Chef Massimo Bottura Wants to Reframe Food Waste as a Food Surplus
The chef behind Osteria Francescana shares his zero-waste philosophy.
Massimo Bottura remembers his grandmother always nudging him, while growing up in a large family in Modena, Italy: “Don’t leave the table until you’ve finished what’s on your plate.” On New Year’s Eve, while indulging in the Italian tradition of pork and lentils, she would unfailingly remind the family that “this is not just a spiritual act—the animal has given its life to feed the family. Make sure you use every single part of it as respect,” Bottura recalls.
Chef Bottura, now 59 and chef/owner of acclaimed Osteria Francescana, credits many childhood memories and family values for fueling a drive against food waste. “From the business point-of-view, once I opened a restaurant in 1995, I knew there would be an inevitable excess of food and it started off with something as simple as using scraps to create staff meals,” he says. This is how, at a three-Michelin starred restaurant, chef Bottura found a strong footing in a direction of finding solutions towards more sustainable eating.
“About 33% of all the world’s food goes to waste,” he says. “We produce food for 12 billion people when we are 7 billion on earth. Contrary, about 816 million people don’t have anything to eat. So to me, the first answer to this problem of disparity is to combat food waste.”
In 2015, he launched Refettorio Ambrosiano (refettorio is Latin for “restore”) along with his wife Lara. It was a pop-up concept at Milan World Expo in an area called Don Giuliano, one of the most neglected neighborhoods in the city, at the behest of Pope Francis. “This was done intentionally to bring light in the periphery,” he says.
For the next six months, 65 of the most influential chefs in the world came to the Refettorio to cook meals for the most vulnerable. “I wasn’t content with just pop-ups, I wanted something permanent.” So the following year, he set up another refettorio for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“We now have 13 Refettorios, all over the world under the umbrella foundation Food for Soul,” he says. “We closed 2021 with 1,000,150 meals for people in need, using 670 tons of food surplus.”
Bottura prefers to call it “food surplus” and not “food waste,” because he believes that we are in excess of production and that clever distribution of resources can solve this problem for good.
To chef Bottura, “sustainability” means having codependent relationships with farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers, and the other staff that works at a restaurant—irrespective of the hierarchy. The best example of his philosophy is his iconic Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart dish. It was a part of his seven-course menu at Osteria Francescana and came about when a sous chef, Taka Kondo, accidentally dropped a tart before serving it. The dish stands for making the best out of something that you first deem as useless.
“It’s about celebrating imperfections, about making a mistake, and transforming a mistake into an opportunity,” Bottura says.
Such practices are hidden all over the menu at Osteria Francescana. For example, typically discarded items like potato peels and excessive mussel juice play starring roles.
“The earthy flavor of the peels is incredible,” he says. “I use them to make toasted peel broth. “When I open mussels, to me, the most amazing flavor is in the juice from the mussels. The fruit of the mussels? It’s okay. I use this juice to create gelatin for a seafood salad. And together the potato and mussels go on to make pasta. It’s traditional in Italy for food to be zero waste.”
Today, a mindful diner is the one that understands these nuances, celebrates small stores, respects the farmers, and dedicates personal time to shopping for food, Bottura advises.
“They should think about what they are buying, what quantity is necessary, is it seasonal?” he says. “They will thereby be saving the world because they don’t waste and mainly they themselves eat better.”
According to him, it is then your duty to spread that message far and wide. This is why Bottura consistently shares this ethos with his 1.5 million followers on Instagram. During the pandemic, he produced live cooking videos, including one Sunday dinner made with everything that was left in the refrigerator from the week before.
Last year, chef Bottura was involved in the Netflix series Waffles + Mochi, a show aimed at teaching kids about how to eat vegetables and how to have a playful relationship with food.
“I remember when I was growing up, our nursery school encouraged us to play with food, flowers and get messy,” he says. “They also taught us how to make Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and educated us about balsamic vinegar, their importance in Italian cuisine. This is how I got invested in culture and cuisine.”
Today, Bottura continues that cycle through his work at Food for Soul, day-to-day practices at his restaurant, and opportunities to speak with young people whenever he can.
“When Michelle Obama asked me to be a part of it, I thought that this was an apt opportunity to communicate an important message to two to seven year olds,” he says. “This is my way of giving back to the world.”
This interview was facilitated by Masters of Marriott Bonvoy and Culinary Culture in Mumbai, India.