A Michelin chef offers joy on Instagram

April 27, 2020 Issue

A Michelin-Starred Chef’s Cooking Show for the Quarantined

The demos that Osteria Francescana’s Massimo Bottura shares nightly on Instagram are as malleable as a mound of pizza dough.

By Sheila Marikar April 20, 2020

Massimo and Alexa Bottura
Alexa and Massimo BotturaIllustration by João Fazenda

Scene: Italy, COVID-19 lockdown, Night One. A family outside Modena wonders what to do for dinner. Mom stares into fridge. Dad scarfs down pistachios. Son nukes something in microwave. Daughter looks up from phone, shakes head. Lo and behold, her light-bulb moment: a cooking show for the quarantined, by the quarantined. How to do it? Whom to pitch? Netflix, Apple, Disney+? Another idea: FaceTime a focus group, to test the concept. “I filmed my dad making some food,” Alexa Bottura, who is twenty-three, said recently. The response: More, please. “I was, like, if my friends who are in their early twenties are into it—they’re bored, they don’t know what they’re doing, but they want to know what my dad is doing—I wonder what regular people would think.”

“Kitchen Quarantine” stars Alexa’s dad, Massimo, the chef of the three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, in Modena. It airs nightly on Instagram. Its team is lean (Alexa: director, executive producer, camerawoman; also, recently furloughed Maserati employee), its airtime is approximate (around 8 p.m.), and its format is as malleable as a mound of pizza dough. An episode can run twenty minutes or forty-five, begin in Italian and end in English, offer instructions on how to start a béchamel sauce (step one: heat butter and flour in a pan), or include a request for donations (to buy an ambulance for the city). The constants: food, conviviality, and a plea to viewers to wash their hands. Each episode garners a live audience of about three thousand (more watch archived versions later); real-time feedback comes as a stream of emoji (mostly hearts), comments (“That’s a lot of olive oil”), and questions (“Can I be quarantined with Massimo, please?”).The New Yorker’s coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free for all readers.

“It’s not a master class, it’s not a cooking show, it’s just us, making dinner,” Lara, Massimo’s wife, said. She wore a tan bathrobe and sat at a dining table, which had just been cleared of the latest episode’s spoils: tubular pasta sauced with heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, and Luganica sausage; a cheesecake topped with raspberries and a balsamic-vinegar reduction. “We’re a restaurant family. We don’t do this. We never really know what Massimo is going to cook, or what mood Charlie”—their nineteen-year-old son, who is autistic—“is going to be in.” She added, “If you can get something out of it, or an inspiration to use an ingredient in your fridge in a different way—that’s all we want.” But an increased kitchen I.Q. couldn’t hurt. “Half a million people watched the video on how to make béchamel,” Massimo said. “Come on! It’s the most basic sauce you can make.”

During the plague a couple is excited to have new culture to consume.
“Good news—Shakespeare is using this time to write ‘King Lear,’ so we’ll have more stuff to binge soon.”

Cartoon by Joe Dator

Low on supplies, one recent Friday, Massimo and Alexa made their weekly trip to Modena’s Mercato Albinelli, a cavernous, eighty-eight-year-old market with dozens of venders. A correspondent in Los Angeles joined them via WhatsApp. “To leave the house only when you really need to, it’s the only way to stop this virus,” Massimo said. He wore a face mask and a Gucci scarf. Alexa said, “We had the big shopping craze a couple of weeks ago. Now everyone has definitely calmed down.” She wore a face mask and a white hoodie. “There’s plenty of toilet paper.”Video From The New YorkerFor the Love of Bread

“One, two, three,” other shoppers, Massimo counted. He approached a crate of purple artichokes. “Look, how beautiful,” he said, reaching out his hand. A rubber-gloved worker reprimanded him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Massimo said. “I’m used to touching.” The worker bagged carrots, celery, limes, and avocados. “People really enjoyed the guacamole we did,” Massimo said. He and Alexa passed lemons the size of footballs. “We’re going to buy some pancetta, glaze it with balsamic vinegar, serve it with shaved Parmigiano. It would be great to add—let’s get raspberries,” he said. Also: potatoes. “Obviously, you need to have in the home some potatoes.” Mozzarella came from a cheesemonger wearing blue rubber gloves. Massimo sampled a ribbon of prosciutto proffered by another gloved hand, nodded, paid in cash. A butcher lowered his mask to holler, “You’re Massimo!”

Si! ” the chef shouted back. Alexa watched a butcher break down a chicken from behind a strip of yellow caution tape. “We’re going to put the chicken in the freezer and use it to make broth,” Massimo said. “Generally, the broth has been from Francescana,” which, like his twelve other outposts around the world, was closed indefinitely. (The exception: his Milan refettorio, “the only soup kitchen open in Milan,” he said. He dispatched the employees of his newest restaurant, Gucci Osteria, in Beverly Hills, to a soup kitchen on Skid Row.) Father and daughter looped back to the vegetable vender to pick up their bags. “We’re done,” Massimo said. Time check: thirty-four minutes. They emerged into the sun. “Usually this piazza is packed,” Massimo said. “Now, no one.” He noted two officers stationed near a bell tower, to ensure “that no people are that close to each other.” He took in the square: pigeons, a cloudless blue sky. “This is surreal,” he said. “Sur-real.” ♦

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