The man, the myth, the Massimo

Massimo Bottura is the best chef in the world. Now he’s in Dubai – what next?
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ITP Media Group

Ill admit it. I walked into Torno Subito with preconceived notions of what a Massimo Bottura restaurant ‘should be’. Never having been, I’d only seen images of Osteria Francescana, the concept that made his name and is currently ranked number one in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but a man who creates three Michelin star restaurants must surely prefer pretentious, stuffy, intimate interiors? The type of place you would only go for a special occasion, with white tablecloths and waiters with French affectations.

The first clue that this won’t be the case with Torno Subito is its location. Long awaited, the W Dubai on The Palm may be five star luxury but it’s a far cry from grandiose regality – for that you want Emerald Palace Kempinski next door. Instead it’s a lively, active hotel with a sense of youthful exuberance throughout. From the ‘wet deck’ where the staff rush out to pop champagne at the first sign of a pool party to the reimagined spa area which caters more to pre-going out makeovers than couples’ massages to Enya.

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The second is as you walk down the long hallway where Torno Subito resides at the end. As you get closer you might get the feeling you’re being watched. As you get within 30ft you see it’s an artwork of Bottura himself peering at you through his trademark, thick-rimmed glasses. It’s already contemporary and cool before we’ve even set foot through the door.

So that’s what Torno Subito isn’t. But what is it? Well, to put it simply, it’s fun.

“The inspiration was a reflection,” Bottura tells me as we settle into pastel pink chairs on the patio. “I wanted to come to Dubai and have fun. To have fun I’m thinking about my memories. My best period was when I was a kid, a teenager, and I was with my mum spending time in Rimini on the Riviera, having the best summer ever. And this is the way that we are playing now. We are like kids under the table stealing tortellini and making trouble.”

This doesn’t seem like a laser focused, Michelin-chasing super-chef. Outside of the kitchen, Bottura is engaging, chatty, and relaxed, and it appears this is the side of him he has brought to Dubai. Torno Subito isn’t a fine dining establishment, it’s Fellini’s La Dolce Vita brought to life.

For Bottura fans (which most of us are), this won’t come as a surprise. He has long spoken about his love of art, particularly contemporary art, and the films of Fellini and the other great Italian auteurs of years gone by.

Indeed, stills from some classic Italian movies hang from the roof of Torno Subito, creating their own art installation. During our conversation, Bottura is at his most passionate not when speaking about food, but when speaking about art. His untamed hair and the glint of genius/madness in his eyes combines perfectly as he describes one of the suspended stills. “There are pictures of Alberto Sordi with a big plate of pasta in front of him and in the movie he is looking at the pasta like a crazy guy and he says ‘mi provocando?’ ‘You provoke me? You provoke me macaroni, I’m gonna eat you!’ And he starts eating the pasta, it’s so funny.”

It’s said with the same passion that Bottura puts into his food, and that’s when the maestro from Modena is at his best — when combining food with emotion and soul. But how much does art influence his cooking?

“I don’t want to be a snob,” Bottura starts. “But to know about art you have to live with art. You have to get deep into things. It’s not like you see a painting and you transform that painting into an edible bite. That’s so stupid. It’s just aesthetic things.

“The artist, especially contemporary artists, are talking to you. Like Ai Weiwei is breaking a 2,000 year old vase and he says I’m breaking with my past, I’m breaking 2,000 years of tradition. But I’m not defeating my tradition, I’m getting those pieces and I rebuild it in my way with a contemporary mind. So that means to understand about art, you have to live with art.

“These are my passions and through my passion I transfer emotion. It’s not just that I see things and I put them on my plate. Art is something that is the highest expression of the human being. Artists see things before everyone else. They put in your face what is reality.”

For many, Bottura is a contemporary artist. His food goes beyond being just a meal into being so much more. For the pilgrims who make their way to Osteria Francescana, or even for those only exposed to Bottura through Netflix, he is a creating ground-breaking work.

And although he’s humble, he's well aware of it. Putting himself in the same pantheon as the other greats of his generation, Bottura describes how they changed the game as we know it.

“Me, Rene Redzepi [of Nobu], Alex Atala [of D.O.M.], Dave Chang [of Momofoku], we created a new gastronomy that talks about terroir, that talks about emotion, that talks about a totally different experience than the classic.

“But I have to say that the one who broke all the barriers is Ferran Adria and his elbulli. Everybody think that the most important things that Ferran did was technique but it wasn’t. What he did was he gave us the freedom to express ourselves in a totally different direction.”

Freedom of expression is everything for Bottura, and perhaps explains why he has been so loathe to open more restaurants — cookie cutter copies would never be enough for a man of his integrity and passion — and he tells me of the many requests for just that.

“A lot of people are pushing me to open everywhere and I always say no because they want Osteria Francescana here, there, and everywhere. But I say no. Osteria Francescana is unique. It’s a small restaurant, we never thought about business, only about dreams and emotions. Love is the key, it’s the essence of what we do. That’s why when I restored the restaurant, I kept 12 tables and did not create a restaurant with double. The requests for tables are insane but I don’t believe in that.”

He calls Osteria Francescana the “mother of everything” under which his other concepts including Franceschetta 58, also in Modena, and Gucci Osteria in Florence, sit.

And now joining that is Torno Subito. But why at the W Dubai. How did they catch the fish that everyone else wanted?

“Because they had the passion and the persistence to say we want you,” he explains. “Usually I say no to everyone and that’s it. But they came back, and came back again, and again, and again. And in the end I said okay but I’ll do my own project, my own way. And they said yes, we want that, we believe in your project.”

General manager Anne Scott was pivotal in the process, with Bottura praising her and her team for truly understanding it and allowing him full control and the ability to build what he wanted.

The result is perhaps unexpected, with “playful” the word Bottura uses most often to describe it.

“But when you see the quality of what we have done…” he adds, stroking the rather comfortable, yet casual, chairs we are chatting on, the incredible views of Dubai Marina in the distance. “You can go into the seven star hotel and you’re never going to find chairs like this. You don’t need to have gold and silver to have luxury. Luxury is totally different in 2019. It’s this. You feel the Italian manufacture? All handmade by Paula Lenti.”

The essence of Torno Subito is found in every aspect of it. As Bottura says, it’s modern day luxury disguised as comfortable casual dining. But with every single solitary detail picked over by Bottura from back in Modena, and with his reputation on the line, he was hardly likely to get it wrong. Certainly he is happy with it himself.

“The result is unbelievable. The quality of the details. I’m very critical of myself, of my team. Nothing is good for me. Never. And I have to say when I walked in, it’s unbelievable.”

Rajesh, our photographer, and I see firsthand the demand for perfection from Bottura as he tasks his team with making us a meal following the interview. Every minor detail is supervised by the top man and every mistake is pounced upon. So for Bottura to walk into Torno Subito and call it "unbelievable" shows the level of his pleasure.

The real task begins now however, with Torno Subito facing up against stiff competition in one of the strongest market arounds when it comes to restaurants with a celebrity name. Most can't rest upon reputation for long, but it's hard to see Bottura allowing anything with his name on it to do so.

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