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Shining a Light on Massimo Bottura

Light isn’t just a feature of chef Massimo Bottura’s restaurants!

By Kay Sexton, Contributor 

Light is an Essential Element in all of Bottura’s Projects

From his avant garde culinary art through his fight on food waste and his work to uncover the invisible potential of others, it’s always been about bringing light to the world. 

When Massimo Bottura launched his most recent Refettorio (refectory) in Rio de Janeiro, his experience was gruelling. “When you shine a light, bad people don’t like it. We had a couple of times where they came and put guns to our heads and stole computers and telephones, so we knew we were in the right place, but we were open every night.” It is typical of Bottura’s personal philosophy to link culture, food and human gesture and it has led to a remarkable style of cuisine: one where intense personal experiences

Chef Bottura’s take on the Refettorio concept as a communal dining space that brings people together for group meals and gatherings is a perfect, although not always harmonious, blend of these three elements. 

Bottura’s team brought light, beauty, music and food to communities, and slowly the negative people and behaviours disappeared. Through his “Food for Soul” non-profit organisation, Bottura brought many Refettorios to various places around the world, 11 and counting with each as a centre of good food, sharing and culture, always targeting a place in need of rejuvenation and restoration.

Massimo Bottura 2 - Shining a light on Massimo Bottura
Massimo Bottura. Photo: Supplied

Massimo Bottura is a major ingredient of this success. His commitment to the power of culture to transform blighted spaces is like a spotlight – it illuminates the problem and focuses on the solution. It is a clear-headed understanding of the need to build community at the human level, one individual gesture at a time. That’s why Massimo cooks.

Whether he is at a Massimo Bottura restaurant, working with a team that outnumbers the diners two to one, or at one of his Refettorios, cooking with other volunteer chefs for hundreds of people… Massimo brings the same acute attention to the quality of the food, the experience of dining, and the role of culture in teaching, uniting and sharing. 

The idea started at Expo 2015 in Milan, to make a unique kind of gesture about Italy’s greatest export: its hospitality. The plan was to create a kitchen in which some of the world’s greatest chefs would be invited to cook alongside him for the city’s homeless, using food deemed unsuitable for sale in supermarkets, making a statement about waste, and about taste. That’s how his first came to be — Refettorio Ambrosiano — based in Greco, one of Milan’s poorest districts, serving food to the homeless, disadvantaged and refugees. 

“It hasn’t been easy at the beginning”, Bottura says. “The first Refettorio was unpopular with many local residents. Protesters even marched against the idea.” But slowly Massimo won them over. He began by creating utility and beauty in the form of 14 refectory tables, each created by a leading Italian designer.

“When you shine a light, bad people don’t like it... so we knew we were in the right place.”

Massimo BotturaChef, Author, Restaurateur

At first, his unimpressed customers ate fast and left faster, but the transcendent nature of sharing began to lighten their fears. Within months they were staying longer, laughing more and even commenting on the quality of food being served to them, requesting less soup and more pasta!

This is Bottura’s vision in action – social gestures that create a collective spirit. This is the vision that drives him to play football with refugee teens outside the Refettorio or create recipes for his local cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano. Chef Bottura’s vision drives him to invest in modern art that he hopes will help his diners decode the messages contained in the unique Massimo Bottura recipes, many of which dissect the

essential features of famous dishes and reconstruct them in exciting new ways that Bottura describes as “we break things, we rebuild things”.

It might be a dish, a blank space on a wall or an empty building in a ghetto, but regardless, Bottura shines a light on what was, what is, and invites us to join him in what could be – something better than the past, built on the experience of the present. 

You can join Massimo Bottura in 2022 for a 3 night Hosted Experience in Modena, including a private dining experience at Osteria Francescana, dinner at Francescana as well as a masterclass with Massimo and his team, while staying at his countryside boutique hotel Casa Maria Luigia.

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