I went to eat the best restaurant of the world.
6pm, I receive a call from the fine dining travelers group I belong to. They tell me there is a seat available for lunch to Osteria Francescana the day after and ask me if I’m interested.
I immediately think about Massimo Bottura's last presentation during Identità Golosa event, talking about contamination (i.e. how art and foreign culture influence his food interpretation).
I think about that lunch I had during EXPO 2015, where I met him for the first time and thought he was between an American Guru and a Roberto Benigni of Food.
I think, this is something that happens probably once in your life.
I think, he’s able to bring emotion to people and make them think about what his food, like an alchemist extracting the essence of a dish or a technique.
I checked my agenda, and say YES.
The next day, I’m in the bus heading to Milan station, when a homeless jumped into the bus. I tell myself: you’re about to eat in the best restaurant of the world, when people are fighting at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. I feel gratitude.
Train arrives in Modena. I decide to walk to the restaurant. It’s my first time in Modena, and a bit like when you’re in business trip, I think it’s a pity I did not take time to visit the town. The buildings are colorful, lot of churches.
But we live in a world where everything is fast, time is money and we don’t want to waste. So I will be slow living only for the slot of the lunch and then go back to reality.
I arrive to the restaurant, I’m almost late so cannot spend too much time sneaking the pieces of Art which are probably a bit everywhere in the restaurant.
The walls are painted with dark shade, the light is not direct, resulting in a gloomy atmosphere. You don’t feel in a comfortable environment, “make yourself at home” style, you feel like there is a “ritual” to follow. I get welcome by a waiter and brought to my table. I find some taxidermied pigeons on my way.
I say hi to my tablemates.
In front of me, the menu. The menu that will bring me to the experience of the best chef of the world 2016… I don’t even feel looking at it, because I know I won’t understand the meaning until I have the dish in front of me and the storytelling behind delivered.
Massimo is a chef I always admired because he goes beyond food, he experiments to reach the essence of the materials. He links all his work to art and philosophy. And last, with his refettorio project, first in Italy, then in South America, he adds a social aspect to his approach.
Though, my first lunch experience for EXPO 2015, let me a bit skeptical. Besides the appreciation of all the techniques and teamwork (eg. more than 60 hours cooking for a piece of meat), the principle of breaking down and rebuilding food led to a not so inviting look and consistence. MENTAL BARRIERS…
That’s why I said yes to this invite. I want to see him this time operating in his own restaurant.
The appetizers arrive; the work choice is not pointing at aesthetics (except the “ceci n’est pas une sardine”). Massimo arrives and explains the concept behind. He’s talking fast, he reminds me Woody Allen. I’m getting confused. To myself I think, I will ask my Italian colleagues to confirm the process afterwards. When he’s gone and I finally ask, I see most of them did not follow it either…
Being not able to understand the concept behind, I focus on taste and touch perceptions, like the people applying mindfulness to the act of eating. My experience is not that great. The taste and consistence are acceptable, but barely pleasant, we’re far from the trendy foodgasm. The macaron looks like a meringue with too much sugar inside.
He was talking about French contamination so I compare to what I know. I’m wondering what he had in mind exactly. Because what he said to start, is that you don’t come here to eat, otherwise you go to a traditional restaurant.
In a way, he sets immediately the expectations.
The “ceci n’est pas une sardine” is a fantastic conceptual dish. A tribute to Magritte, a minimalist approach, leading to a piece of art. For the taste, I cannot simply. With my hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to smell and taste), I feel like filling my mouth with latin garum.
And this is how it starts, a succession of dishes, more edible “concepts” than food in itself. Massimo telling the story behind each dish makes 70% of the experience. I wonder what would happen, if the day you go, he's holding a conference somewhere…
And dish after dish, I smell the dish and have the bad surprise to smell strong flavors I loathe. He always adds essence of fish, oyster sauce, japanese sauce, miso, mushrooms, or smoked aromas.
His revisited Caesar salad has such a level of complexity that you must be an expert to understand what is behind. I’m not even sure it’s possible as he uses innovative extracting techniques. At one point, I can feel the mint but not sure why it's there.
I feel in front of a wall, where I got some tips from the chef to climb it, but don’t understand which path I should follow. I leave each dish one after the other one. Letting me think, what is the notion of cooking at this level? Does elitism excludes taste pleasure? Because, Massimo wrote a book called: “Never trust a skinny chef”, but I think it’s true, with such typology of dish, you don’t feel like asking for some extra.
It reminds me my experience to this trendy restaurant in Milan called 28 posti where I had tobacco ice cream and while I was eating it I had the feeling to chew an ashtray, when everyone was eating without saying anything.
Is it linked to my hyperesthesia? That makes me rejecting strong tastes like colatura di alici? Is it cultural? Because I know those tastes are so enjoyed and common in Asia.
But after this lunch, I don’t feel eating foie gras for a while, me, French ! Just thinking about it I have the nausea.
At one point arrive the “bollito non bollito”, the dish he explained in an poetry way during Identità Golosa. The plate that brought emotion to the whole audience because he was incorporating in it, what he calls “ contamination” with the Mexican molle (chocolate sauce). I taste it and feel more the burnt taste than the chocolate. I questioned myself : is it normal ? Is it made on purpose? Barely 30 seconds later, I hear from one of the guest that it’s the dish of the year. I feel completely numb. Facing a total misunderstanding. My perceptions tells : the consistency is not pleasant, the fat effect is not counterbalanced because the sauce is too sweet. I’m asking myself: but can you really criticize something you don’t understand at 100%? Are you legitimate ?
I'm not sure how my past in American companies, where they’re used to managed by objectives influenced my way of behaving. Because, when I don’t understand the path, I’m focusing on the result. And the result? Well it’s definitely not aligned with my personal definition of food pleasures. It 's even the opposite.
So I keep doubting, almost agitated, when the tortellini of pumpkin arrives. I bite into one and I have the feeling to eat icing sugar combined with almonds liquor. It is tasteful to my palate? No, it goes beyond all the rules I learn about counterbalancing sweet, salt, bitter and sour.
The chocolate with blood of hare? Oh god, I could have done everything to be able to split it.
And me skeptical, desiring to understand, as seeing everyone enthusiastic.
I find the experience ironic, because my friends are always saying I’m too innovative, and are shocked by my fusion experiments.
I’m basically reaching Meyers threshold.
But the real question is: does everyone going to eat to Francescana can reach the right level of expertise to enjoy the meal? Is it not possible that only a cook with a certain level of skills could understand what is behind? Is there a side effect of status symbol recognition or fashion behind ? Cause me, I’m telling you, I prefer to watch table’s chef episode of Massimo Bottura, while eating a pizza.
I always said that Massimo feeds your soul, not your belly. I’m even more than convinced now. I think he uses food for expressing himself, he’s developing his own art media. As someone would use clay or acrylic, he uses food to provide messages to people. He has a way to review the concept of food which is incredible, his talks are inspiring, without forgetting a hint of provocative talent.
But his food?
It definitely does not fit my personal taste. But talking with other (sincere) persons, I got the feedback that it’s an experience to do once in your life, but coming back? No thanks.
Ceci n'est pas une sardine