“I have butterflies in my stomach! I have never cooked in Delhi and don’t know what to expect!” It is hard to imagine the world’s greatest chef getting nervous about cooking a meal he has cooked multiple times before. But then if you know Massimo Bottura, you know every meal he cooks is equally important for him.
Massimo is known for many things: resurrecting Italian cuisine and making it Michelin-worthy, treating his menus like an orchestra, bringing his restaurants alive with art, and above all, his generosity and kindness. Of his restaurants, the three-Michelin-starred, two-time winner of Best Restaurant in the World (by The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants), 12-seater Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, remains the most coveted. And it was a menu from this restaurant that the chef brought to Delhi to whip up two exclusive dinners last week. With only 60 covers per service, the seven-course meals at Le Cirque at The Leela Palace Hotel were priced at approx. ₹55,555 each, and were sold out within minutes of opening with a long waiting list.
Guests included actor Sonam Kapoor, and her husband, entrepreneur Anand Ahuja, and noted journalists Vir Sanghvi and Seema Goswami, who were instrumental in bringing him to the capital. The seven-course degustation menu featured two of the most iconic creations of Massimo: The Crispy Part of the Pasta, which is inspired by the memories of his childhood, and Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart, known for its accidental creation when a sous chef actually dropped a tart.
Both dinners opened with a welcome speech by the chef and an aperitivo made of his famed Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar from Modena. Other courses included dishes like Pasta al Pesto in Abstract, the iconic Ligurian pesto reimagined without pasta; a spin painted cod which is also a tribute to artist Damien Hirst’s canvases; and The Strawberry Fields, his take on The Beatles’ song with the finest ingredients from across Italy.
Seasonal ingredients, familiar flavours
Long before it became fashionable, Massimo was cooking according to seasons. This, he believes, is the only way to cook and so menus in his restaurants change frequently to accommodate seasonal ingredients. “In Italy, the produce changes every 25 days — from peas to fava beans to string beans to asparagus.”
This adaptability reflected in his cooking in India too where he has cooked twice before (in 2017 and 2022, in Mumbai). “I had never done a lamb ragout before but as soon I knew I was coming to Delhi, I wanted to do that,” he informs. It took a month and multiple trials to get the “perfect roundness of flavour and umami,” something, he asserts, is much easier to achieve with pork, beef, and veal, the meats he usually cooks with.
Cooking for The Refettorios
Massimo’s menus might be on the wish list of gourmands across the world, but it is his soup kitchens, which he prefers to call Refettorios (referring to the traditional dining-halls for monks and students), set him apart. “We use all the surplus and imperfect ingredients to make amazing meals at our Refettorios — appetisers, pastas, desserts…”
The guests are greeted by their names and served in fine crockery, apart from being exposed to world-class art and fine aesthetics. Cooking for these ‘fragile souls’, Massimo adds, is far more challenging than cooking for the biggest celebrities, “because they are not used to kindness”.
Responsibility beyond the kitchen
The chef’s kindness extends beyond his guests. Today, he knows each one of his chefs personally and tries to focus on their individual needs as much as be their mentor. “When I was a young apprentice, I was treated like the last piece of garbage in the kitchen. It was a good experience because it taught me what not to do,” This personal equation is evident in the smallest of his gestures: be it introducing the youngest member of his team to the media or sharing the names of all the chefs travelling with him. “It is a big responsibility when people look up to you. I experienced this most during the lockdown when I spent maximum time with my team. They leave everything and stay with me, so I have to take care of them.”
And what is his advice to the young chefs?, I am tempted to ask. “You just have to decide what you want to do and then do that — because then you do not work even for one day but live your passion. And that is the secret of success,” he signs off.