How Alain Ducasse Shaped Massimo Bottura's Culinary Career - Exclusive

If you follow the world of fine dining, Alain Ducasse and Massimo Bottura are names that need no introduction. The former is a French chef who holds the distinction of being the first ever to run three different 3-star Michelin restaurants simultaneously; the latter is an Italian chef whose 3-star Michelin restaurant, Osteria Francescana, is famous for pushing his country's cuisine in bold new directions.

Even for those who are familiar with these chefs' careers, it may come as a surprise to find out that Ducasse played a vital role in Bottura's training as a young cook. The two culinary luminaries have continued collaborating up to the present day. Thus, it makes sense that Ducasse is one of the culinary titans who will be participating in a tribute dinner for Botttura at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival later this month.

In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Ducasse shared his memories from when Bottura trained in one of his restaurants — Ducasse recruited the young Italian chef after eating a promising meal at his humble trattoria. He also related how rewarding it has been in recent years to collaborate with Bottura's charitable organization, Food For Soul.

How Ducasse discovered Bottura

As Ducasse told us, Bottura was studying to be a lawyer in the '80s, but he abandoned law school and opened a trattoria in Campazzo, Italy. This is where Ducasse first ate Bottura's food. "I had been given the address and I went there. The meal I had was impressive." The French chef was particularly enamored with a savory riff on a cappuccino in which the coffee was replaced with onion and potato soup. He saw signs of promise in Bottura and convinced the younger chef to give up his restaurant to come work at Ducasse's Louis XV.

Bottura was a quick study who filled up notebooks with all of the tips and tricks he learned at Louis XV. But when he was preparing to leave and start his own restaurant again, Ducasse told him to remember to preserve his original voice. "I took the notebooks and teared them up: 'No, now you will make your own, personal cuisine. Create, don't imitate.' Years after, Massimo told me that it was the best advice he ever had."

Working in the Refettorios

Food For Soul, which is a collaboration between Bottura and his wife, Lara Gilmore, is a charity that runs 12 Refettorios (basically, free restaurants that serve meals to unhoused and underprivileged people). When Ducasse heard that his old student was starting up this benevolent project, he rushed to get involved. "Many talk about chefs' social responsibility — Massimo acts. I did not hesitate to join Lara and Massimo's Refettorio initiative from the first in Milan to the ones in Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro."

For Ducasse, in addition to helping out hungry people, the Reffetorios act as a model for testing out a less wasteful future for restaurant cooking. As he put it, "Food for Soul also illustrates another approach of alimentation, more careful vis-à-vis the natural resources, avoiding wastes." The ongoing relationship between Ducasse and Bottura is an indication of the utmost respect the pair have for each other.

The South Beach Wine & Food Festival runs February 22-25. Tickets for the February 24 tribute dinner for Massimo Bottura are sold out.