The irresistible effect of Massimo Bottura

Myffy Rigby
The constant surges of energy: Massimo Bottura.
The constant surges of energy: Massimo Bottura. Photo: Tessa Stevens

Good Food Guide editor Myffy Rigby met Massimo Bottura in 2009 when he was a relative unknown. Ten years later he is lauded as the greatest chef in the world.

There was once a time when The World's 50 Best Restaurant awards were a little more rogue than the glitzy spectacular they are today. When they were held regularly in London, the winners and judges were treated to a recovery lunch the following day at nose-to-tail institution, St John.

Good Food Guide editor Myffy Rigby and Osteria Francescana chef Massimo Bottura.
Good Food Guide editor Myffy Rigby and Osteria Francescana chef Massimo Bottura. Photo: Supplied

These lunches were legendary. The more dedicated chefs would be on the afternoon flights to get back to their respective restaurants. The more dedicated lushes stayed on to get soused. The spring sun would slowly be setting over the back streets of London's East End, the Fernet Branca would be flowing, and stacks of Welsh rarebit would be passed around the room. It was a marvel to behold.     

There was Rene Redzepi eating thin slices of beef heart. There was Fergus Henderson propping up the bar with Heston Blumenthal. There was David Chang. Tetsuya Wakuda​. Pierre Gagnaire.

It was 2009, the year El Bulli was No. 1, and Ferran Adria ruled the world, when somehow, I snuck in and jimmied myself in between a lovely, stylish couple. She was American, he was Italian. They told me they ran a little place in Modena in Italy called Osteria Francescana​. They showed me photos of their dishes. It looked bright, complicated and frothy in a way I didn't associate with Italian food. They'd hit the list at No. 13 that year, coming out of nowhere.   

His curiosity and generosity, I believe, is a big part of his phenomenal success.

The next time I ran into Massimo Bottura was the following year, at Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. It was also my 30th birthday, held at Gerald's Bar in Carlton North. I invited him along.

He turned up just as owner Gerald Diffey​ was holding a spotlight on my best friend, who was dancing on the bar dressed head to toe in sequins. As she got down, he shoved a napkin in her hand. "When you come to Modena, you'll come to my restaurant, and eat for free." The napkin was an invitation to dinner. She kept it in her wallet for years (and he later honoured his promise).

His curiosity and generosity, I believe, is a big part of his phenomenal success. It was at the same time he gifted me a vial of his family's balsamic vinegar – 70 years old at the time, now nearing 80 – which he described as "parting with his blood". I keep it on a shelf and let guests try his blood from time to time.

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I made it to Modena in 2013. I don't think I really understood anything about Massimo Bottura before dining at Osteria Francescana and subsequently spending some time with him. He doesn't sit still. He can't even eat lunch at another restaurant without getting up and wandering into the kitchen for a chat and a taste of whatever's happening back there. That's him. The constant surges of energy that separates the winners from the also-rans.  

Somewhat arrogantly, I had assumed Osteria Francescana was going to deliver modern Italian food without a connection to the area or the chef. Food that seemingly had no reason for existing other than as an extension of the chef's ego. But this was different. This was food with a story.

For Bottura, taking the classic ingredients of the Emiglia Romagna – parmesan, balsamic vinegar, tortellini – and apply modernist techniques to tell stories of his native Modena, was a big risk. And Modena, initially, really hated it. But no risk, no reward. When the restaurant placed No. 1 on the 50 Best list in 2016, he was given the key to the city. 

All of a sudden Bottura was an ambassador for Gucci. He was profiled in the New Yorker. His art collection – both at home and in the restaurant – garnered international recognition. He lunched with the Obamas. The TV and the cookbooks (he's released two) became bigger projects. In 2016, he started the not-for-profit Food for Soul, focusing on minimising food waste, and feeding people at risk at refettorios and social tables​ around Italy, and now Paris, London and Rio de Janeiro. He's currently on the precipice of the Australian leg of his stadium show.

To say he's not the same guy I met back in 2009 when he was relatively unknown and I was sneaking into lunches uninvited isn't quite right. He's just a lot busier. The career brush strokes are broader. He's certainly no better at sitting still.