MY ADVENTURE WITH CAVIAR RISOTTO AT OSTERIA FRANCESCANA

I was aware of Massimo Bottura, the owner of Osteria Francescana and one of the globe’s best and most charismatic chefs.

He’s a master of his craft and someone who really knows the marketing side of the game.

His Osteria Francescana in Modena was listed first on the list of “50 Best Restaurants” in 2016 and second the following year.

Bottura was a chef who created food that was a work of art by channeling an inner artistic inspiration. He was also a kitchen revolutionary who married the best of his ingredients and techniques with art to create food.

He was a modern chef who was aware of the need to look to the future while also remaining keenly aware of the importance of looking into the rear-view mirror, recommending that the journey set off from grandma’s recipes – not for the sake of a nostalgic trip down memory lane, but as a learning exercise to stimulate creativity.

Sinyor Bottura
Signor Bottura

How did I come to meet Bottura anew?

I already knew all of this. But as I was perusing a parmigiano factory in Modena, I met a completely different side of the maestro – to the point that I can say I only met Bottura then and there. This side of the maestro was the one that unites his charity and commercial pragmatism, as well as the one that unites his humanity and productive and effective solutions to a societal problem.

Modena was rocked by a large earthquake in May 2012. The cheese storages belonging to parmigiano producers suffered damage to the tune of between 100 and 200 million euros. (It should not be a shock to you that the discrepancy stems from the fact the figures are furnished by Italian sources). Everyone rolled up their sleeves to heal the wounds from the earthquake, including Bottura – with all his creativity – by creating a recipe that would also increase the use of parmigiano. Following a little home experiment, the maestro changed the famous cacio e pepe dish, which is made with spaghetti and pecorino cheese, substituting parmigiano for the ricotto and rice for the spaghetti. But that wasn’t all: Bottura then reshaped this pasta dish into a pizza format. Creating a hit, the updated dish also fostered a significant increase in parmigiano consumption. Thanks to an announcement on social media, everyone in Italy sat down to eat this meal at 8 o’clock on the evening of 27 October.

The campaign was a success, as the consumption of parmigiano went through the roof, compensating for the damages incurred by the producers. Modena, in turn, applauded Bottura.

Parmagiano storage
Parmagiano storage

Meeting Bottura for a second time

We were looking at Google Maps while wandering the narrow streets of Modena. While searching for the town’s famous Zelmira restaurant, wouldn’t you know that Bottura’s Osteria Francescana would materialize right in front of us? People were taking photos in front of its door, and when in Modena, do as the Modenans do.

Taking photo like other people
Taking photos like other people

But while taking the photo of my wife and son, my viewfinder couldn’t help but spy a group from the restaurant in work attire, kicking around a ball as they waited for the dinner rush. Given the trial that just walking on some of the old cobblestones is, I was immediately struck by the ball control of one of the youth. I had half a mind to go over and offer him a position in the starting XI for my club’s midfield, only to be stopped by entreaties from my wife and son that we were running late for Zelmira and running the risk of incurring a no-show penalty.

“I hope these guys straighten themselves out and wash up before they head inside,” my wife said as we ventured in. And so it was that the passion for calcio among Bottura and his team helped me meet him once more.

Meeting Bottura for a third time

We finally headed to Bottura’s restaurant for lunch. The famous chef himself was not in evidence, but his restaurant is naturally his calling card, and I certainly saw that. Our son had come all the way from San Francisco to join us for this meal. Bottura himself, unfortunately, was in New York, but sous chefs Davide di Fabio and Takaiko Kondo had picked up the baton in his absence. Our server, meanwhile, was Denis Bretta, whom I recognized from Bottura’s commercials.

Soccer team (!)
Juventus’ new transfer targets

The amuse-bouches presented before us consisted of fish and chips, eel and rabbit macaroons – all interesting experiments.

For an appetizer, my wife opted for the dish intriguingly named “an eel swimming up the Po river,” while my son went for the Code mare nostrum, to be accompanied by a Fonte Canale 2015. For my part, I asked for the Croccantino of foie gras. I can honestly say that my foie gras, which was filled with caramelized hazelnuts and walnuts and balanced out with balsamic vinegar, was the most original and delicious I’ve ever had. In this, it was impossible not to recognize the signature of Bottura’s creativity.

In between, they offered spoonfuls of leeks in cream and parmigiano.

For an entrée, my wife selected the “Lobster with double sauces, both acidic and sweet” while my son chose the suckling pig with a Primitivo di Manduria, Gianfranco Fino 2014 ES – a red Puglia wine.

My trials and tribulations

For my entrée, I moved in for the “gray and black rice with Oscietra Royal Caviar.” I had dined on Risotto di Mare in 2015 at the Istanbul restaurant opened by Bottura, and although the concoction of rice, pasta and seafood isn’t normally my cup of tea, I enjoyed it. This time, I elected to try the risotto caviar. Taking a forkful of grey and black rice with risotto, I told Denis, “This fish smells funny.”

“That’s because it was cooked with oysters,” came the reply.

“But it doesn’t say that in the menu,” would have been my reply if I hadn’t chosen to instead just eat my meal. Try as I might, though, I could only get through half of it before throwing in the towel. No one asked either why I had only eaten half my meal at such a famous kitchen.

For dessert it was tiramisu, although I can say that I’ve had better ones in Italy before. The petit fours that came with the coffee were also fairly ordinary.

But the thing that wasn’t ordinary was what happened to me in the evening: terrible food poisoning that left me quite the worse for wear both that evening and the following two days. To avoid public humiliation as a result of my condition, the whole family banded together to help. And although we had seats in front of the orchestra pit at the Luciano Pavarotti Theater for Soirée Pepita, I had to observe proceedings from a more inexpensive box on the top floor given its closer proximity to the gents’ room. The same scene played out the following evening in Parma during the Victorija Mullova recital.

Luciano Pavarotti Theater
Luciano Pavarotti Theater

But despite all our precautions, we failed to achieve maximum success. If my wife hadn’t been with me and around to occasionally “clean up,” I wouldn’t have been worthy of even feeling shame toward the amiable Luca at Modena’s Cervetta 5 Hotel or to Vittorio, who oversaw all of our events with aplomb and kindness at Parma’s Palazzo Della Rosa. Naturally, I’m not one to suggest that I fell ill because of such a famous restaurant as the Osteria Francescana (even if it has fallen from first to second in the world rankings). That would hardly be believable, and as someone who studied law, I also know it’s not fair to make such a claim in the absence of any concrete evidence. Still, there’s no denying my two days of trial and tribulation, as well as the smell of fish that was always welling at the top of my throat.

With its hall of five tables, the Osteria Francescana fits the notion of an “osteria.” But the other definitions that go with the term, such as being simple or inexpensive, are most certainly not in evidence. And unlike the establishment that it lost its number-one spot to, Eleven Mad, it doesn’t quite fit the bill of being “a true restaurant.” Instead, it would probably be more appropriate to describe the place as “Bottura’s showroom.” As it is, Bottura himself calls his establishment a “laboratory of ideas.”

But whether it’s a showroom or a laboratory, the five-table hall was closed to the outside and fairly claustrophobic. The ground was covered in a brown, wall-to-wall factory-made carpet, while the walls sported nothing more than a coat of dark-colored latex paint and some portraits of Edith Piaff. The combination of the scents of the carpet, food, alcohol and exhaled breath made the small, five-table hall feel remarkably airless. And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that even if the boss is a fan of the slow food movement, the restaurant’s stale air was enough to have us down our fare quickly and depart.

The reasons for Bottura’s lack of success in Istanbul

I should, however, touch on why the Istanbul location of Signor Bottura, who gives off an air of not only creativity, sensitivity and love for the arts but also that of a successful businessman, failed to succeed. In 2015, Signor Bottura opened a location in Istanbul called Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura, only to close soon after.

I inquired with Daniele, who had worked there as the Maître D’ before moving onto Il Riccio Bodrum. “The location was bad – it looked onto the highway.”

But that’s partly true and partly false. It’s true because Bottura opened the place in a mall and false because there were a number of successful restaurants in that very shopping center, including some that possess a favorable international reputation. More to the point, the restaurant boasted a spacious balcony and the ostensible highway was an avenue heading toward the Bosphorus bridge. And there certainly wasn’t that much space in Modena.

I asked the same question this time to Denis at the Francescana. “People in Istanbul weren’t yet ready,” he said in summary of the situation.

That, too, is partly true and partly false. It’s true because, like the example of Hakkasan, it’s a fact that restaurants that tend to implement a different pricing policy in comparison to the standard in Istanbul encounter more difficulties after opening. It’s false because Istanbul does feature a customer segment that is prepared to pay top dollar to keep restaurants that “respect the customer” in business. As a matter of fact, it’s not always easy to find a place at restaurants in Istanbul that are even more expensive. Likewise, the customers who are willing to go to such places have the means to frequent places around the world that are even more expensive. A quick glance at social media provides sufficient evidence in that direction.

In my opinion, Ristorante di Bottura failed to survive in Istanbul due to an incorrect and inadequate feasibility plan. It’s not that the Istanbul clientele wasn’t ready, it is that the investor himself failed to conduct a sufficient feasibility study or make the correct strategic choices, instead entering the market unprepared. Let me give an example: I went to the restaurant one evening for an event organized by the Istanbul Rotary Club. Ristorante di Bottura had organized a six-course tasting menu centered on two main dishes: Baccalà e ceci (Salted codfish) and Guancia all’aceto Balsamico (Beef cheek in balsamic sauce). I would never lend credence to the populist notion that the chef should make concessions on his signature dishes and prepare a menu with fare in the style “demanded by customers.” But “making concessions to customers” is one thing and “respecting customers” – and carving out an according commercial niche – is another. Istanbul is one of the few metropoles that boasts fish that is always multifarious, always delicious and always fresh. As such, offering frozen cod to a customer segment that is used to something fresh just because it’s on the menu in Modena is nothing but a slight to your clientele.

Unlucky experience in İstanbul
Unlucky experience in İstanbul

Similarly, the beef cheek was cooked with the “sous vide” technique, which ensures meat and fish are soft, but, I ask you, do you want your food to be soft, hard, spicy, sweet et cetera, or do you want it to be “delicious?” I know that there are at least a dozen restaurants in Istanbul, particularly Niso Adato’s Şans restaurant, that can cook beef cheek for five or six hours so that it’s both soft and delicious. If you’re going to serve meat with a plastic taste at such an exorbitant price to a customer segment that’s used to the aforementioned quality, it suggests, in a nutshell, that you didn’t do enough homework when coming here, that you’re only resting on the laurels of your name and that you assumed “they’ll like whatever I tell them to.”

This result is unfortunate for someone like Bottura, given how much he cares about vision.

Returning to Modena, I’d say that, personally, I expect a true kitchen revolutionary and artist like Bottura to pursue a new challenge. Bottura needs to leave behind the laboratory and showroom concept that has been a proven success and make a name for himself among “real restaurants” like Eleven Mad, Heston Blumenthal, Blue Hill or Apicius. His accumulation of experience, dynamism and maturity present the ideal environment for this kind of venture.

I wouldn’t want to see him insist on the laboratory concept, but if he did, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see new up-and-coming geniuses steal his place near the top of the top restaurants list…