How feminine creativity helped define my cooking style

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My grandmother was my first female influence. She was a very strong personality, extremely independent and one of the first women in Italy to graduate from the school of economics in Turin, after World War I. She had businesses in coal and oil, and did all this while helping me with my homework.

Growing up in Modena, in northern Italy, the women were all very good cooks. My mother loved cooking tortellini for my sister, brother and me. It’s a very traditional recipe, and the perfect mix of ham, prosciutto di parma, mortadella, parmigiana, veal and pork, wrapped in a small piece of pasta, cooked in broth. It’s to die for. She was the one who influenced me to become a chef.

My mother taught me two things: to cook with love and to always use the best ingredients. She was extremely picky, to the point where she said, “Even if you cry over spending too much money on the best ingredients, cry once.” She was a big believer in investing in the best quality food from local farmers, fishermen and cheese makers. 

My sister and I are extremely close because we were the youngest in the family. She went on to become an accountant and started a car company with my older brother.

The first time I fell in love was when I was 18. Her name was Katya. We were both at university: she was studying architecture and I was studying law. She taught me a lot about design and beauty in design. We went out for eight years. I didn’t finish law because I wasn’t happy.

Katya also helped me to discover my passion for giving to others. I’m a man who loves to give, which is also why I became a chef. It was my mother who told me to follow my passion, which was food. 

I met my wife, Lara, in 1993 in New York by chance. I had left my restaurant in Italy to work for a few months there and I was looking for an espresso coffee, which in New York was very hard to find back then. I finally found one in a restaurant in SoHo, but it took them 35 minutes to make it. The place was in so much anarchy I told the owner if he needed help I would run his restaurant. He hired me that day. 

Lara applied for a job as a waitress and bartender on the same day. She was an actor studying experimental theatre. We were very close friends for five months until she came to visit me in Modena when I had to go back to sort out my restaurant. We’ve been together from the moment she landed. That was 24 years ago. 

Lara really opened my mind to contemporary art, which has influenced and defined my cooking. She taught me to look deep into the artist’s mind to create a dish that, for example, looks like I have dropped the lemon tart. 

Lara also taught me that love is about patience; that creating and building a family is about staying together through the difficult times, like when my job gets demanding and we have to care for our 16-year-old son, Charlie, who has a rare genetic syndrome. 

I love the concept of family. It’s the inspiration for my restaurant in Modena, Osteria Francescana, which only fits 52 people because I want it to be like a big family, with everyone eating and celebrating.

My daughter, Alexa, is 20 and is studying international business in the US. I have learnt to trust her, to let her express herself as she wishes, to let her do what she wants, and I have encouraged her to get deep into her passion. 

Women are the most important part of my life, I now realise. Not only does my wife run my life, but in the past five years we have had more women working in the kitchen. About 30 per cent of my staff are women now, which never used to be the case, and I believe that’s why we have won so many awards in the past few years.

I love that first punch of coffee in the morning – it’s a spiritual ritual. If I could name a coffee bean after a woman it would be called “Ancella”, which is an Italian word for “the women who were serving Jesus”, those who brought him water and bread. It was also my grandmother’s name. 

The perfect meal to serve a woman is any dish that has been cooked with your heart, not technique. If a dish is cooked with passion, you can taste it. 

Massimo Bottura is the chef and owner of Osteria Francescana, a restaurant in Modena, Italy, with three Michelin stars. He is also a brand ambassador for Lavazza coffee.

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