Sunday, September 4, 2011

To Food With Love: Massimo Bottura

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” 
-George Bernard Shaw, "The Revolutionist's Handbook," Man and Superman

The irony must be killing Massimo Bottura. As a featured speaker at MAD Food Camp, he was waylaid by hurricane Irene in New York City. But his lack of physical presence was more than compensated by his essence. In a talk that could only be called a Food Manifesto for the 21st Century, Bottura kindles a love and passion for food that would border on obscene if it weren’t for its earnestness.
            And I was seduced. And I think the rest of the audience was as well. But I have to admit we were easy prey. But days after the symposium, there was still something bothering me. As we like to say in the States, Bottura was preaching to the choir.
            Most of the world looks to Italy as the progenitor of Slow Food. We have these bucolic images of water buffalo, the Po Valley and wizened ladies dishing out bowls of pasta to cherubic toddlers. Their marketplaces are dusty versions of Mario Batali’s Eatly in New York City. If we could only eat like the Italians then all would be well in the world.
            The reality is not so simple. The image that Americans have of Italy is an Italy that has not existed since World War II. It is now an industrialized country that is the world’s seventh largest economy. In fact, much of Italy is not suited to agriculture – there are far too many mountains to support any large-scale agriculture. And probably a shocker to many Americans, Italy cannot support it’s own food needs: it’s a net importer of food.
And sadly, like so many other parts of the industrialized world, Italians are now buying their groceries at supermarkets and turning to large-scale agriculture and industrially made food products to service their needs. While the Italians still have their outdoor markets, the dirty little secret is that most of the regular markets source their produce from mass distributors – not from some little farm in Puglia.[1] And by the way, Rome only has 2 farmers’ markets – and they were started only two years ago.
The same trend is across Europe. France is McDonald’s second biggest market, after the US. While the New Nordic Kitchen is the wet dream of foodies everywhere, until last week, there was no regular market for direct farm to consumer sales.[2] The majority of food bought in France is through hypermarchés, such as Carrefour (whose retail size and dominance is only second to Wal-Mart).
And it’s not just at the consumer end. Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union (“CAP”) subsidizes European agriculture to the tune of 55 billion Euros a year, about 40% of the EU’s budget. That money goes to industrial agriculture – not small farmers or producers.  In essence, the EU is supporting cheap food; just in the same way US agricultural supports support cheap, industrialized food in the US.
So while the message may be obvious to food advocates across the world, the medium still needs to be changed. The people that most in need of better food systems are the ones least equipped to know about it. 
This is why we need people like Massimo Bottura. While government regulations and progressive public health policies might stanch the rise of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the world, science and progress ultimately cannot tell us why food matters. Bottura gives us a reason to believe in food again. And maybe, just maybe, we might be better society for it.

Nature is turning up the volume once again.
We watched it in Japan in march and we are watching it in New York today.
What we have seen here over the past 24 hours is a great sense of community. 
The mayor, the police, the storekeepers, and nameless neighbors are all unified under one cause.
Nature can do that. 
Remind you of what is important:
Your family, your community, your health and safety.

Let’s learn some lessons from nature, 
from the storms that bind us.
A storm is really just a lot of clouds and wind all together, all at once.
You could say MAD Food  is a storm.
It is certainly creating a vortex.
It is moving people and ideas toward a common cause.
Our ancestors united dancing and sing to summon the gods.
Workers have rallied over centuries to change corrupt systems. 
The Arab world is raising its voice.
It can happen here too.
We can make change.

Ethics and Aesthetics
Osteria Francescana has certainly changed from when we began 15 years ago. 
This change did not happen on the outside – this change began on the inside.  
It began when we shifted our relationship with food from an object of consumption to an object of meditation. 
I love music. I think about Maharishi, the spiritual teacher who seduced the Beatles.
He changed the way they made music and influenced generations of musicians.
He often used the metaphor of the calm lake, like a mirror reflecting nature, but distorted.
A fisherman will tell you that to get the best fish, you have to go deep. 
And Maharishi will tell you that to find what is true, you cannot rely on reflections, you must go beneath the surface.
That is what we began to do at Osteria Francescana.
Dig below the surface. Question everything.

Slow Food taught us that Ethics and Aesthetics go hand in hand in the kitchen.
The pleasure aspect of food is fundamental for a chef. 
We take raw ingredients and make them edible, hopefully delicious, or at least good.
This pleasure engages all the five senses – sight,  hearing, smell, touch and taste but aesthetics is only a part of this sense of pleasure. 
We have learned that without ethics, our job as chefs is not complete. 

Sustainable Senses
If we don’t have an ethical approach, 
if we are not attentive and respectful regarding the food we buy, 
we cannot make anything truly beautiful or good. 
Restoring a correct relationship with food begins with the farmer, the cheesemaker, the herdsman and not with the consumer.
Each of us in our own continent, country, and kitchen know what that means. 
It means thinking about the origins of our products and not the end result. 
It means cutting out the middle man and going directly to the source.
It means getting down on your hands and knees.
It means fighting for what you believe is right.
Most of the time it means never asking how much something costs. 
If you have to ask, don’t buy it. 
Work with a old carrot instead. 
I hear miracles have been made with such unassuming objects... 

The business we are in is a complicated one. 
It isn’t about serving people food. 
That is the only final act.
There are a long list of actions that begin with having a conscious mind. 
To be chef in the 21st century, we have to be conscious of our thoughts and our actions. 
Whether we realize it or not, the world is watching. 
We are teaching without words in the most universal language of all.

Some thoughts:
Sight – 
We live in a world aiming for perfection and ultimate beauty. 
How about making food that doesn’t always appeal to the asthetic eye? 
How often we are deceived by our sense of beauty?
Just think about all that perfect looking fruit out there...
when the most perfect strawberry is the one you just picked. 
Ugly, imperfect, and frightening can open new doors of meaning. 
Think: working class hero, a three-legged cat, frankenstein. 
Don't forget the emotional impact of the underdog, especially when it comes to dessert.

Hearing – 
 Don’t forget to Chew. Crunch. Squish. Grind.
What lazy eaters we have all become.
Always searching for the smooth, the buttery, the melting…  
Have we forgotten to listen to ourselves eating?
Texture is the sound in your mouth. 
Keep it alive or risk drowning out that sense forever.

Smell – 
So much perfume in the atmosphere. 
Sometimes it is hard to find a neutral space 
to smell the flowers, smell the grass, and what’s cooking in the kitchen. 
Walking on the Highline in the middle of New York City, 
I smelled the earth more than in  Modena. 
Let’s help our clients gain back their sense of smell, or at least the desire to smell again. 
First of all, we must give them something worth smelling. 
If you smell roasted chicken and eat a baked potato, 
what does that potato taste like?

Touch – 
Please  put down your forks and knives at least once during a meal. 
Touching your food is next to holiness. 
Do it as often as you can.

Taste – 
The culmination of all the senses is in your mouth. 
Treat your mouth like a temple. 
Protect it, praise it, respect it. 
Your sense of taste is a record of all that you have eaten, 
of the places you have been, and the world around you. 
Remember: nutrition is emotional not mathematical.

Sustainable senses is about making it worth the while.
Supporting local farmers is not enough.
Buying organic is a good start.
Educating our customers is a beginning. 
But we have to take it to another level.
We have to reach out to a larger audience.
Politicans, multinational companies, health care administrators.
Why prepare food if it doesn't make a difference???

Going back.
The video I am about to show you is called: Il Ritorno.
In this video we made a choice to tell stories about people, places and ingredients that are dear to us rather than demonstrate techniques or explain concetpual thoughts. 
We interviewed friends and fishermen, an art gallerist and a watercolor painter. 
Each had a story to tell, a strand of that cultural braid that keep things together.
These stories helped us to understand where we come from. 
The plates we designed to accompany them are our way of keeping traditions alive by keeping these traditions in evolution.

One of the most unexpected moments in making this video was with a third generation fisherman from Comacchio in Emilia-Romagna. 
Comacchio is a place where eels have been caught for centuries. 
The fisherman took us out on his boat and told us about the once beautiful and abundant lagoons now nearly abandoned by the state with the eel population wanning and a future generation without hope.

We began this project one year ago determined to share our vision with local politicans. 
I've recently heard that there are plans to requalify the entire Po River from its birthplace in Piemonte to the Deltas in Emilia-Romagna and Veneto. 
The project aims to give the magestic Po value, attention and energy it deserves. 
The portal is aimed at education and tourism. 
And this is just the beginning.
Only by encouraging people to visit the Po River will the river culture survive.

In a very small way, we have contributed to making people see something from a new perspective… just how important a river is to a restaurant, to a people, to a place.

(Video Screening: To view, click here.)

At the end of Il Ritorno, the gallerist Emilio Mazzoli asks himself: 
What is your true love?
His answer: My true love is the Future.
I don't know about you but that is why I do what I do.
I believe that it is our love of the future that makes us better chefs and better humans.
Just look how far we have come.

In the 1980s, German artist Joseph Beuys said: “We should never stop planting”. 
We: chefs, farmers, fishermen, artisans, scientists, journalists and passionate gourmets. 
We really should never stop planting.
We can change the world one seed at a time.
Planting them in the fertile ground here today 
and planting them on the plates of a thinking man’s restaurant 
can and will lead to great things.
Let the storm rage.

Massimo Bottura

[1] The increase in industrialized food consumption is attached to larger demographic and economic changes in Italy. First, more women than ever are working full time, thus leaving no time to shop at the weekly/daily outdoor markets during the rather inconvenient time in the middle of the day. Secondly, as the workday standardizes across the Western world, the traditional workday has become longer – thus reducing the amount of time dedicated to cooking and other household pursuits. And thirdly, with the liberalization of European markets, Italian-sounding brands, made by multinationals such as Nestle and Unilever, are overtaking locally made products via price competitiveness. I am sure there are a bunch of other reasons, but the point is this: industrialized food consumption is the norm in today’s Italy.
[2] Torvehallerne is an attempt to change that. Just opened last week in Copenhagen, the closed market (much like the closed markets in Stockholm) focuses on fresh, seasonal and local products that were previously only available to restaurants and specialty purveyors.
[3] Massimo Batturo kindly shared his talk with me. All words are his own. For more information about Massimo Batturo, please click here.