As part of our year-end review, we're revisiting some of the most important stories from 2014. Here, an American food writer and restaurant owner dines with Italian chef Massimo Bottura.
Molly Wizenberg is co-owner of the Delancey and Essex restaurants in Seattle, founder of the popular Orangette blog, author of A Homemade Life and Delancey, and host of the “Spilled Milk” podcast. She took an afternoon out of her busy schedule to eat a rather unique 16-course lunch, hang with Italy’s coolest and most famous chef, and report back to us.
All photos courtesy of Chris Hoover/ Modernist Cuisine LLC
Massimo Bottura is a fast eater. The same comment is often made of me, so I ought to know. This man is a ninja. By the time I’ve managed to engineer my first mouthful of butternut squash soup, teasing up a couple strands of the spaghetti squash garnish and some cubes of pickled squash from the bottom of the bowl, he’s stirred it all up and eaten half of it.
“This flavor is rich,” Bottura exclaims, looking up from the bowl. “But there’s no fat on my tongue. I take a sip of water, and my mouth is clean!” He’s so excited, I half-expect him to applaud.
Nathan Myhrvold materializes next to the table, holding up what looks like a Rold Gold pretzel twist. Former chief technology officer at Microsoft, Myhrvold is the founder and figurehead of the Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab, the team of scientists, chefs, and writers behind 2011’s six-volume, 2,438-page tome Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Here, they practice what some refer to as molecular gastronomy. (They prefer the term “modernist cooking.”) They utilize a range of tools and tricks foreign to most home and restaurant kitchens: proteins are cooked via sous vide, produce is transformed through centrifugal force, and liquids morph into frozen treats via liquid nitrogen.
Massimo Bottura and Nathan Myhrvold.
Myhrvold has invited us to the lab, which is in an unmarked warehouse 15 minutes east of Seattle, for a 16-course lunch in honor of Bottura, chef-owner of the Michelin three-starred Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy. We’re celebrating the publication of Bottura’s first English-language book, winkingly named Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. (Bottura could be described as “skinny” in any language.) To join him, Myhrvold has invited six well-known West Coast chefs who specialize in Italian food: Holly Smith, of Cafe Juanita; Michael Tusk, of Cotogna and Quince; Simone Savaiano, of Mucca Osteria; Pino Posteraro, of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca; Nathan Lockwood, of Altura; Suzette Gresham, of Acquerello; and Cathy Whims, of Nostrana. The table is silent, possibly because we’re all strangers, possibly because we’re having a white-tablecloth lunch under fluorescent lights next to a centrifuge with Italy’s most famous chef.
“Do you know what makes this pretzel brown?” Myhrvold asks us, grinning. He waits a beat, then answers himself. “Lye!” He bounces on his heels, explodes in a giggle. Myhrvold is nerdy to the max: endearing, avuncular, and also slightly terrifying, the only person I’ve known to seem genuinely gleeful while talking about amino acids. He refers to Ferran Adrià, who has visited the lab, as “Ferran,” as though they were college roommates.
Lye is an alkali, Myhrvold explains, and alkaline substances help speed along the Maillard reaction, the chemical reaction between sugars and proteins that browns foods as they cook and creates delicious, deep flavors. His chefs at the lab have used the same principle in today’s soup, cooking cubed butternut squash with butter, salt, and baking soda (a more readily-accessible alkali) in a pressure cooker (whose high temperatures speed up the Maillard reaction) until the cubes are browned straight through. The soup that results is savory and deeply squash-y, fantastic. Massimo Bottura is scraping the bowl.
Myhrvold and Bottura with the West Coast chefs.
We’ve been assigned seats, and I’m next to Bottura, who, with his black-rimmed glasses, short graying beard, New Balance sneakers, and scarf in the colors of a faded Italian flag, looks like somebody’s beloved comp lit professor. On my other side is his elegant American wife, Lara Gilmore, who is still wearing her admission bracelet from Jimmy Kimmel Live, where Bottura was a guest the night before. I’m the luckiest person at the table, but I have to admit that I’m not the ideal candidate for this position: Though I own a restaurant myself and have done my share of serious eating, I don’t get excited about famous chefs. I don’t know. There’s no way to say this without sounding like my underwear is too tight, but: these days, when we talk about famous chefs, we’re usually talking about business savvy and showmanship and TV spots, not so much about artistry – or even food. It makes me tired. But here I am, sitting next to Massimo Bottura, a very, very famous chef among famous chefs, and I’m liking it. A lot.
Bottura’s hair is mussed like he slept on it wrong, and he can’t sit still. He’s leaning forward; he’s sitting on his hands; he’s up and across the room like a ball from a cannon, peering over the shoulder of head chef Francisco Migoya. He’s not at all what I expected. Evidently, he’s also not what his fellow countrymen expected. “There are three things that cannot be tampered with in Italy: football, the Pope, and your grandmother’s recipes,” he writes in Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. But “[w]hen I entered the kitchen at the age of 23 I discovered that cooking is a science and a skill. I learned that a recipe is the sum of a series of successful experiments or mistakes … What I learned is that a recipe is a living thing.”
“For every bell tower, there’s a different tortellino,” he muses as we eat a pea-filled raviolo in clear, Kelly-green broth. “There was never a single Italian cuisine. I’m using the same flavors, making the same dishes, and I have the same memories as anyone else. I’m just putting it through a different process. I’m a complicated person! I’m making things complicated.”
He picks up a copy of the book and lays it open on the table in front of me. It is entirely set in Helvetica, stark and tidy. He hired two photographers who had never before shot food, he tells me, pointing to an atmospheric shot of steam rising from a pasta cooker. He gave them free rein to interpret what they saw in his kitchen and his food. Each finished plate was shot on film with a Hasselblad, one frame per plate. Thumbing through the book is like studying a theorem or a piece of conceptual art – the product of one man’s intellect, a man whose medium happens to be food. Lest that sound totally insufferable, I should add that the book is also fun. I want to party with this man’s intellect. His record collection, pictured on page 170, includes Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and a surprising amount of Aretha. I catch myself drooling over something called Tortellini Walking on Broth, and then over How to Burn a Sardine.
Massimo Bottura is delighted by food. When he likes what he’s eating, his hands shoot up like startled birds. The seventh course at the lab, vongole agli “spaghetti,” which consists of thin strips of raw geoduck twirled up like a nest of noodles in a creamy clam broth, gets him so charged that it’s gone in three bites and a clatter of flatware. He stands up and leans over the table, waving, yelling, “I’ll have double! Another, please!” When he doesn’t like what he’s eating, he gives the slightest sigh, a quiet hoh!, as he pushes the plate away. But it doesn’t feel like snobbery; it feels like he’s just leaving room, anticipating the next opportunity to be delighted.
I like food as much as the next guy. I love to cook and I love to eat, from cold roasted chicken to three Michelin stars. But the best meals of my life have one thing in common: they’ve all been shared with people who also love to eat. Those are my people. We don’t need to analyze every last molecule; we’re having a good time. Food is sustenance, of course, but if we’re doing it right, it’s about shared pleasure. As Bottura says at one point, waving his knife in the air, “It’s about the feeling.”
“What do you cook when you’re eating at home?” I ask on a whim.
“I’m never at home,” he says, nodding toward Gilmore. “Lara cooks.”
“He loves his restaurant,” she smiles. “He’s there every shift. But he’ll always come home if I make minestrone.”