It’s hard to tell whether Massimo Bottura is joking when he says that he has four family members: wife Lara, daughter Alexa, son Charlie and three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana. Only one of them is an eye-wateringly pricey experience on the cutting edge of the Italian culinary canon. And it’s the only one that’s given Bottura every ounce of his public acclaim and fame, whether it’s on Netflix or at the side of friends like, err, Gucci President and CEO Marco Bizzarri.
You might assume that the exacting 57-year-old has glass nerves right now, with his homeland on lockdown after reeling at the deadly blow of COVID-19, plus the indefinite shuttering of Osteria Francescana. It’s not easy for a workaholic to sit at home and talk to people just for leisure while unable to do much else. But Bottura doesn’t seem to have lost a gram of his manic passion when I watch him on Instagram Live, cooking and joking and waving his hands as his wife and kids mill around preparing for dinner.
There are many pragmatic lessons to be found in his “Kitchen Quarantine” livestreams, whether it’s a foolproof method for basic bechamel sauce or an improvised, quasi-Japanese vegetable soup. Each day’s meal is a whirlwind of ingredients and ideas, but it always focuses on fundamental ingredients used in familiar, comforting ways. Odds are, you have (or can grab) the ingredients necessary to make the guacamole and fudgey chocolate sauce loved by his son Charlie.
This stream is no masterclass on rolling paper-thin fresh pasta or conjuring silky sauces to pour over $50 shrimp (for that, you should take his literal MasterClass). For the first time that I’ve really seen, Bottura comes off less like the culinary wizard who hobnobs with Brad Pitt and ScarJo and more like that dad-next-door who is quietly the best grill cook in the whole damn suburb.
The “Kitchen Quarantine” stream, which happens at 8 p.m. in Italy (so 3 p.m. Eastern, 12 p.m. Pacific), is also not an escapist fantasy from the world at hand. The impact of the coronavirus on the Italian people is a recurring theme, with Bottura often giving updates on what’s happening in Modena and offering avenues for viewers to help local hospitals and organizations. The pandemic has also made a point of the chef’s famous nothing-goes-to-waste philosophy, which is presented as an artistic exercise in the kitchen of Osteria Francescana but just good-ol’ frugality in the context of Bottura’s home. A typical bit of Bottura wisdom falls when he calls on us to stay healthy and drink plenty of “fresh-pressed” juice, then wags a finger while explaining orange peels should be reused for homemade marmalade.
Would I usually ever bother squeezing fresh juice or using the peels for jam? Not really, but I have plenty of extra time on hand during this quarantine, and there’s no busywork like the kind that leaves you something delicious.
In these small and seemingly obvious ways, Bottura’s simple stream captures the unique way that cooking creates mental self-care and physical sustenance. It’s not always easy to follow along in his jumble of Italian, then English, then Italian again, but the processes are pretty clear for any basic home cook, and his energy is unmistakable. For a guy who says he never cooks at home, Bottura gives off the aura of a man who has done it a million times over. There’s something soothing about seeing him be silly with Charlie, who is developmentally disabled, and the wit he shows with his talkative daughter and wife.
But I also get the sense his joy would be as immediate even if he were alone. There are few things I love more than feeding my friends and family, but doing it alone for so many days can feel in my head like a mildly depressing chore. Watching this star chef slow down and extoll the goodness of quality things is the dose of inspiration I needed this week. Twitter jokes aside, feeding yourself during a pandemic doesn’t have to be an exercise in bare-bones minimalism or anxiety-driven snacking. It also doesn’t have to be a big project like learning to make sourdough or brewing beer (although I can’t blame you for finally going for it). Instead, a Michelin-star chef 6,000 miles away has convinced me that I’ll feel okay as long as I can stand at the stove, stirring a sauce that I’ll make again soon.
Hopefully, by the next time, the quarantine will be done and I’ll make this lasagne for all my friends. If not, well, at least my bechamel will be perfect.