November 9, 2015
Massimo Bottura, the madman of Modena, is the most conceptual of chefs. He thinks with his eyes, and has never been content to merely feed you something to eat. He wants to inspire you, delight you, move you; he wants you to come away from his table with a new vision of the world.
So is it any wonder that Sotheby’s, on the eve of a major contemporary art auction, invited the chef to cook a meal?
Bottura stood in the center of the gallery, surrounded by modern masters (Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Robert Longo, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra – to name just a few), hacking at an enormous wheel of Parmesan. As guests strolled past he lovingly doused the shards with thick streams of 49 year old Villa Manodori balsamic vinegar and handed them out. Guests strolled through the galleries, crunching on the crystalline cheese as they sipped Ca del Bosco 2005 and contemplated the price of the pictures. “Hmm,” a woman eyed canvas that looked a lot like the beef above, “I’ve always coveted this Pollack.”
Her husband moved over to look at the anticipated price range. He shook his head. She looked disappointed.
I was not seated at their table, so I’ll never know if she talked him into bidding on the painting. I forgot all about them as I contemplated the dish Bottura named Autumn in New York (many of his creations have painterly names).
Delicate as a piece of jewelry, this composition contained dozens of tiny bits of vegetables, each pickled or preserved. Occasionally you’d encounter a little surprise: a shard of black truffle, the pucker of sour cherry gelatin, the overwhelming richness of foie gras. As each plate was served a broth – made of the discarded peels and parings of the vegetables – was ladled over. It was, I think, a gentle reminder in the midst of all this luxury, that waste is the biggest problem in the modern food world.
Black and White seems like the most traditional of dishes, but Bottura originally created it in response to the earthquake in Emilia in 2012, which damaged 400,000 wheels of cheese. It’s his Modenese take on Roman cacio e pepe, using rice instead of pasta, parmesan broth instead of caciocavallo cheese and bits of black truffle in place of pepper. Those white truffles on top? Pure artistic license.
Crunchy Part of the Lasagne
“It’s very emotional!” Bottura tends to talk in exclamation points. “Every Italian kid fights over the lasagne corners. We rebuilt one of the corners for each of you!”
That’s the pasta on top, crisped and colorful, over an aerated bechamel and a smooth ragu. I ate it with my fingers, and somehow – I don’t quite understand it – Bottura had called up my own childhood. Suddenly the gallery disappeared and I found myself sitting by a campfire, eating melted marshmallows. It was the most astonishing kinesthetic experience.
Beautiful Psychedelic Spin-Painted Veal, Not Flame Grilled
Strange sensation: the rosy meat is kissed by smoke, and yet it is so soft and tender it could not have been grilled. Bottura tricks your mind and your mouth; the beef tenderloin has been cooked sous-vide and then wrapped in a coating of vegetable charcoal. The effect is as vivid in the eating as the seeing. Those vegetable emulsions splashed about- beets, peppers, carrots – are all sweet, as is that fabulous balsamic vinegar. Savory desserts have become the rage but Bottura turns that on its head; here sugar invades the middle of the meal.
Caesar Salad in Bloom
To give Caesar his due, his name has been taken in vain. The tiny bit of lettuce hiding beneath that pile of leaves is utterly overwhelmed by flowers: chamomile, lavender, nasturtium. Once again, a savory course has been turned sweet – and once again, childhood has been invoked. Looking down at that heap of color I was in a fall forest kicking piles of drying leaves for the sheer pleasure of the sound.
Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart
“Here we are rebuilding, in a perfect way, the imperfection.”
Lovely notion. A mistake is immortalized in this lemon zabaglione interlaced with meringue and a few savory elements – capers, dried oregano, even a bit of hot pepper. There’s a joyful simplicity to this: at the end of the evening, when so many chefs abandon themselves to decoration, we get no flowers, no colors, no tricks. Simply pure flavor to send us into the night.
I left with the taste of lemon singing through my body. At the door I turned back to look at that Pollack.
It is very beautiful.
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