Why Massimo Bottura's the modern-day folk hero the world needs right now

The world-revered chef patron shares his radical philosophy of food as philanthropy with Grazia Editor in Chief Alison Tay
Why Massimo Bottura's the modern-day folk hero the world needs right now

Massimo Bottura at Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm

A meeting of two Italian icons

“My mother read Grazia,” rockstar restaurateur Massimo Bottura tells me, referring to our Italian edition with an 82-year legacy, “for the recipes.” Another fond reminder of his childhood in Modena is the Italian ball game of bocce, which he’s currently teaching me at his beach-front culinary playground Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm.

I’m not a natural. As he corrects my aim – with what I imagine is the same precision and attention to detail it takes to perfect the flavours at any one of his multi-Michelin- starred establishments – I’m quietly grateful he’s not showing me how to hand-roll tagliatelle.

Grazia Editor in Chief Alison Tay relives Massimo Bottura’s most treasured childhood memories including a game of bocce

Spare a thought, then, for the staff in this position thanks to Massimo’s Who Are You? challenge – where each member presents the chef with the dish they’ve developed that best captures both their personality and gastronomic prowess.

“It’s a creative exercise that we do to stimulate and teach them how to express themselves,” he explains. “It’s the secret to keeping a very large team together – treat them as family and make them feel important, even if they’re with us just for six months as a stagiaire [intern]. I’m very proud of the team I’ve built, because it’s not a team, it’s a family.”

Who is Massimo Bottura?

Turning the question back on the chef himself, who is the real Massimo Bottura? The clues are everywhere. He’s an outlaw, as demonstrated by the iconoclastic interpretations of La Cucina Italiana at Osteria Francescana in Modena.

It was so ahead of its time when it opened in 1995 that his anarchic collision of ideas almost left him an outcast – until the culinary cognoscenti eventually caught up with him. Three Michelin stars later, having twice won the Best Restaurant in the World accolade, Damien Hirst’s art now lines the walls and reservations must be made six months ahead.

Massimo Bottura and Alison Tay at Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm

His advice for aspiring revolutionaries following in his footsteps? “To me, being contemporary means to know everything and forget about everything; but first of all, you have to know everything. How can you be contemporary if you don’t know contemporary cuisine, or the Japanese style of cutting fish, or the French style of preparing a sauce, or how the Peruvians use acidity? You have to know everything. Then you can decide what to do and how to do it. So to break the rules, you have to know the rules.”

Meanwhile, his Gucci monogrammed socks, Gucci trainers – which are kicked off under the table at this moment – and the Gucci striped Breton top knotted casually over his shoulders are another hint. Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri and Massimo grew up together in Modena, and were firm friends, as legend has it, before the young chef could even cook spaghetti.

Osteria Gucci da Massimo Bottura opened on the ground floor of the Gucci Garden in Florence in January 2018, was awarded its first Michelin Star the following year, and has recently debuted a second restaurant on the sun-drenched rooftop of the Gucci boutique on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

In addition to Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm (below) and Osteria Francescana in Modena, the chef patron has opened Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura in Florence and LA with Marco Bizzarri

So what does Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm where we are today, tell us about Massimo Bottura that the world doesn’t already know? “This is me when I was a kid,” he divulges.

“I wanted to bring an element of fun to Dubai, so I picked a location close to the beach to recreate the time of my life when I was the most carefree.” He recalls, “When I was a child in Rimini with my mama and my sister, having fun on the beach, time was flying because we were happy.

I want everyone to have that feeling here at Torno Subito. There’s no formality, the service is very attentive, yet you can play bocce or be out on the beach and they’ll call you when your food is ready.”

Torno Subito at W Dubai

This spirit of fun and freedom is also expressed in the interior design – all picnic checks, ice-cream pastels, and giant beach balls, with pedalos perched on the shoreline – in a cheeky wink to Sixties Italian Riviera chic, resolutely shunning the gold-and-marble aesthetic that usually denotes fine-dining in Dubai. 

“I love to be surrounded by beauty. To me, beautiful things aren’t the most expensive. I can see beauty in breadcrumbs. It depends on what kind of poetry you have inside.”

But don’t be fooled. “It’s extremely sophisticated, but without showing off,” he points out, explaining that the chairs we’re sitting on, reminiscent of a sweater your grandmother could’ve knitted, actually cost Dhs11,000 and were handmade in Italy, and the tabletops may be without their cloths, but they’ve all been made-to- order for Torno Subito and crafted from lava stone.

“Memories that strike a chord when it comes to food – when your mum was cooking with you, or playing with your sister as a child – they open your heart, so the experience is more meaningful.”

Interior of Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm

Standouts on the Torno Subito menu – complete with the witty names and irreverent presentation that’s become his calling card – include a Modern Salad made from 14 ingredients sourced between Modena and Dubai, and Colpa d’Alfredo (named after an Eighties ballad by Italian rocker Vasco Rossi, who’s from the same region as Massimo) laced with Parmigiano- Reggiano and served with a dash of truffle.

However, Massimo concedes, “When you have a restaurant like ours, people expect a lot, and it’s not just about the quality of ingredients that you serve, it’s also the quality of the ideas, and the quality of the service. It’s the experience that really makes the difference.”

Modena Salad

Massimo Bottura's recipe for revolution

Massimo is no stranger to uniting people from all over the world through our love of food. In May 2012, when two earthquakes devastated the region of Emilia- Romagna, threatening to destroy 360,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano that each take a minimum of 24 months to make, Massimo came up with the idea of a global cookathon, and devised a recipe for risotto cacio e pepe – a twist on a traditional Roman pasta dish – ensuring all the produce was sold to keen cooks from as far afield as Tokyo and New York, and no livelihoods were lost. 

In 2016, he founded Food For Soul, a non-profit organisation with the goal of reducing food surplus, and promoting the social inclusion of the disenfranchised. As well as re-creating meals from what was traditionally seen as offcuts, the project seeks to reinvent neglected spaces and reunite communities.

Today Massimo’s Refettorios – his reimagined soup kitchens – serve those in need in Milan, London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, with more coming soon to Harlem, San Francisco and Montreal. “I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved over the years, but Food For Soul has had the strongest impact on my life, and on the lives of so many others, so that’s my most powerful achievement.”

Masterchef of the moment Massimo Bottura on a visit to Torno Subito in February 2020

Then in 2018, he launched the Tortellante Project, where special-needs youngsters including his own son Charlie Bottura, are taught to make traditional tortellini by the grandmothers of Modena. “We’re not just showing them how to make and sell pasta, we’re breaking walls and social isolation, guaranteeing a future for these kids,” he observes.

When I suggest Massimo’s career trajectory seems to be a testament to the old adage that food is love, there’s a pause. “Cooking is an act of love,” he clarifies. “You can be in the three-Michelin-starred best restaurant in the world or in Refettorio, which is a soup kitchen. If your act of cooking comes from your heart, it transfers emotions. Otherwise, it’s just a technique.”

Grazia Editor in Chief Alison Tay relives Massimo Bottura’s most treasured childhood memories including a spin on a pedalo at Torno Subito

Fast forward to the coronavirus crisis of 2020, with Italy on lockdown, the world needs Massimo’s energy and creativity more than ever. His solution? Kitchen Quarantine, a daily IGTV cookalong, to keep us and our palates amused until the wait is over.

In the first week alone, he’s already delighted Instagram with ‘Tomatoes with Breadcrumbs’, which also happens to be Torno Subito’s welcome amuse-bouche; an ‘Everything Mac ’n’ Cheese’ “made from whatever you have in your fridge”; a pea and asparagus risotto; and Taka’s Japanese soup, inspired by his sous chef at Osteria Francescana, Taka Kondo. “Once you realise your consciousness is ready to keep creating, you keep going,” he muses. “It’s not about success and money anymore; it’s time to give back.”

• W Dubai – The Palm reopens on 30 July 2020. Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm will reopen in October 2020. Call +971 04 245 5800 

Photos: Jes Luisse and supplied  Assisted by Marta Naffa  Alison wears Zimmermann at Shopbop  
Hair and make-up: Ella at The Salon at Yin Yang JBR. Call +971 04 439 0101.  This shoot took place in February 2020