Most Americans know and love the Italian chef Massimo Bottura from his episode of the Netflix original series Chef’s Table. Boturra’s genuine love and passion for the power of food to change the world shines through in the episode and in person. The three-Michelin-starred chef sat down with FSR at the National Restaurant Association’s annual show on May 20 to talk about food waste and how to struggle as a chef trying to change the way business is done.
In 2018, the world produced enough food for 12 billion people, Bottura says, but there are only 7 billion people to feed and 860 million of them are starving. “We lose 13 billion tons of food every year,” he says. “That’s 33 percent of the production.” Chefs have a responsibility to answer to this problem, he says. “I think [chefs] can answer better than anyone else to this theme of feed the planet. And we did it.”
In 2015 at the Milan Expo, Bottura opened a soup kitchen to cook gourmet food with food waste from the expo. The process was captured in the 2016 documentary Theater of Life.
“I put together the most influential chefs in the world and we cooked for six months in a place that we created—we restored an old theater from 1930. It was rebuilt by the best architects, the best designers, the best artists, to create a place full of beauty, because beauty can change the world.”
Bottura says he couldn’t have achieved success with the soup kitchen without the support of the other chefs who joined him, much like the way consortiums work to elevate small food producers throughout regions of Italy.
“I live in a region that is a small producer of Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar. They created a consortium that became a very strong power in the world. So it’s exactly the same. I put together chefs because by myself I couldn’t do anything at all but together we could really scream very loud.”
Meanwhile, at his restaurant in Modena, Osteria Francescana, Bottura is leading my example in a zero-waste kitchen. The restaurant feeds 30 guests per lunch and dinner service, and double that at the family meal for staff. Everything that’s discarded in preparation for guest meals is kept and repurposed for staff meals. While efficient, the process is also an exercise in creativity.
“Every day you practice and improve your creativity,” the chef says. “It’s fun.”
But it hasn’t always been fun and easy. Bottura says there were years of struggle. Trying to improve upon tradition in a nostalgic culture is a challenge.
“Out of the blue after so many years, they realized I was an agent of change but also an agent of improving Italian cuisine and promoting Italian cuisine in the world in a totally new way. That’s what people really loved.”
Getting to that point took a lot of courage, which Bottura espouses to other chefs.
“If you really believe in your ideas, keep going. You’re going to find a journalist that is going to understand what you do and is going to write well and then another is going to come and try again and you’ll be recognized,” he says.
In the meantime, take the time to learn anything and everything.
“Travel around the world with your eyes and ears open to absorb different cultures,” he says. “If you really want to be contemporary, you have to know everything and forget about everything, but first you have to know everything. If you don’t know everything you cannot talk because there’s always someone who knows more than you. And in the end, never forget who you are and where you came from.”