Massimo Bottura is, for a chef who trained, lived, and worked in Italy for many years, like I did -- well, he's a deity. But for me, it's not just because he's a three Michelin star chef, with a CV that includes time working with Ferran Adria' and Alain Ducasse. And it's not because he hangs around with the current culinary hipsters like Rene Redzepi, or Wylie Dufresne and David Chang (both of whom were at the 92nd Street Y event I attended last week: Dufresne in the discussion with Bottura, and Chang in the audience, serving up some friendly heckling). For me, it's more of a big-picture thing. By that I mean that he's an excellent, creative chef who intellectualizes food but is also quite playful. He knows the parameters within which he's working (conservative, traditionalist food culture in Modena, Italy), and he pushes the limits to make these traditionalists reconsider what he's doing with Italian food. He's not the first or only chef to work this way, but he's among the very few who do it well, and successfully. He's also greatly inspired by art in its many forms, and is a great collector of modern art. Hell, he's argued his cooking philosophy with Bob Dylan. In some ways, he's the culinary counterpart to his buddy Maurizio Cattelan -- playful, sometimes cynical, counter-cultural, he strives to change what you think you know about his artistic medium (in this case, food). Bottura even titles his dishes, as if they're opuses -- and indeed they are: edible art.
Take, for example, his "Bollito Not Boiled," which is what he created after much thoughtful consideration of the traditional (northern) Italian dish, bollito misto, which originated in the area of his home town. This is normally a series of different boiled parts of the cow, often including tongue and other "off cuts," served with the broth and a salsa verde (green sauce) and sometimes a number of other condiments like mostarde and various piquant potions. When it's good, it's really good, and when it's not done well, it can be...off-putting, to say the least. But though it made sense centuries ago, economically, to boil meat to get the broth and extend the food for several meals this way, today it's often on menus as a matter of keeping tradition alive. Bottura wanted to challenge this. He'd worked in New York City for a time, and his wife is from New York, so he recreated this most traditional of Italian dishes as an ode to the time he spent in the city's Central Park. So. He takes various cuts of meat and cooks them sous vide to elicit the most flavor and best texture from the meats. He shapes these like little skyscrapers, placing them on the plate with a salsa verde (green sauce) foam for the trees, and a peperonata lawn with little anchovy people on it. It's cute and quirky and sticks to the core flavors of the dish while turning it on its head. He explained this all to us, an audience filled with New Yorkers, and his love of and enthusiasm for this city was clear.
I was lucky enough to meet Bottura in person and have him sign my copy of his book -- in Italian. He was very sweet and laughing and enjoying everything the whole time, which was really refreshing -- especially since he's on a mega book tour, and he's been running around for weeks like a crazy person, with engagements all over New York (cooking with other top chefs from Italy and the U.S. for Eataly NYC's
His book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, is filled with anecdotes about his most famous dishes, and the thought process and technical work that goes into them. It's not a cookbook in the traditional sense. And while I own many cookbooks, I don't read them for their recipes or accuracy in measuring out ingredients, and I don't recommend cookbooks based on these criteria. But I rarely follow recipes. Instead, I look to cookbooks for inspiration, for interesting ingredient pairings, for general procedures if there's some new dish or cooking method I'm trying out. I peruse the stories behind the food, the history of dishes in cultures about which I'm curious, places maybe I've recently visited or am longing to explore. And then I create, based on this information, co-opting it for my purposes, re-working a point of something I found of interest in a recipe or a food story. I realize I am not your average home cook, so if you're looking for practical recipes and time-tested accuracy, look to Mark Bittman or Julia Child, or Nigel Slater, all of whom are fabulous in their own ways. But if you're excited, like I am, to take a peek into the mind of a creative genius, then Bottura's book may interest you. There are recipes in the back for everything, but that's almost besides the point.
I'm loving it so far, though I have more to go. And I am looking forward to devouring some of his iconic dishes on my next Italian sojourn, when I will, per forza, eat in his amazing Trattoria Francescana in Modena. My stomach is already grumbling...