, whether that mission is innovation – "'to show the grandmothers we cook better than them" in order to keep tradition alive and evolving – or feeding the most vulnerable taking advantage of food surplus. 

And what anchors both magnetism and mission is the city that has made him. Bottura and Osteria Francescana are as much an expression of the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region and its rich culinary heritage headlined by two heroes and staples of the food world, Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar. He even looks like every second local in this ancient university town: tall, thin, slightly professorial. If there's a local type, it's Bottura rather than the city's other most famous son, Luciano Pavarotti.

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It is why he knows he'll never entirely untether himself from his birthplace and join the ranks of the truly nomadic global star chefs: "I said no to New York, to Hong Kong, for millions of dollars," Bottura says. "I said I want to stay here … In my heart I feel the need to go, to expose myself to other places, because that is how I get energy. But I always return."

Bottura moves around his home town like a king bee in his hive. Exactly like, in fact, given he invariably wears a Gucci baseball cap, emblazoned with a fat golden bumble bee – the same insignia Osteria's waiters wear on their collars. Space challenges mean the restaurant's backroom operations, too, are stuffed into a honeycomb of small offices in the surrounding streets. When he needs to locate his wife and partner, Lara Gilmore, Bottura just walks into the cobbled street and yells: "Lara, Lara, where are you?'

In the same way, international operations are more a result of cross-pollination than empire building. Sure, he and Gilmore have spawned refettorios and social tables in Milan, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Modena, Bologna and Naples. But each is a partnership with local organisations, the result of finding like – and local – minds; striking a sympathetic spark. Osteria's offshoots in Florence, too, are collaborations with Gucci, which is effectively family. Even his new restaurant in Dubai is a riff on the Riviera holidays of his childhood rather than Middle Eastern. Modena-by-the-dunes.

Along the way, he has lifted a prosperous but private town onto the world food map. Tourism has tripled since the restaurant opened in 1995.

Osteria Francescana is booked out months in advance, often by names that seem to then immediately join the Bottura constellation. He and Gilmore have converted the villa they bought 20 minutes from town into a high-end guest house, filled with contemporary art and generations of family heirlooms, to deal with the Osteria overflow in a town never rich in up-market hotels.

In a world increasingly uncertain about the merits of globalisation at all costs, Bottura has reversed the old mantra "think global act local". Yes, Muhammad loves to visit the mountains. But the worldwide mountain seems increasingly keen to visit him – to see what is happening with Massimo and Modena.