Osteria Francescana – the pursuit of perfection

Italian chef Massimo Bottura is a genius who has brought Italian cuisine to a completely different level. If France is renowned for its obsession with classics and Spain is the culinary hub of innovation, Italy is steeped in tradition. It is a country which takes its critics seriously. I remember a football coach once saying that the country had 60 million football coaches. A chef, I am not sure if it was Bottura, once said that there are as many food critics.

These food critics will obsess about whether any fish dish should be served with cheese (this is a taboo for many in Italy) and I can understand why. Italians shudder to think of mixing cheese with fish for example though there are some very minor exceptions. You can normally spot an authentic Italian pizzeria anywhere in the world by looking for their Pizza Marinara. If it has mozzarella, the chances are it is not run by Italians.

Bottura, with his Osteria Francescana, however, plays in a different league. Having gone in search of inspiration in France and Spain among others, he shows an incredible respect for ingredients. Who else would have thought of coming up with a dish called the five ages of parmesan which just showcases one ingredient?

Or who could invent a reconstructed lasagna with a sumptuous ragu and a lasagna crisp?

The Modenese chef has reinvented classics. His dishes all tell a story and you sometimes wonder how he gets his inspiration. When you walk into his restaurant you realise that he is obsessed with modern art and it is obviously here that he gets most of his inspiration for his dishes.

While modern, Bottura is also respecting tradition. He is always in search of the past but tries to reinterpret dishes and give them a modern twist without trying to be clever or over doing it.

The meal at Osteria Francescana was one to remember. It was a pity that Bottura was not there but in Istanbul because I am sure the experience would have been even better.

The meal started off with a macaroon of tomato and mozzarella. The flavour of the tomato burst in your mouth. The lemon granita and limoncello foam cleansed the palate for the start of the sensations menu.

image

The first dish was exceptional. It was eel served with a cream of polenta and apple gelee. The eel was perfectly cooked, worked incredibly well with the apple and the polenta was out of this world.

image

What followed was a joy for the eye but also for the palate. It was a pate served with a jelly of Lambrusco, the regional wine, as well as a puree of different peppers, green, red and yellow. Visually the plate was stunning.

image

Next came the Caesar Salad or rather Bottura’s interpretation of this classic salad. You need to be incredibly confident to serve such a dish in such a restaurant. But he used the lettuce as a condiment to 23 different ingredients all stuffed within the leaves from egg to parmesan crisps, to mint and anchovies, to bacon and mustard, lemon and only the chefs know what else. This was outstanding.

This was followed by what Bottura’s calls a day out in the Modenese countryside, a dish which was not only a joy to look at but also excellent (see it here). The snails were hiding under the leaves and it was topped with a beetroot sauce.

The lasagna stole the show for its originality, with the ragu cooked sous vide, but not for long as we were then served with what was probably the star of the afternoon, the five ages of Parmeggiano Reggiano dish which I have written about here.

image

This was then followed by frog legs coated in hazelnuts and a pasta which gave the illusion of a pond. After this came a superb pasta dish, Bottura’s notorious “The dream of a Frenchman to cook pasta like an Italian.” Three ravioli stuffed with fois gras which burst with flavour making you wish there were more.

What followed was probably the best piece of meat which I have ever tasted. Pork cooked sous vide and then finished in a pan to crisp the top. It was served with a 45-year-old balsamic vinegar from Bottura’s private cellar together with asparagus and horse radish. What can I say. This was out of this world.

image

Next came a risotto cooked with olive oil and covering pigs cheeks, followed by an original dessert of strawberry sorbet, a pea cream, pea meringue served with fresh milk from Modena’s countryside.

Coffee was served with a medley of chocolates and sweets which as expected could not be faulted.

Verdict: Book a flight to Bologna which is only 30 minutes away from Modena and head there now before it becomes much harder to book. It is no wonder this restaurant is ranked number 3 in the world. Expect the unexpected. From Bottura you cannot expect anything less. Osteria Francescana will make you rethink what’s so special with Italian cuisine.

 

 

Advertisements

Rene Redzepi (Noma) – breaking new ground

image

36-year-old Rene Redzepi is on top of the culinary world again after regaining top spot for his restaurant Noma in the World’s 50 best restaurants. Yesterday he was in Gent to present his new book A Work in Progress which is part journal, part recipe book and a flick book.

He gave an inspirational talk while reading parts of his journal which recounts the day-to-day life at Noma.

I went thanks to our dear friends from Gent, Anna and Marteen of Villa Bardon. The stress to get there was probably worse than manning a station on a busy evening in a restaurant. The traffic to get out of Brussels was horrendous.

Redzepi is one of few chefs who have managed to take food to a level of creativity that can inspire people. These chefs, like Adria, Bottura, Blumenthal and the Roca brothers have broken away from traditions while at the same time going back to the roots. They break taboos or preconceived ideas and perceptions.

As he himself says, it would have been unimaginable 10 or 20 years ago for a restaurant like his to be considered for Michelin stars.

At 36-years-old, Redzepi says he is actually one of the oldest people working in the restaurant.

Having read quite a few books on creativity over the past few months including for example Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull, The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus, and Todd Henry’s Die Empty, Unleash your best work every day (all of which are worth reading) it was interesting to see that Redzepi follows pretty much the same concepts in his kitchen. Creativity does not come by chance but through hard work, collaboration, team-work and ambition.

The main takeaway from his talk yesterday was that there has to be collaboration is essential in a team but most of all you must create an environment where people are confident that they can experiment without being ridiculed or laughed at. The restaurant has a very interesting tradition. On a Saturday evening, after an 85-hour work week, one chef has to present a dish to the rest of the team. It is here that innovation takes place. During the talk he showed a video of chefs being presented with a pig’s ear and another of a Kale (cabbage) ice-cream which believe it or not, he said tasted extremely good. There have been a few bad experiences he says but in general, the team has been stunned on many more occasions. “Can you imagine kale being served as an ice-cream. Until a few years ago this vegetable was used to feed horses. Then we discovered its nutritional value but it still is a cabbage. Suddenly it becomes a dessert, and the dish actually works. You need to have courage to think of and then present such a dish”

He noted how a dish can go through much iteration as it is improved once step at a time until the final product emerges from the test kitchen.

The story of how they introduced ants in Noma as part of a dish was also intriguing. He recounts how they experimented with ants and actually served it for the first time in the restaurant hidden with crème fraiche. He explains in detail the reaction of the first clients when they were told about the ants they were being served in the dish and their faces suddenly changing colours. Nowadays, he uses ants, which taste like lemon-grass as a condiment but at the time they served them first at Noma, he ended up being talked about in the press and even made it to the Danish Parliament. He said an American chef who was a friend of his phoned to ask whether he was crazy to serve ants in his restaurant. “I tried to find consolation by phoning the chef who introduced me to ants, Alex Atala from Brazil. When I told him the story, there was silence on the phone for ten seconds and then he asked, What, you served ants?” The bottom line – forget preconceptions.

During question time, Redzepi said he thinks that in future we will have to learn to cook things which people used to eat in the past but which have now been forgotten or else explore new ground. We need to get back in touch with the earth, he thinks. He is of the view, and this seems to be shared by others, that in the coming years, people will probably be eating more insects.

With the cost of beef rising and the impact cows have on the environment, it is likely that meat will be eaten only occasionally. The challenge, he says is to make insects appealing. What would you choose between a bowl of crickets or a nicely seared steak with parsley butter and fries? The answer for the time being is obvious.

He says that meat is now being grown in labs, he knows someone who tasted it and doesn’t mince his words. “It tasted like shit. But it is protein and it is being created in a laboratory.”

He thinks that the provenance of food will become more and more important in future. Rene Redzepi is chef of probably one of the world’s most famous restaurants. But he is also much more than that. He is passionate, hard-working, ambitious and in a very enjoyable hour and a half, he provided important lessons not only related to food but also on creativity, hard work and team-work.

I look forward to visit Noma soon though I am not so sure about what my reaction will be if served ants. Maybe I should also forget my preconceptions.

 

Follow your passion

Massimo Bottura is not your normal run of the mill chef. He is a man with a vision – combining modern art with avant-garde cuisine while at the same time respecting nature’s provenance. Having quit studying law after finding that a trattoria was up for sale on the outskirts of Modena he has gone from strength to strength reaching the pinnacles of international cuisine by reconstructing Italian traditions and humble ingredients into something one can be awed with.

Like an epic football final or a brilliant art exhibition where you would continue to talk about it until your friends get fed up, Bottura’s food has a somewhat similar effect. Bottura has a simple philosophy – follow your passion and express your emotions in what you do. You can only admire him for this. He resonates this philosophy when you enter his world. It is probably the dream of many people who are stuck in their daily routines to do what they would love but who might not have the courage to follow their passions or express themselves.

Can food be art? What turns humble ingredients into greatness? Can you break preconceptions while at the same time respecting tradition and history? What eventually makes a meal memorable? The Osteria Francescana makes you ask these questions and much more.

This to me was always going to be much more than a restaurant. The reservation was made a few weeks after I turned 40, the booking was only a few days after my wife and I had celebrated our 7-year wedding anniversary. And we were going with two dear friends. While not being too bothered with celebrations, the expectations for a 40-year-old at maybe the turning point of his career where huge. The restaurant is hidden in one of the pretty alleys of the unpretentious but incredibly welcoming streets of Modena.

Here, in the land of fast cars and slow food, you can be lost in thinking that time stood still. Whether it’s the traditional Aceto Balsamico from Modena, the Parmeggiano Reggiano from the region or even the different types of hams, you can find exceptional produce which ages gracefully. The experience was unforgettable in more ways than one. At Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, which alas no longer exists, I beat a phobia which had the potential to ruin the pleasure of gastronomy. Until that time, I had a phobia of cheese, not an allergy but rather a psychological condition. But at that restaurant I had vowed to eat whatever was served. All was going well until the kitchen decided to send an amuse bouche before the main course of suckling pig which I still can remember like it was yesterday. But more about that story another time. photo

At Osteria Francescana, I graduated with Honours when it comes to cheese. The five ages of Parmeggiano Reggiano served as one of the courses was simply out of this world. In its simplicity, it was a celebration of just one ingredient but the textures, different temperatures and different taste where such as to wow you into a sense of wonder. The idea alone was incredible. The execution of that idea was perfect. How could the chef have created such a dish?  How did he even think about it? The dish was clever but not too clever. The presentation was harmonious but at the same time bland. The flavours, textures and temperatures did all the talking. And what a speech they gave.

I will blog about the whole meal in a separate post first for me to record what is one of my greatest culinary experiences and secondly to encourage you to see for yourself the effect Massimo Bottura’s philosophy has on the food and help you to get out of your comfort zone because this is exactly what Massimo Bottura does.

You need to think more about the providence of food and how to reinterpret certain dishes, including by not necessarily following precise recipies.

Was this the pinnacle? I don’t know. On the one hand, I don’t want it to be. What is certain is that I will return to try different interpretations of dishes which were not served. One lesson which I take from the experience however is that of why it is so difficult to succeed in the restaurant business. Massimo Bottura was not there when we visited. How did we know? We asked.

Did we guess he was not there? Not really though with the benefit of hindsight we should have guessed. In such a well run kitchen, everything works to perfection. And this was clearly the case this time as well. The service was impeccable and all the dishes were executed to perfection but the finale went missing. The first sign of our hindsight lesson is that we were encouraged not to take the 12-course sensations menu. The second is that we were served 11 dishes, one of which was a dessert which was good but not memorable and clearly not in sync with the crescendo of dishes which just seemed to get better and better. In my view, this was meant to be a pre-dessert. I stand to be corrected but upon reflection, discussion and menu counting we came to the conclusion that we had not been served the main dessert probably because it was getting late and the chefs wanted to close the kitchen. For those who are familiar with Bottura, it was maybe a case of “Ooops I forgot the lemon tart”. A slight disappointment to an otherwise impeccable meal. As the saying goes, when the cat is away the mice come out to play.  And that clearly is the difference between passion and work. A passion which Bottura has in droves.