Episode 106

Massimo Bottura on Ethics, Aesthetics, and Slow Food

Interview by Spencer Bailey

The Italian chef Massimo Bottura may be a big dreamer, but he’s also a firmly grounded-in-the-earth operator. Based in Modena, Italy, Bottura is famous for his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Osteria Francescana, which has twice held the top spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He also runs Food for Soul, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting social awareness about food waste and world hunger. With its first Refettorio opened in 2015 in an abandoned theater in Milan, Food for Soul now runs a network of 13 Refettorios around the world—from Paris to San Francisco to Naples—designed to serve people in need via food-recovery programs that divert imperfect or unwanted surplus foods from landfills and waste. This very interview, our first-ever taping of Time Sensitive in front of a live audience, was recorded inside Refettorio Harlem, located in Emanuel AME Harlem Church, on 119th Street in Manhattan.

In addition to running Osteria Francescana and Food for Soul, in 2016 Bottura and his wife, Lara Gilmore, founded Tortellante, a nonprofit that pairs individuals on the autistic spectrum with the elderly to create pasta together. In 2019, he and Gilmore also opened Casa Maria Luigia, a hospitality concept in the Emilian countryside that became the jumping-off point for their new recipes-slash-interiors book, Slow Food, Fast Cars (Phaidon). In everything he does, Bottura keeps the tradition of the Emilia-Romagna region alive while constantly imagining and executing new possibilities.

On this episode, Bottura discusses the art of aging balsamic vinegar; his vast collection of thousands upon thousands of vinyl records; his deep love of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis; and how he thinks about the role of time, both literally and philosophically, in and out of the kitchen.


Bottura recounts how his Food for Soul nonprofit came about, from the first Refettorio in Milan in 2015; to another for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro; to Refettorio Harlem, where this interview took place.

Bottura talks about his relationship with Slow Food and the ways in which it is baked into the tradition of the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy.

Bottura speaks about the role of time in food and cooking, particularly in the processes of aging parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar.

Bottura discusses his obsession with Italian sports cars—which started in adolescence, when he and his friends would test drive his father’s cars.

Bottura reflects on how his passion for contemporary art developed, specifically through the artist Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), whose philosophy, he says, serves as “a guide for what I do every day.”

Bottura muses about his collection of more than 20,000 vinyl LPs—8,000 of them now housed in Casa Maria Luigia—and the transformative impact of music on his life.

Bottura talks about Osteria Francescana, how he and his staff have managed to maintain its three-Michelin-star status over the years, and why, for him, “It’s all about the team.”

Follow us on Instagram (@slowdown.media) and subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get receive behind-the-scenes updates and carefully curated musings.



SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Massimo. Welcome to Time Sensitive.

MASSIMO BOTTURA: Hello, everyone.

SB: Let’s start this conversation here with the Refettorio and your Food for Soul nonprofit, these spaces around the world. This Refettorio Harlem is the twelfth that you’ve launched since opening the first location, in 2015. Share a bit about this project. How did Food for Soul come about, and how do you view the evolution of it now that you’re about a decade in?

MB: Food for Soul started during the Universal Exposition in Milan when the theme was “Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life.” I was discussing with Carlo Petrini, the mind behind Slow Food. He was telling me numbers that he had about production and things and industries. We were like 7.5 billion people on earth. We were producing food for 12 billion people. Eight hundred sixty million people didn’t have anything to eat. And we were wasting thirty-three percent of the production.

So, practically, we were using water, electricity, human capital, stressing the planet to produce and produce and produce and produce. At the end, what we were doing [was]: burn it. It became the second cause of climate change. Feeding the planet is very simple. First of all, it’s fighting or transforming food surplus into something special for people in need.

But during the month before the Universal Exposition, I was talking with all of these government delegations. They wanted me to be involved in the fourth of July party, or this, or the 14, La Prix de la Bastille. But no one really asked me what I was thinking about [with] “Feed the Planet.” So I decided to feed the planet my own way. 

Dreaming big doesn’t cost anything. I said, “I’m going to make my own pavilion at the Universal Exposition.” But I said, I don’t want to do it in the Universal Exposition because otherwise it would be, “Oh yeah, there’s also that chef on the corner there who fights food waste and cooks.”

I said, “Okay, let’s do it outside.” I knocked at the door of many important people. I said, “If we’re going to do it in Milan, I want to rebuild Miracle in Milan, the 1950s movie, and I want to do it under the train station.”

We contacted [Mauro] Moretti, the CEO of Trenitalia, and they said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll just restore the place for the shelter. We are going to give you the other space and you can do whatever you want under the train station in Milan.” At that time there were big problems with migrants. All the train stations in Italy were fully booked with all these guys who were heading north. But at one point we said, “There’s no light there. There’s no light. We are under there. It’s very dark. We need more light.” I knocked at the door of the church, and Archbishop Scola was listening to me for one hour. I was extremely carico, as I say, as I usually am, really full of passion. At the end of the conversation—he didn’t talk, he let me talk. [Laughs] At the end of the conversation, he said, “Massimo was very good. That’s a very good idea. Thanks for your passion. Thanks for your ideas. In one week, I’ll give you the answer.” 

One week later, he said, “We consulted with Papa Francesco, the pope. And the pope said, ‘The idea is amazing, but we have to bring the light into the periphery.’” We found out that there is an abandoned theater that we own from 1930 in the most neglected neighborhood in Milan. That’s where we need the light. It’s like [filled with] drug addicts, refugees’ houses. So we brought the light there, created an amazing space full of beauty, of art, of good ideas. 

There’s a neon [sign] outside, twenty-two meters—“No more excuses”—that now is also here, tattooed on my arm. That reflects everything. That means everything. No more excuses; no more talk. Now we have to act. In the beginning, the idea was, we open, we involve all of the most influential chefs in the world. Everyone said, “Yes, we’re going to be with you.”

We started cooking the inevitable food surplus from the Universal Exposition. Every morning a big truck came. We were unloading the truck and improvising. We were playing jazz with food, and improvising: lunch for kids at school, and dinner for people in need. In the beginning it was shocking for us and for them—more for us, because we didn’t know how to act.

Until a Senegalese guy—we were talking about how the Senegalese community here is big and there’s a lot of Senegalese coming here—there’s a Senegalese guy who brought the guitar and, after service, he started playing guitar. From a dinner that was over in one hour and ten minutes, there was a party going on after that. They all started looking at us from a different perspective. They understood that we were there for them, not for us. From that moment, everything became so different, so alive, so family—family style. They also became food critics. 

SB: [Laughs]

MB: I remember the fourteenth of July, there was Alain Ducasse cooking there and there were these two bosses at the first table there. They were checking everything all the time and [keeping] everything under control. They said, “Hey chef, come here.” And he said, “Yeah, what do you want?” “He’s a French chef, that guy?” “Yes, he’s a French chef.” “He doesn’t look French, but he still is serving soup. And we are in Italy. We want pasta.” [Laughter] I said, “Okay, eat the soup tonight. Tomorrow I’m gonna cook pasta for you.”

SB: [Laughs]

MB: It was all like that. Crazy things happened in those six months. 

SB: Mmm.

MB: But I thought, after those six months, everything was over. Like, wow. We shared an incredible message. We inspired France, Italy, Germany to write the law against food waste. Big deal. I remember the American delegation, Michelle Obama with all these guys, they were there, or all the TV from all over the world. They were coming. The New York Times published, “the best restaurant in the world is in Milan, but you cannot make a reservation because sixty-three Michelin-star chefs are cooking there, but it’s always fully booked,” something like that, something great.

We said, “It’s over, and we are going to leave the Refettorio to the city of Milan as our heritage.” Until one night, actually early morning, in the beginning of December. I was in bed. I forgot the phone on and at like 5:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning, I listened like ding, ding, ding, ding. I said, “Oh no, my God. Lara.” I was looking at the phone and Lara was like, “Who is this?”

“The mayor of Rio de Janeiro.” [Laughs] “What does the mayor of Rio de Janeiro want from you?” “He asked me if we want to build a Refettorio for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next year.” She was like, “What did you answer?” “Why not?” 

SB: [Laughs]

MB: Since then, we started planning with Alexandra Forbes, with David Hertz, our partner there, of Gastromotiva, the second one. And from the second to the third.

SB: Just spirals.

MB: Yeah, spirals.

SB: Well, around the time, too, in 2015, you wrote this op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that I wanted to cite. It begins—

MB: I wrote too many things.

SB: This one begins, “When I think about the future of restaurants—what chefs will be cooking in the years to come—the first thing that comes to mind is garbage: day-old bread, potato peels, fish bones, wilted vegetables.” I was hoping maybe you’d elaborate on that now. Also, how do you think about that sentence now, ten years later?

MB: No, we knew it. We already talked a lot. The community of chefs, journalists. We were involved in many events behind the scenes of gastronomic congresses since 1999, 2000. We were seeing so much garbage, so much waste. We were wondering. Actually, we were planning events for using just the surplus after a gastronomic congress. We did it once in Le Havre, I remember, with Andrea Petrini. We were cooking the craziest things, but the creativity, our knowledge, we could use it to re-create something very special.

Because after the experience, the eighth month of the Universal Exposition, we were learning a lot with this big kitchen, using potato peels, transforming, or [making] the broth of everything. We learned how to manage the word everything. Everything is an amazing word. To me, it’s beautiful. Everything means everything. But you have to manage the word everything, because if you don’t know how to manage everything, it could be a disaster.

If you know that a potato peel toasted in the right way can match the freshness of a carrot peel, but also the brightness of some celery leaves, or the bones from black cod that the Japanese pavilion was ready to throw out. That’s the way you manage the word. Ragù of everything. Broth of everything. That’s the way the chef in 2023 is much more than the sum of his recipes. I think he has to step out of the kitchen and be louder and talk to everybody and share his ideas and put ethics and aesthetics on the same level.

Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: Daniel Coelho)

SB: This being a podcast about time, I wanted to turn to your new book, Slow Food, Fast Cars.

MB: Time. We are in the land of slow cars and fast food.

SB: [Laughs] Yeah, this is true. In the new book, you write, “Slow Food and I grew together, side by side.” You opened Trattoria del Campazzo in 1986, the same year Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement. 

MB: Yeah.

SB: I was hoping you might elaborate on that. Was Carlo on your radar at the time? When did your relationship with Slow Food begin?

MB: The relationship with Slow Food began from the beginning. Because we are in the land of the “Food Valley”—the land where you wait a couple of years, at least, to make Parmigiano-Reggiano, or forty-two months for a culatello. Thirty-six months for prosciutto. At least twenty-five years before you even taste the balsamic vinegar. 

SB: [Laughs]

MB: This is crazy, in 2023. But it’s our tradition. And I think Emilia[-Romagna] is Emilia because of that.

SB: They call it a bread basket. [Laughs]

MB: Yeah, exactly. And one thing that we learned since the beginning, since we were kids, is that if we stay together, we are stronger. We can fight together and make peace, compete. But once we have to talk, we have to be together. And that’s why the Parmigiano-Reggiano is the Parmigiano-Reggiano, because all these hundreds and hundreds of small producers, small companies of three people, they compete, one to each other, for the best wheel or the best little zero-point-one balsamico. At the end, when we need to talk to the others, we need to stay together and leave just one to talk with and to fight the battles.

This is called consorteria. When you walk and when you learn this, you learn that the stronger needs to help the weaker.

You understand that all of the main leading ideas behind Slow Food are the same ideas that my grandmother was telling me and teaching me when I was a kid. And probably that’s why I was the one who could create Food for Soul and put together all of the other chefs and sensibilize their minds about this problem—because growing up like this is a style of life and Slow Food and Carlin [Carlo Petrini] was fighting exactly the same battle that I was fighting. Imagine that we have our battery in the Consorteria of Spilamberto, a group of retired, passionate people. They keep and they protect the quality of the balsamic vinegar tradizionale. We have a Slow Food battery here and Alexa, my daughter, battery on the other side. It’s like, we go together.

But also the idea of bella buono giusto, no? The idea that we pay the right price to the farmers when we buy the things. We never ever ask how much it is. We always ask for quality. If you act like that, you know these amazing farmers, fishermen, cheese makers, artisans, they’re going to give you the best products. And we all know that when you produce, especially now that we have a farm called Casa Maria Luigia, this place, we had one thousand kilos of farro in excess.

We want to buy it! One thousand kilos, we want to buy it! And they want to pay two hundred and eight euros for one thousand kilos of that. And we were like, “What? I’m not giving to you, I’m going to share it with all the Refetorrio in Italy that we have.” At least we are going to feed people. Two hundred and eight euros? How can you survive as a farmer if you get paid like that? You need to pay the right price to the people—they’re doing an incredible job—if you want to keep our tradition alive.

That’s why when we have seen this beautiful building on the side of Casa Maria Luigia, where this family kept all these barrels, we said, “Okay, let’s put all our energy. Now that we finished everything, we want to rebuild the acetaia.” Because we want to keep the tradition alive.

We want to be an example of how to shape the future, thinking about the past, but in a critical way—not in a nostalgic way—in a critical way to get the best from the past into the future.

That’s why we started acting and learning from Angelo Gaja from Soldera, the best Brunello and the best Barolo. We want a special crew of juniper vinegar or cherry vinegar with woods. It’s never going to be a business. I know it. We know it. We all know it, because how can you keep alive one thousand, four hundred barrels year after year after year? But we keep tradition alive.

We keep the dream alive, we keep dreaming big. And if you dream big, something very special happens.

SB: You create a movement. Now looking at the past—well, almost four decades since the Slow Food movement really began in earnest—how do you think about these?

MB: Yeah, I remember twenty-three years ago we were discussing about the Parmigiano-Reggiano with them and why the red cows in Reggio Emilia, the brown cows in Parma, and the white cows in Modena were disappearing. And we were discussing about that. That was like ’98 I think. And the reason was because they gave concentrated milk that is half of the quantity of a classic black-and-white Frisona (Friesian), no? During the sixties, during the economic boom, all the companies switched the old cows with this new race that was called Frisona.

And they doubled the production in one second, just like that—because usually these cows give ten liters of milk compared to the four point five liters of the white cows, for example—without thinking, then the future would be about quantity and not quality.

Italians are not good at big numbers. Italians are good to manage the rational, to manage the quality. To dream.

What we started doing, [is] we started checking where the white cows were. We were working with a couple of journalists, very [luminary] journalists, and a couple of producers. We started putting together the white cows left, two in one place, three in another place. Slow Food decided to stamp on fire on each big wheel of Parmigiano made just with pure white cow’s milk, the stamp of quality. Presidio. “We [are] going to protect these companies they produce as they were producing five hundred years ago.” And these companies, they started growing—the reputation, the rumors.

Now there are three companies and hundreds—I remember at that time there were like twenty-five, thirty white cows left up on the Apennines—now, together, they are more than eight hundred cows. They produce a beautiful cheese. And 2022 in Paris, the thirty-six-month white cows were prized as the best cheese in the world—by the French. 

SB: [Laughs]

MB: That was something really, really special.

Because you see the results of things and it is very slow. But year after year you see the quality growing, growing and growing and growing until these kind of results. Grow slow like a tree. Big roots in the soil and be strong for the moment. The very difficult moments.

SB: Well, I wanted to ask you, and this isn’t Slow Food–specific, but it connects to that: How do you think about the role of time when it comes to food and cooking? And I mean this literally or philosophically you can kind of take it in both directions.

MB: Time, when you cook, it’s extremely important. Imagine my dish that I created in 1993, the five different aged Parmigiano in five different textures and temperatures. Texture and temperature means technique, means, “Look how good I am.” It’s about the ego of the chef. But the point of that dish was about creating something to show the slow aging process in Emilia-Romagna with one element, just one.

Actually, the ingredients were two, the cheese and the time. The time that changed the cheese and the big wheels in five different ingredients. Because the cheese that is twenty-four months is completely different from a cheese that is fifty months. We started creating that dish. But I’m talking about ’93, where they were selling, at that time, the cheese at eighteen months. My grandmother, the brother of my grandmother, owned a small company, like two people. They were making cheese up on the hills south of Modena.

They were saying all the time that the more we age the cheese, the more digestible it is. Even the kids, they need to eat a lot of Parmigiano. Because l’ingenua ingegnosità [ingenuous ingenuity] means they knew that, the more you age the cheese, the lattosio is transforming into protein and the cheese gets very intense and digestible and hyper-proteic.

But at one point we lost the focus and we started producing, producing, producing. And at one point they were selling the cheese at eighteen months, but eighteen months didn’t close the circle of transformation of lactose into protein. And they lost the unique part of Parmigiano Reggiano. That is a cheese that you can eat even if you’re allergic to dairy products, because there is no more lattosio after two years. I would start aging my own wheels at that time.

And we stretched these incredible wheels until, like, seventy months, eight years—it was inedible, of course—but we try, at least we try. You have to try. You have to learn. We were picking the perfect wheels full of water in the spring when the cows leave and they start eating grass full of water and the milk is intense and can stay there for years. But the results were incredible because that idea of creating a dish just with one ingredient and trying to express this idea of the slowly aging process in Emilia, to me was a great idea. But just to me. 

Because, around, they were like…. I received a phone call from the president of the Consorzio of Parmigiano-Reggiano saying, please, Mr. Bottura, stop cooking that dish, because you’re ruining the image of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Wow. I’m very lucky that I don’t listen to anyone—except for my wife.

SB: [Laughs]

MB: And I kept going. I kept fighting for that. I kept adding texture, temperature, switching things. We arrive at one point where a professor of Harvard University gave us these machines called Whaf, which evaporate the water of Parmigiano-Reggiano. You were breathing Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table in Osteria Francescana

SB: [Laughs]

MB: Woah, it was like a machine created to fight the depression for the astronauts because they were learning how to, they want to fight the depression, sharing, breathing the flavor.

We were experimenting. Eating sushi, breathing sushi or breathing pizza. But Parmigiano was perfect, no? You were breathing Parmigiano at the table with the fog all around.

Actually, I proposed to the mayor of Reggio Emilia and Modena to put a big Whaf machine to nebulize Parmigiano on the highway. 

SB: [Laughs]

MB: So when you were passing through Modena and Bologna, [inhales] you were breathing Parmigiano. They said no. “Okay, next time. Next idea.”

SB: [Laughs

MB: The old idea of cooking and expressing the terroir where you live, started exploding in Italy—actually all over the world. In 2013, twenty years later, the plate was declared the plate of the decade for Italian gastronomy for the 150th anniversary. And then I received a second phone call from the Consorzio of Parmigiano-Reggiano. “Maestro.” Maestro is Pavarotti. “But yes, you can use the image of the cheese.” This is a little example of the story of our life.

SB: Well, and time as an ingredient, I feel like we have to talk about balsamic vinegar here because you’ve been bottling it for a while. But also balsamic vinegar is so central to Emilia and Modena and that area.

MB: Balsamico—let’s start from just the word balsamico. It was something very special to use at the end of the meal as a digestivo. Caterina de Medici was sending a missile when she was pregnant to Modena to get her own balsamic vinegar to use because it’s a big pleasure in your palate, but it has 8, 8.5, 8.75 percent of acidity, so it helps the digestion in such a good way and natural way.

I remember the first time I thought about balsamic vinegar, even before I thought about the saba—the concentration of the must before it became balsamico—was when we were me and my sister, 4 or 5, 6 years old. My sister [had] stolen the key from my grandmother, the key of the acetaia, and it was Christmas and it was very snowing, snowstorm outside. We were getting the must, going out in the garden, get the snow, put in a glass, make hole, put the saba and eat the granatina, the snow with the saba.

That was the first memory I have about that. Balsamico is part of our DNA, our blood. Families in Modena, Reggio Emilia, a little bit Bologna, since they have their own battery, like this group of barrels, different woods to have a complication in the palate—created their own liters, no more than couple, three, four, five liters of balsamico to keep in storage in the cellar and use as something sacro grale, [laughs] because it is something so special and it’s a heritage from generation to generation to generation.

For us, it’s blood. I keep saying my muscles are made with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and in my veins there’s a lot of balsamic vinegar. I drank too much Lambrusco. I’m so confused all the time. I break tradition all the time because I love to challenge and to look at the past, as I said, in a critical way, not in a nostalgic one. If you’re nostalgic, you don’t renew tradition. But if you break tradition, you can renew tradition and make everyone talk about that.

Think about the new tortellini we are serving. This is another story. But in this case, I’m extremely traditional. We have our own vineyard now where we switch all the grapes from Lambrusco or Pignoletto in Trebbiano di Spagna because Trebbiano di Spagna is the grape for balsamic vinegar. Then we have a very soft press just to get the best, and the best juice that we let sit. When it’s clear, perfectly clear, we reduce in a very mild way, low temperature.

Because we put all the techniques that we have learned during decades and we use in Osteria Francescana, even in balsamic vinegar. I give you an example. No, it’s better not. 

SB: [Laughs]

MB: No. Yesterday night we were out at Dante to drink all these cocktails and they were presenting these cocktails and saying, “Oh, we concentrate the martini and then we put the Campari inside and we cook it, cook it, cook it until it becomes a powder.” I said, “Listen, you know what you can do? You can get the rotovapor, and instead of distilling the Campari, you can concentrate the Campari in one side, and have a concentration of Campari mixed with the other at 22 degrees, so you don’t ruin the essence of Campari.” This is my mind. 

SB: [Laughs]

MB: For balsamic vinegar it’s exactly the same thing. 

SB: Yeah.

MB: I want the concentration close sous vide, so we can boil at 22 and reduce in a very mild way the caramelization of the sugar. But the mild caramelization. Wow. The first year it came out—a must that tastes like vaniglia, amazing. All the guys that were working with us said, “Whoa, whoa, what is this?” In three years now we have re-brought the acetaia to this level.

SB: You know how [Mark] Zuckerberg said “Move fast and break things”? I think you should be “Move slow and break things.” [Laughter]

Let’s switch to the other part of your book: Fast Cars.

MB: Whoa. [Laughs]

SB: Modena’s known as “the motor valley.” I was hoping you might share a little bit about your obsession with fast cars. How did you get into this, and how do you think about, in your own mind, this Slow Food/Fast Cars dichotomy?

MB: I don’t know where to start. Exactly as we were stealing the key from my grandmother’s acetaia, we were stealing the keys of the fast cars that my father had in the garage when we were 16, 17, with my friends. I’m talking about 1978, 1979. We were pushing during the night, the cars out. We had a circuit in Modena that was already dismissed, the Circuito Enzo Ferrari—now it’s a park. The door would open and you could go inside with the car and start driving in the circuit.

We were pushing the car of our fathers, brothers, and the company of [this] group of friends. We were racing during the evening and the night in this circuit. So growing up like that, it’s very easy. The genes of competition, of driving fast are there. I remember the older brother, Paolo, was really into motorcycles and he was taking us to see in the circuit all these guys like Giacomo Agostini, Jarno Saarinen, and [Renzo] Pasolini—the world champions at that time. They were driving MV Agusta or Yamaha and Ducati. To see them, it is not like that. Not like now. Oh, we have safety and there’s security and there are rock stars. No. At that time families were there, they were driving like crazy. When you grow and you compete with your friends, “Oh, this is an eight-cylinder, listen to the sound.” “Oh no, no, this is a twelve-cylinder. Feel it, feel it.”

It’s normal. It’s normal; you get it into your DNA. Especially because in the area where I live, within thirty-five kilometers, you have Ducati, Lamborghini, Pagani, De Tomaso, Maserati, Ferrari. They’re all there, within thirty-five kilometers. So, what can I say?

SB: It’s in your blood.

MB: It’s in your blood. The things that I think we did very, very well. We had a very good idea in Casa Maria Luisa when we were rebuilding all of these abandoned big storage places that now are playgrounds for adults. We built a bridge, a bridge to connect the companies. I was very close with Ferrari since long time when Jean Todt was there, then Sergio Marchionne. Sergio Marchionne was always with John Elkann. John Elkann became friends as Sergio did. We built a bridge between Ferrari and Lamborghini, Maserati and Ducati, even if they’re completely opposite—one is in a group, the other is the other group. Audi, Stellantis. Until at one point John decided to go and visit Lamborghini for the first time in seventy years, and brought his two kids before Christmas, four years ago.

This was a big, big deal. Once you break the ice, everything starts breaking. We convinced Reggio Emilia-Romagna and the mayor of Modena to create an incredible week—it’s called Motor Valley [Fest]—in which we put together all the excellence and invite all the excellence from all over the world to Modena to show the best of the best of the best.

SB: It’s not unlike the Parmesan makers.

MB: Yeah! It’s like that. I became the ambassador for that. I was already working with Ducati, with Maserati since long time, too. Lamborghini, the CEO became Stefano Domenicali around 2012. Stefano was at Ferrari. So it’s all about connection.

SB: Do the fast cars inform you in the kitchen at all? I should state here that you do have the restaurant Cavallino at Ferrari.

MB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It depends. The craziness of Gilles Villeneuve inspired a dish. Actually the first crunchy part of the lasagna was dedicated to Gilles Villeneuve. It was all red and things. I presented it to Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia in 2004, 2005, and it was like the shape of F1 Ferrari like [makes clicking sounds] for the air. The fast cars are here, in your mind—the fast way to think. Being in the kitchen, sometimes you have to manage the situation and solve the problems in a very fast way.

Your brain has to work very fast and get clear and solve the problem in one second.

Fast is always one of my characteristics—think very fast, but act very slow. Festina lente. Think, think, think, think, and then do it. If you ask me in the kitchen what I am doing, I’m compressing my passion into edible bites. My passions are music, of course, art, and even cars and motorcycles. 

Onda Rosa, for example, the new dish that I created for Pecco [Bagnaia] when he won the world championship with Ducati, was like a spinning that was all different shades of red dedicated to the Ducati, and called Onda Rosa: the red wave. But that is just a static way. It’s more the idea of how you think, how you dream, how you project your future and you shape your future.

SB: Art has been another passion of yours that really does inform a lot of your cooking. I wanted to ask you about your views on one artist in particular, Joseph Beuys, who, like you, understood the power of the ingredients that he was working with. I know his “Never Stop Planting” mantra is huge for you. I also know that you have this artwork, “Capri Batterie,” that’s at Casa Maria Luigia. Could you share a little bit about this passion for art, but specifically for Joseph Beuys?

MB: It’s strange, eh? Beuys is a very, it’s probably the biggest influence…. I started looking at contemporary art in a totally different way when I met [my wife], Lara [Gilmore]. We were in New York and we were talking, we were discussing, and I was really into [Jean-Baptiste-Camille] Corot, and then the Impressionists, and then Cézanne, and then the Cubists and the wilds—the Germans, the Futurism, Fauvism—and then the Russians, Constructivism, but also Duchamp.

I thought, Okay, after Duchamp, art is over. 

SB: [Laughs]

MB: I wasn’t interested in all of these contemporary or the informal Americans or stuff like that—until I met Lara. She taught me how to look deeply into things, and to try to look and understand the mind of these artists and understand the deep feeling, the deep meaning behind what you see. Since then I thought, Whoa, this is crazy. I started getting deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper into things. And the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

When I arrived at Beuys, Beuys was like the biggest influence. I found him the most inspiring artist of all. Andy Warhol was inspired by Beuys, deeply. That’s why he was obsessed with the portrait, his portrait, il maestro, no? There are things like ideas. Concentrating on one single phrase, Beuys was an artist, in the seventies, he created this: “We should never stop planting.” But he was planting oaks. Oaks are a symbol of longevity. He was planting oaks as an example of installation in Minneapolis, in Europe, in Italy. He worked in Italy so much. He loved Italy. And for biodiversity. But planting is also planting seeds, seeds of culture, seeds that would generate culture, knowledge, consciousness, a sense of responsibility.

SB: Yeah, it’s not lost on me that the Refettorio—

MB: It’s there, it’s there. The inspiration is there. You just have to look carefully. You just have to leave the door of the unexpected open. You walk in and you find these incredible ideas there. Or the idea of creativity, the light of the candle as the light of creativity. You have to work every day to keep the light, to protect the light of creativity. Because once the light goes off, the creativity is gone, forever.

Or like “Capri Batterie” and this idea [that] nature can heal your body through the sun and the wind of Capri. Because [Beuys], from dark Germany arrived in Capri, breathed sun and energy trying to treat this lung disease that he had. But also the mind. Open the mind. Think about the Refettorio and the moment in which we said “No. Under the train station, there’s no light.”

We need that. We need the yellow-lemon-from-Sorrento energy to rebuild our energy, our spirit. All of this is in defense of nature. 

SB: Mm-hmm.

MB: All of these ideas are connected. They connect me, what I’m doing, the creative process that I’m using, and they are like a guide for what I do every day, what we do every day. Think about what we have done with the two-hundred-fifty-year-old park.

Bottura (left) and Gilmore. (Photo: Marco Poderi)

Lara was putting herself in— Just totally connected with the park and transformed the park that was abandoned since ten years into the most amazing park ever to protect all these trees, to connect these trees. When the park was almost ready, we were ready to plant something to finish. And who was the inspiration? Joseph Beuys. There are four things that, in the garden, in the park that never have to miss.

First, rosemary: symbol of fecundity. Second, bay leaf: symbol of glory. Third, oaks: symbol of longevity. Fourth, roses. Because the roses, with their spines, remind you that you don’t have to get lost in everyday life. And even when they’re dead, they pinch you if you don’t pay attention. 

But there’s another one, because, going deep into Beuys’s philosophy, there was this idea of— I met these guys and this old lady that was Beuys’s lover. She told me that one of the favorite things that Beuys had was strawberry grapes, that grape that tastes like strawberry—uva fragolina. What we have done, we challenged our guys to look for uva fragolina. We planted the uva fragolina into the archway to walk through the passeggiata, the walk to the swimming pool. In summer when you walk through that, you can get the uva fragolina to eat, and it reminds you that Beuys is still there with us. That’s the big point.

SB: I also have to bring up music here. There’s a room at Casa Maria Luigia where you have more than seven thousand first-edition jazz records. I know in your collection overall, you have more than twenty thousand records on vinyl. I wanted to ask you—

MB: Do you want me to refresh the numbers?

SB: [Laughs] Yeah, we could fix that. But also how do you think about your time spent listening to records? What do records offer you—this slow-listening experience of putting a vinyl on and sitting down to just listen?

MB: Vinyls or records and music in general are…. The first thing I do in the morning when I wake up, I turn on my music, and start the mood of the day with whatever I have in mind. Sometimes very blues, sometimes very indie, sometimes very poetic. And it’s the last thing I do in the evening before going to bed. I arrive home in my record room, close the door, put one record on, decompress, fall asleep.

It’s something that is a part of who I am. I was growing up in a family like this. I was growing up when my mamma was listening to opera. We are from Modena. Opera is opera. And she listened. She was teaching me how to listen to opera when I was a kid—me and my sister, we were the younger ones—the overture, the adagio, the allegro, the minuetto, and then the grand finale. But the adagio is very important.

The opera was the biggest inspiration to build the tasting menu. To build the tasting menu, it’s the most difficult thing ever. Because most of the time you go into restaurants and you have a tasting menu that goes like this—it’s the worst thing you can do—big, big amazing dish and then boom, drop down. And you’re like, Wow, what is that?

To build a [great] tasting menu, leave some amazing dishes on the side. Leave the adagio to start after the overture. Then going up in your palate, because my dialogue with you is with your palate. Then the minuetto that goes up, up, up, and the grand finale. Wow, people go crazy—

SB: [Laughs]

MB: —because we bring you to that stage.

But the two older brothers, they were really rebellious. In the sixties they had garage bands and they were playing in our garage—big garage—The Beatles, the older one, and The Rolling Stones, the other one. They were like the two competition all the time. But the one in the middle, Paolo, I don’t know why, he started getting into country, but country like Johnny Cash, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Allman Brothers. That kind of country rock from the southern United States. He was importing in his own record or blues like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker. I was very close with Paolo and listened to blues. It’s natural. The step to jazz is very easy. If you ask me if Billie Holiday is blues or jazz, I don’t know. Sometimes it’s blues, sometimes it’s jazz. Or I think it’s both. But Billie Holiday was, I don’t know, what was the question? 


When you listen to Billie Holiday, it gets into your body for how she sings. It’s like [Bob] Dylan. It’s exactly the same thing. She’s expressing everything through her voice. Dylan is expressing everything from his words. It gets into your body and becomes part of you. Once you start listening to jazz, it’s done. You cannot go back.

I started collecting jazz and for [my] whole life, and especially I love the 78. When you listen to 78 by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mama Thornton, those kinds of stuff, it’s like, Wow, this really something. Then at one point I received this big book from a woman, the wife of a judge who had just passed—a collector of jazz vinyl for forty years—with all of the catalogs of these books. She left it in the office. “Because,” she said, “I was listening to, watching TV.” I had a one-on-one on national TV with this guy who was interviewing me, and I was talking about jazz. 

She said, “Listen, my husband, he would love to leave this collection to Massimo Bottura, and not sell it to London, to New York. It needs to stay in Modena.” I didn’t pay attention in the beginning. Then one day I walked in and I was looking at all of these records like Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis. “What is this?” “It’s the old lady who left this place. These are all the records.”

“Oh, my God!” I call her. One hour later we rented a truck, we went there, we collected all the records, and we brought them back to a storage place. When we finally got to [Casa] Maria Luigia, we walked into Maria Luigia, and we found in this, there was a library on the left as in my home, and the library on the left, it was kind of green, not even beautiful, but with the perfect size, perfectly made for those records. It was meant to be—perfect! Everything was perfect. I said, first thing we’re going to do, we’re going to rebuild my music room.

I said to Lara, “Lara, we’re going to create a new idea of hospitality. We don’t want to travel and have these luxury things.” Whatever. We are going to create home away from home. It’s what we are missing when we travel one hundred and fifty, one hundred and seventy days a year. I’m in Buenos Aires, and I think I’m in Tokyo, because they’re all the same.

You go into these hotels and you have the burger or club sandwich or whatever. If you’re in Tokyo, I want to eat Japanese food, man, I don’t want to eat, like, a burger. 

SB: [Laughs]

Staff in the field at Casa Maria Luigia. (Photo: Michael Gardenia)

MB: I said, “Listen, first of all, we have to have the music room to share with them. And, actually, I have the right records that fit perfectly in this music room.” The first thing I did when we opened the door of the new place, was put the seven thousand vinyls there—that now are eight thousand. They’re like to share with all our guests as if they were in my home.

Exactly as the kitchen. The kitchen has to be always open as my mom’s kitchen was. “Casa Maria Luigia”—Maria Luigia was my mom. The kitchen is always open. People, they don’t have to sign anything. They can come into the kitchen snack, parmigiano, and Lambrusco, and understand they are in Modena. This is what we want. The kitchen is always open; make your own cappuccino, or your own coffee. It’s your home.

This is what we created with Casa Maria Luigia: a completely different experience in hospitality. The music room is part of this. In the music room, there are so many stories about the music room that are crazy. But all of these people really get back into their youthfulness, to when they were getting a vinyl. Open the things, read all the stories, get the vinyl, and there’s a beautiful stereo there. And it’s all open for our guests.

SB: We’ve been talking for almost an hour, and I still haven’t even mentioned Osteria Francescana.

MB: Who cares?


SB: I did want to bring it up because it’s now been twenty-one years since the restaurant received its first Michelin star—it’s coming up in a few years on its thirtieth anniversary—followed with the second Michelin in 2006 and the third in 2012. Maintaining that three-Michelin-star status is an endurance test, in a way: You have to keep things alive and fresh. I wanted to ask, what keeps you motivated? What keeps you looking forward? I love how you’ve described your recipe-creation process as “tasting my creativity,” so maybe we can go there.

MB: Yeah, it’s a big deal to keep working like this. I have to say, as I always write: By myself, I’m Massimo Bottura. With my team, we are Osteria Francescana. It’s all about the team. It’s about how you work, how you plan, how you share, how you keep the team motivated, how you open their minds and give them the opportunity to grow and stimulate culturally. Leave them free to have different experiences. Prepare the future for them in Los Angeles, in Tokyo, in Seoul, in Miami. Give them the opportunity to express themselves.

Open the kitchen to other new blood that come out with contemporary ideas. Give to the dishwasher the same pride of the maître d’ that has been working with you for twenty, thirty years. Put the right people and pick the right people for their talent, not for who they are, but the talent they have. When they talk about a woman in the kitchen, I think, like, What the hell is going on? What do people think? For us, woman, man, gender, we don’t care. We care about the talent. We care about how the people act, how the people give, what they are like.

Since Osteria was born, I always had amazing women. For example, Lidia Cristoni, one of the most influential people in my life. She was teaching me that running a restaurant is like running a family. You have to sit together, spend time with the team, keep the team together, eat together before the service. Exactly as my mom was telling me, and taught the family and kept the family together for Saturday or Sunday lunch with family. Exactly the same thing. 

I still do that. I still involve them in all of our social projects, like Tortellante, the project that we have with kids with different abilities and grandmothers. They put together the two most marginalized parts of the society. Now they are the center of the society and they keep tradition alive, making tortellini every day, because the kids are very good at repetitive things, and the grandmothers, finally, they can share the secret of the pesto and rolling pasta every day, these kinds of things. All the stagiaire, they come to Modena to learn how to make the fog to breathe Parmigiano-Reggiano. At the end, they learn to make tortellini with the kids and the grandmothers. 

This kind of stuff, it makes the difference, and it keeps the team together. We dream together; we fight together. And at the end, when you win, the joy is double. And when you lose, it’s okay. We share this bitter feeling, but still, it’s part of my life. The team is growing, growing, growing. In a very difficult moment like this, where imagine before the pandemic, we were one hundred forty people in Modena, in our restaurants. After the pandemic, we are two hundred and six. 

And all over the world, we are between five hundred and six hundred people in all of our restaurants. They’re all between 20 and 40 years old. They’re all super-motivated. They’re all proud of working with us. We call it “Francescana family.” This is what we do, who we are, and what we think. I want to talk about the Francescana family in a large way, thinking about the Refettorios, because the Refettorios are part of our team, our life. Imagine that we involve in these eight years, one hundred and five thousand volunteers and chefs from all over the world.

This is a big deal. But if you act in the right way, you share that with your example, that you can do it and you can make it, and you keep evolving and thinking. It’s something that my team is breathing, breathing this kind of energy.

SB: Move slow and break things.

MB: Yeah. All the time.

SB: Thank you, Massimo. This was great.

MB: Thank you.


This interview was recorded in front of a live audience at Refettorio Harlem, inside the Emanuel AME Church in Harlem, on December 11, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Emma Leigh Macdonald, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Settimio Benedusi.