Massimo Bottura may be Italy's greatest living chef. His flagship Modena restaurant, Osteria Francescana, has three Michelin stars and was ranked third in the world on the influential San Pellegrino list – for two years running. A relentless traditionalist and a ruthless challenger of that tradition, Bottura is known for reinterpreting classic Italian dishes with avant-garde techniques and presentations. (His rendition of bollito misto, the classic northern Italian meat stew, never touches water – it's cooked sous vide – and resembles the skyline of New York.)
Last week, Bottura was in Canada to kick off a year-long culinary series that will see some of Italy's greatest chefs teach and cook in Toronto. On Friday, he teamed up with one of this country's best chefs, Rob Gentile of Toronto's Buca restaurants, to prepare a meal that included live trout hatchlings, a prize-winning balsamic vinegar that was barrelled in 1981 and a "psychedelic veal" inspired by a Damien Hirst spin painting. The two chefs sat down to talk food – which, among Italians, inevitably becomes a discussion about ingredients.
Massimo Bottura, you are famous for challenging Italian tradition with modernist techniques. But, like so many of your countrymen, you also revere great ingredients. Which of these – technique or ingredients – is most important?
Bottura: The most important ingredient is my brain. I can be in Toronto or Tokyo or Lima, I have to have my brain and my culture with me. Then I can analyze everything and create something intelligent. After that, ingredients and technique are at the same level. Years ago, chefs used technique to show how good we were. We didn't care about the product. Now everything has changed. Contemporary cuisine is about cooking good food.
Is it getting easier or harder to find good ingredients?
Gentile: In Canada, we've come an incredible way in just the last five, six years. When we opened Buca King Street in 2009, it was hard just to find a duck egg. Coming from an Italian family, my passion is the ingredients. I want the best eggs, I want the best fish, I want the pigs raised the way I saw them in Tuscany. For a long time, I couldn't find pigs that weighed more than 200 pounds. But it's changing so fast. We're seeing incredible fish from the East Coast that used to all be exported. We're seeing incredible foraged ingredients. Now we have more than we need.
Bottura: Today there are farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers and artisans that decided to be farmers, fishermen or cheesemakers. That's what makes the difference. There are so many people who want to go back to the earth, to live a different life. For example, an architect became my supplier for capers. When you taste that caper you are blown away. A university professor gave up teaching to raise guinea fowl and chickens in the hills of Modena. That's the future. It's getting better and better. Now there's a waiting list to get into the agricultural school.
How can we encourage even more of that in Canada?
Gentile: We need to be able to pay the farmers to do amazing things. They need to prosper.
Bottura: It's the same everywhere. You have to fight for great ingredients in Italy, too. Right now, it's very hard to find tuna, because the Japanese went to Sardinia and bought up 51 per cent of the tuna licences. And if I want, for example, a suckling pig that's 19 kilograms, I have to get a farmer to do it for me.
I met an Italian winemaker who told me food television is ruining food. Do you think that's true?
Bottura: I never do TV. When they ask me, I say no because the message never comes out right. If you watch MasterChef and think a young guy who works a gas pump can quit his job and become a chef just like that, you're out of your mind. It's not like that. Cooking is an act of love. It's not screaming. It's not bad words.
Gentile: The excitement that TV and chefs have created have benefited us. Being a chef is considered a serious profession now. The other side of it, though, is that things get distorted. The professionalism is not appreciated. My job isn't about drugs and alcohol and how late we can stay up. It's about customers, the dining room, the ingredients and the food. We have to be careful that they're not a false hope of what it means to be a chef.
Many home chefs are awed and inspired by modernist techniques, such as sous vide, etc. Is this helpful? Should people go out and buy their own immersion circulator? What advice would you give them about how they should think about food?
Bottura: When my mother buys veal tongue now, she asks her butcher to seal it in plastic with carrots and laurel. She puts it in her oven at 75 C. The day after, she tests it with her fingers, then cuts it up and eats it. This is an 84-year-old woman! But the most important thing of all is to rediscover the relationship with the old stores. For example, yesterday, I went to a chocolate store here in Toronto called Soma and rediscovered my passion for chocolate. Find 15 minutes every day to buy fresh, seasonal food, and just cook what you have in your refrigerator.
Gentile: The most exciting part of cooking is not using a blowtorch.
Is there a certain way you conceptualize dishes? Is it about balancing flavours? Balancing flavour and texture? Or is each dish its own riddle?
Bottura: For me, creating a dish is an intellectual act. I put my passion into edible bites.
Gentile: I like to start with an ingredient and let it speak. Balance is a question of minor adjustments.
Who was the most influential person in your life as a chef?
Bottura: Every great chef I have worked with was very influential. When I think about Georges Coigny, he taught me the classic French techniques in the eighties that I melded with [Italian farmhouse chef] Lidia Cristoni. When I think about Alain Ducasse and the obsession with ingredients, it never left. I think about Ferran Adria – he was not about technique. He was about the freedom to express yourself.
Gentile: I think my passion began as part of my upbringing, the experiences I had as a child that were engraved in my mind, like seeing a salsa di pomodoro made.
Bottura: It gives me goosebumps to remember that.
If you could go back in time and give your 24-year-old self chef advice, what would it be?
Bottura: Live your life as a dream, but with humility and passion.
Gentile: Wow, he's a philosopher. Looking back, I was very focused, but my mind wasn't open enough. Open your mind more and your dream will come.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Mark Schatzker's forthcoming book, The Dorito Effect, examines the relationship between flavour and nutrition.