To say that Massimo Bottura's first restaurant outside his native Italy is a colourful visit down memory lane is an understatement. From the bold monochromatic stripes at the entrance, to the sunshine yellow tiles, glossy teal counters and pink-washed ceilings, the entire place is a fusion of perky hues that shouldn't work together, but somehow do. A bit, it could be said, like the chef patron himself.
Born in Modena, the land of slow food and fast cars, Bottura was destined to be a lawyer, but instead became the man responsible for bringing new Italian gastronomy to the world. In 1995, he opened Osteria Francescana, which quickly gained three Michelin stars and a perennial top spot in the World's 50 Best list.
The chef, 56, is known for his passion, his creativity and even his quirky sense of style. He has partnered with Gucci for its first restaurant in Florence, served as a style icon for GQ magazine, and is pictured in tailored sports jackets or colourful foulards almost as often as his chef's whites.
When we meet at Torno Subito, which opened at W Dubai – The Palm last Sunday, he’s wearing neither, but rather sporting a demure black sweater paired with dark-rimmed spectacles. I can’t help but wonder if the understated choice is a deliberate move to not distract from the multicoloured surrounds of his new culinary baby in the UAE. “It’s amazing,” smiles Bottura, stroking his hand along the top of the bottle-green woven chair he is sitting in. He turns his attention to the coloured lava table in front of us. “Look at this,” he insists, “the stones are melting with colour, and look at the incredible imperfection. It was all handmade in Italy.”
Italian it may be, but Osteria Francescana it is not. While the latter is all white tablecloths and dark wood ceilings, Torno Subito is a colour-filled suntrap with the beach on its doorstep.
Letting in the light
“It’s different to any restaurant in the world,” he says. “They always go very dark, sometimes you can hardly even see the food you’re trying to eat. For us, it’s like, let’s be honest and open ourself to the world. We have so many things to say, why do we have to hide in some dark corner? There’s too much darkness around. We want sun, we want colour and we want to be happy.”
And on this balmy afternoon, it would be hard to describe the curly-haired chef as anything less than that. “I simply didn’t want another Francescana,” he continues. “I mean, we’re in Dubai and we’re on the beach, and the whole place just made me think of my memories from when I was a kid spending summers in the Riviera, in Rimini and Cesenatico.” With a flash of reverie in his eyes, he adds: “Those places are part of me. They shaped me and made me who I am, and I thought it would be amazing to share that with everyone.”
Bottura's Dubai restaurant evokes 1960s charm fused with beachside allure and chic diner-style vibes. Despite being one of the world's most celebrated culinary masters, the man and his space display not a hint of pretentiousness. Candy-coloured booths and glowing neon signs are paired with nostalgia-dipped Hollywood-esque graphics. For the chef, it's the epitome of la dolce vita. "It's like Rome or Milan, in fact it's exactly how Rome and Milan were – the style of Italian life," he explains.
Fluttering above the Caribbean-blue bar is a mobile of black-and-white Polaroid photographs. “Many of them come from that era,” says Bottura. “Some of them are mine and represent the memories I have of Italian summers, like ice-cream or driving a Vespa. Some are from Lidia – my first-ever chef in Italy – who is 80 years old and going blind, but is still there teaching my staff how to roll pasta by hand.”
On the patio, the Italian Rivera theme escalates. There's a pastel pink ice-cream cart that will serve lemon, chocolate and strawberry gelato. "We're not getting crazy, it's pure classic," notes the chef.
A fire-engine red salvataggio (lifeboat), looking very much like it could take to the ocean to rescue anyone in danger, is actually the stand for the al fresco bar. On the white sand, whitewashed cabins conceptualise the chef’s dream of being in Rimini and having your feet in the sand with endless ocean views.
Complementing this lighthearted sense of fun, the menu is decidedly playful. “There are so many fun things on there. Dishes like the gazpacho, it’s served as a drink inside a pepper. It’s been chilled frozen, so you get the experience of mixing fruit and vegetables, but all through a drink," explains the chef.
“The crescent pizza breaks the border between sweet and savoury. It’s a half-moon shape, and is loaded with honey, chocolate, hazelnuts and almonds, and then has black truffle sliced on top. It sounds crazy, but it works perfectly. It’s all about the mental palate and your imagination.”
While the dishes may be different at his Modena eatery, similar logic applies with a menu that reads more like a child’s storybook than a list of what to eat. Dishes such as Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart, Snails in the Vineyard or the Crunchy Part of the Lasagne, reflect Bottura’s sense of joyous creativity.
I ask him why he likes playing with his food so much. “I’m not playing,” he says with a smile. “Well, OK – I am playing, but I’m doing it with a very deep knowledge and with consciousness.” Considered play, perhaps, I offer. “Yes, and emotions also play a huge role. If you think about when you had the strongest emotional reaction to food, for most of us, it’s when we were kids and tasted our mama’s cooking. What we want to do is put together all the different mamas of this world, and just let everyone feel so Italian and so comfortable with this food.”
The plot thickens
This is not to say that the Italian chef does not have a serious side. His non-profit organisation Food for Soul is tribute to that. Bottura co-founded it with his wife, Lara, in a bid to combat hunger and food waste. The pair have opened a handful of refectories around the world, which serve nutritious food to those who need it most. They also work to try to combat food waste around the world, a topic close to the chef's heart – which begs the question: why did he opt to open his first restaurant outside of Italy in Dubai, a city with one of the highest food-wastage stats in the world?
"It's terrible," says Bottura of the situation. "In Europe, we waste 33 per cent of our food, but here it's more like 60 per cent. I'm trying to educate them in the kitchen. It's all about using every single part of the animal, or the vegetable, or the fish – it's extremely important.
“I’m trying to show the staff that from leftover breadcrumbs or pizza dough we can make amazing things.”
Despite the statistics, Bottura's positive mantra shines through, and he's hopeful for change. He mentions his willingness to work with people across the country to help make a change, and voices his desire for a law reform similar to the food-waste laws passed in Italy and France.
A revolution is coming
“I really have hope for the future,” he proclaims. “Right now, there’s a very big humanistic movement going on with chefs from all over the world. I’ve seen the younger generations of chefs, and they have such an ethical approach to food. I see amazing things and such positive energies.”
But it's not just the younger generations driving this movement. In fact, on this slice of the Palm Jumeirah crescent, many of the world's greatest chefs have some great work going on. In the Emerald Palace Kempinski Dubai just next door, Alain Ducasse – the chef with the most Michelin stars in the world – and New Yorker Chris Jaeckle have opened up shop. A little further along the curve is Frenchman Yannick Alleno's long-running residence at the One&Only The Palm Dubai. The area is becoming a culinary favourite, I observe. Bottura smiles at the thought.
“For me, being with Yannick or Ducasse is a dream. Both of them are some of the few chefs that have really supported Food for Soul since the very beginning. They travelled to Rio, to Paris, to London to support it and to support me. We’re not competition, we’re friends. And again, it’s all part of this humanistic revolution.
“Chefs are much more than the sum of their recipes. As a society we moved away from our roots, from human values, but now we’re getting back there. And if we work together, we can really make a difference.”
Given how passionate, humble and optimistic he is, if the coming revolution ever needs a leader, I propose we could do a lot worse than letting chef Bottura take the reins.