A Chef in Kitchen Quarantine

Over the last few weeks, I have spent more time than I could ever have imagined possible in the home kitchen of one of the world’s best chefs – the generous minded: thinker, doer, gatherer and rallyer of people, Massimo Bottura.

And I am far from alone …

Friends ‘virtually visited’, and a few thousand people tuned in nightly for the live broadcast of Massimo’s IG #QuarantineKitchen event, that ran from somewhere near the beginning of his Modena based lockdown, to the end of its restrictions. Featuring Massimo and his immediate family – daughter Alexa (cinematographer, narrator, translator), wife Lara (co-host), and son Charlie (sometimes DJ, and always issuer of important health and safety advice: “Stay Home; Stay Safe; Stay Tuned.”).

The New Yorker ran an article on them, and a cursory Google of the title of this reality ‘show’ will bring you far more detail on background than is necessary for me to revisit here – suffice to say this is a TV show about food and family like you will have never seen before and, I am prepared to lay odds, will never see again. An opportunity to spend time in the home kitchen of Massimo and to chew the fat with him (figuratively), about anything and everything that occurs, as he processes food, thoughts and actions for the day with his nearest and dearest. I feel like I know them – our recently legislated disconnection turning out to be paradoxically connective, and revealing of real lives as lived in domestic circumstances we could only previously have dreamed of imagining.

Massimo appears to live in an apartment, like many in Europe, with large connecting rooms and better ceilings than are revealed in an average UK home (Italian visitors who drop by from time to time, remotely speaking, tend to ‘give good ceiling’ too, as they move their phone lenses upwards and outward, and from one room to another – sometimes in what we can only imagine might be described as an actual ‘palazzo’).

Massimo cooks, it appears, in Gucci – if I owned any Gucci, I would almost certainly wear an apron if I happened to find myself cooking in it, but this is aspirational cooking in a different league from any we have seen before; it is as uncontrived as it is elegant, it is the kind of ‘life as lived’ that only the Italian word ‘sprezzatura’ could ever hope to inhabit or attempt to describe.

We can’t see where there is a garden, but we know Massimo has direct access to some plant life and fresh herbs – and at a time when the world of lockdown has divided as much by ‘those who have’ and ‘those who do not have’ a garden, as by any other metric, this feels important. What we can see is the kitchen, a 360 view, choreographed with wild abandon daily as Massimo flits, and sometimes properly dances, from hob to sink to oven to fridges and freezers, and opens and closes doors to reveal interior contents. I may know more about Massimo’s kitchen than I do my own.

And his kitchen speaks with confidence about who he is and how his family live. It brings home his professional life in very obvious form – stainless steel units and surfaces, on wheels and telescopic legs –and everywhere! It could look clinical without too much effort, but somehow there is nothing clinical about it. It might be the Smurf toy that sits above the oven with a whole host of other curiosities – wearing its chef’s hat and making Charlie smile when his papa grabs it off its perch; it might be the shamble of unidentifiable cook books that sits atop the cabinet, that sits in turn above an impressive knife collection; it might be the well-flamed coffee pots behind the hob, the fruit bowl that decorates the Island unit, the silver Damask tiles that clad the wall behind the industrial-styled extraction unit or, most obvious of all, the Flos 2097 chandelier (design, c 1958, Gino Sarfatti) that illuminates the room.

It could be so many semi-concealed small details, like the framed picture of His Holiness that hangs on the wall above a fridge (and appears to balance a similar sized picture of Massimo on the other side of the arch that leads to a dining table, or two). There are any number of elements that contribute, and allow the room to speak – of personality, design literacy and instinct, utility and memory – some obvious, some discrete – the steel kitchen units wearing their significant design pedigree with the lightest of touches.

And what of the cooking? You may well ask. Often described as a free to access masterclass in the art of home cooking from this world class chef. Importantly, Massimo does not describe it thus – quite the opposite in fact. He emphasises – often – this is NOT a masterclass! And, if you are tempted to follow along for itemised recipes, or precision of thought, this is not for you either; even when Massimo tries to ‘teach’ a skill – one that has long since passed into an instinct as far as he is concerned – he is baffled by the questions thrown at him: “how much” of  “this against that’? – “enough of it” or “what you will” – Massimo literally cannot answer such questions. Basta! You must develop the skill to ‘know’; trust your palate, experiment – use his ideas as guide to possibility, but don’t expect an exact recipe from this man for how to cook this classic item or that. His interest is in knowing his ingredients – how to respect them, how to blend and share them, how not to waste them. There is so much to learn, but you have to be guided by your own instinct on your path to this enlightenment. There are no easy answers, only observations.

My final observation is of the soup tureen that once belonged to Massimo’s grandmother and now sits on a mobile shelf-unit to the right of the sink; here Massimo accesses it with ease and serves from it without ceremony. I have a similar tureen, purchased because I loved the classic elegance of its lines and imagined formal occasions where I might bring it out and ‘display’ it in use; it currently resides on the top shelf of a closed cupboard in my kitchen where I can rarely be bothered to access it for any purpose at all, and would require a step-ladder if I were to try. How I now wish I could keep it obvious – to hand and for mundane use – because I can see that soup shared like a rite into beautiful bowls made to ‘break bread’ around seems inducement to family connection in a way that soup doled out of a saucepan like fuel could never hope to emulate.

I’m not suggesting we all need a soup tureen, or even that where Massimo chooses to keep his is the best way to display it; what I am suggesting is that meaning becomes imbued in the way we choose our objects, in how we keep and use them, in the memories they stir into our souls. And now is, perhaps, a good time to consider the objects that we own and why we give them houseroom. This seems to me a small part of a much bigger whole that I have been observing here; the ‘what we might normally miss’ about the myriad tiny details that turn a house into a home.

Thank you Bottura family for the weeks and months that you have (daily!) invited so many strangers to join you in your beautiful home; it’s been generous, revelatory, touching, informative, and truly life-affirming –it’s also been recorded and awarded – but most of all it’s been ‘real’; an event of a lifetime to be cherished as a precious memory of this time by anyone and everyone who has shared in this moment.

Written by Erica Husain,

Day True’s Better Life Designer.

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