Doing Well By Doing Good: An Interview with Massimo Bottura, Restaurateur and Activist


Last summer I spent time in Brazil meeting with several amazing organizations of the Epic portfolio. I was there to both learn more about the social impact of these organizations and to spend time fulfilling my role as Chairman of the Sport and Society Committee of the Paris2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Bid Committee.

Between the excitement of the Rio Summer Olympics happening around us and finding ways for Epic to become involved in such a spirited and promising community, I had a moment to check out David Hertz's popup restaurant ran by Gastromotiva. David is one of the principal leaders of the Social Gastronomy Movement worldwide, developing gastronomy as a powerful agent for transformation and social inclusion. It's such a clever concept ! David is able to achieve the reach of his impact by partnering with top chefs around the world and it was through his introduction that I met another incredible chef and philanthropist, Massimo Bottura. Massimo is the owner of Osteria Francescana, a Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena, Italy which was recently ranked No. 1 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2016 !

Massimo partnered with David to launch Refettorio Gastromotiva, a restaurant-school that uses ingredients that would otherwise be thrown out to create a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience for underprivileged people. I sat there watching how compassionately Massimo and his team cared for the homeless and disadvantaged. I remember seeing a man putting the food in his mouth for the first time. His eyes suddenly sparkled and a huge smile appeared across his face. How long had it been since he last felt a moment like that? It was pure joy. I had goosebumps as I felt just as much a part of the moment as he did ! These are the moments that make the hard work we do at our organization so.. Epic !

Dana Cowin, the former longtime editor of Food & Wine Magazine and Chefs Club's International Creative Director, described you and your dishes as the following: "He is a poet of the land in which he lives and he takes the history of the country and the region and the ingredients and turns that into something that is a dish." That's truly beautiful. Tell us how your dishes tell the story of Modena, Italy.

I am an Italian chef born and raised in Modena. When I was a kid I hid under the kitchen table while my grandmother folded tortellini. As the flour fell around me, I would steal the tortellini when she wasn't looking. I would pop them into my mouth raw and chew for a very long time If I had to eat only one food for the rest of my life, it would be traditional Modenese tortellini... raw.

This is what I mean when I say that my kitchen could never be anything other than Italian because it is in my blood and in my bones. At Osteria Francescana we play with our culinary memories and look for new ways to make them accessible to our guests who come from all over the world and may not share our childhood flavors. People love and adore the Italian kitchen and with that, no one wants it to change! (most of all, the Italians!) Our work is not about forgetting the past but finding the most appropriate way to present it and share it with our guests today- in the year 2016 and beyond.

At Osteria Francescana we take inspiration from everything we see and experience around us. We make both the obvious and the odd connections, sometimes they are very abstract and other times they are very concrete. We love metaphors and look for them constantly. We love narrative as well and try to construct it mentally before putting it on a plate. We are searching for truths that often cannot be proved or explained. They are flavor truths, combinations that work, textures that envelope and intricate textures that stimulate the palate, the emotions and the mind. Afteralll, we are not feeding empty bellies at Osteria Francescana but feeding the eager mind.

Massimo, you're also a political campaigner within the culinary world and you've spoken out about food production, sustainability and poverty. In fact, during the Milan Expo, you work with a Catholic charity to convert an abandoned theater into an experimental soup kitchen for the homeless using leftovers from the exhibition. Where did that idea come from? And how did you inspire other top chefs to get involved with the soup kitchen?

Creativity happens at the most unexpected moments.

I will be watching a film, walking the dog, or listening to a record on the turntable. Inspiration comes from the world around me. You have to be ready to catch the flash in the dark, though, because it only passes once. I often advise young chefs to read, travel and dig as deep as they can into their culture to understand who they are and where they come from. Then and only then can you discover your true motivations, passions, and inspirations. This is what I have done over my 30-year career. So, to answer your question, I safeguard my sensitivity in this competitive world by balancing who I am today and where I have come from. I often say, "To create, you have to know everything, and forget everything." Living in the present but never forgetting all that came before you. This is how Food for Soul and the Refettorio projects all started.

The Refettorio Ambrosiano project was an experiment, our answer to the Expo theme: Feed the Planet, but it turned out to be so much more for us - and the people who got involved- it turned out to be a platform for discussion, ideas, and action. At the gastronomic congress 'Madrid Fusion' which I attended in January 2016, everyone seemed to be talking about working with waste - chefs from all over the world. Just a year earlier, the chefs were still talking about technique and using avant-garde machines. Only then did I realize what an influence our project has had on the industry at the very highest level. This is exciting- to be part of that snowball effect, to have been as crazy and daring as we were to launch an idea and an experiment with some of the best chefs in the world and see that what came out of it could turn into something even more powerful. That is what we see in the future of Food for Soul- more future.

You have reiterated the importance of identifying food waste as a cultural issue. What do you mean by this?

What we are really talking about here is working with edible ingredients that are often thrown away, burned or discarded. You can't imagine how much good food is thrown away because it is ugly, say a brown banana, or has passed the expiration date, say a container of ricotta cheese, that is still perfectly good to cook with. So often these products are taken off the shelves and thrown away when they could be given to charity organizations. Ugly fruits and vegetables can taste just as delicious as beautiful ones, and sometimes even more, in the case of the brown (over mature) bananas which when used properly, like to make gelato or banana bread, is even more delicious. How often day old bread is thrown away! Not only from supermarkets but restaurants and in our own homes. So many wonderful recipes can be made with breadcrumbs from pastas to hamburgers to desserts. It takes time, imagination and know-how, AND that is exactly what this project is about- not only feeding people but changing people's perception about food. Around the world, we waste almost as much food as we produce. If we reduce our waste, then we can feed more people. It is simple math.

Tell me more about Food for Soul.

Chef's today are influencers and therefore they have a responsibility to help their communities grow and become more sustainable. A part of this growth is the fight against food waste and against hunger. The Refettorio Ambrosiano project addressed the issue during Expo and continues to feed hundreds of homeless people. It also is an education center and a place to gather for the local community. It is a place where volunteers share time together and help their local community. We hope that the Refettorio Gastromotiva will be that and more. With Gastromotiva we are sure that there will be education and outreach. Feeding, teaching, learning and sharing with the community to create better nutrition but also inclusion and well-being for those who feel marginalized from society. The goal of Food for Soul is not only to feed the body but the soul. For this reason we always include in all our projects the collaboration with artists, designers and architects. Art brings beauty, life and culture to the table. This kind of nourishment is about creating inviting spaces that generate well-being.

We created Food for Soul because we saw at the Refettorio Ambrosiano that Food can be a bridge between rich and poor, hunger and waste. It can be a bridge for people to create new communities around Nourishment. This is a cultural project, not a charity project. And culture is really the most important and influential aspect of the future of food. Without culture we don't know who we are, we loose our sense of identity. With culture we gain knowledge and consciousness. And from there it is a very small step to becoming socially responsible- for yourself, your family, your business, and your community. After all, we are all in this together.

Refettorio Gastromotiva is an extraordinary initiative! What was it like to bring the community together over food, a topic you are obviously very passionate about, with the excitement of the Olympics happening all around? Did the media attention help drive the cause further?

Over the past months, Refettorio Gastromotiva has become a hub for education and social empowerment. It will soon begin to host vocational training classes and workshops looking at how to work with ingredients to avoid food waste. This will also be an opportunity to address the crucial issue of nutrition in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods with an emphasis on teaching how to prepare healthy and delicious meals to those most in need.

But the best is yet to come. Refettorio Gastromotiva will continue its work long after the Olympic and Paralympic Games have left the city. In fact, it will remain as a legacy of the Games. The team of Gastromotiva, lead by David Hertz, brings years of experience working with local communities and their passionate mission of Social Gastronomy, to the Refettorio project. They will not only guarantee its continuation but the evolution from a soup kitchen into a community resource and a social enterprise. It will not only continue its work but broaden the activities to engage diverse sectors of the community, not only the homeless and working poor.

In November, Refettorio Gastromotiva will open its doors to the public for a lunch formula in which the cost of the meal will help cover the free meals provided in the evening. In this way, Refettorio Gastromotiva is inviting every sector of the community to get involved.

What will tomorrow's meal look like? Will it be sustainable? Will it be healthy? Will it be available to many? These are the questions that Refettorio Gastromotiva is eager to find solutions to through action. We believe that through innovative projects like Refettorio Gastromotiva we can have a positive impact on nourishment, not only our own but of the communities we belong to. That is what Refettorio Gastromotiva looks like today and tomorrow.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned so far as a chef and activist?

The greatest lesson I have learned from cooking is to do what I love. I wake up in the morning, work all day and go home with a smile on my face. This is the true secret to success. I have also been very lucky to be surrounded by my family and by friends who encouraged me to get out into the world and learn from everything around me. In turn, I try to encourage young chefs to continue learning outside the kitchen. It is not enough to perfect your skills and technique. You need to keep asking questions, reading books, and traveling. Stay humble, hold onto your dreams and never let anyone get between you and your passions. If you love music, let it into your food. If you love nature, let it find its way onto the plate. If you are a writer or an anthropologist, let that shine. We are all unique in our talents and our passions.

Being innovative is not difficult; staying true to your dreams and your passions is. We try very hard to be humble, honest and bring the best of the past into the future. We work through our Italian traditions until they feel contemporary and actual. We work with our artisans, fishermen, hunters, and cheese makers to find that perfect balance between respect for the ingredients and respect for tradition.The Italian cuisine is known and loved around the world but that also means that nobody wants it to change. After 21 years of struggles and triumphs, finally we were able to show the world that the Italian kitchen can evolve and become even more than what people expect...not only the Italian kitchen you know and love, but also the one has yet to become.

Finally, do you think that by doing good, you're more successful?

It all depends on one's definition of success. Is it monetary? Is it popularity? Or is it what you leave behind? Maybe at the end of the day success for me is about legacy.

When you really go deep into action, doing things, not just talking about them, it takes a long time and a lot of effort. You really don't know what the payback is going to be- if there ever will be one - but if that is what is on your mind, you really shouldn't even begin.

We started these experiments on a hunch and a gut feeling. We really wanted to show the world that chefs can be more the sum of their recipes. We wanted to look for a way of giving back that was in keeping with our practice, our values and our work ethic.

Cooking is what I have been doing for the past 30 years. I never dreamed of being a cook but the profession found me. I am grateful for this. And this is my way of saying "Thank you."

At the end of the day, Food for Soul will not make me a more successful chef or person but I do think that good actions lead to meeting good people... and as we all know- that can lead to amazing things.

Being a father, a business owner, a creative person and a motivator keeps me busy. I often refer to the Latin expression entering battle. "Festina Lente: Hurry Slowly".