In retrospect, I wish I had known Osteria Francescana was to become the number one restaurant in the world; I would have savored every bite.
A few years ago I had one of those jobs where wining and dining clients and being wined and dined was the norm. It seemed as if eating at the so called “50 best” restaurants in the world was a standard by which you were judged, www.theworlds50best.com. And eating at these restaurants wasn’t enough, you had to have spent time with the chef to have true bragging rights. Looking back on this time in my life does not conjure up fanciful memories, in fact, quite the contrary — it all seemed pretentious and over the top. Dining at that level is unlike any other experience.
You may not know this, but high end restaurants do research on their diners. In some cases, there is actually a person whose job it is to review the reservation list and check to see if there are individuals on that list who need special attention. It’s not just about wealth; it has more to do with influence, hence the proverb: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” A guest with influence can help make a restaurant successful; help get them that additional Michelin star. This is an oversimplification; however, I’m hoping it gives you a glimpse into this elite dining world. Not too long ago, I was considered an individual with influence.
Up until two years ago I was an executive at a well known cooking school in New York City. We had an affiliation with an excellent cooking school in Parma, and the head of the school had major culinary connections throughout Italy. This man’s name is Riccardo. He played a major role in the success of Barilla pasta and now runs a successful cooking school in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. We were collaborating on a project which meant visiting Riccardo several times a year. I can’t complain, going to Parma meant eating well and spending time in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I never questioned Riccardo’s dining choices. In addition to knowing a lot about food, he was intelligent; always well dressed, always up on American politics, and never at a loss for impossible-to-get reservations. When Riccardo informed me that we were going out for a meal, I knew it would be on one of those famous “best” lists.
We filed into Riccardo’s Mercedes and headed to Modena. Without a word about our plans for the afternoon, we sat down in the dining room of Osteria Francescana for a pre-service meeting with the chef. I can’t tell you how high up Osteria Francescana was ranked then, but I can tell you that it is currently ranked #1 in the world. Chef Bottura was very gracious and extremely serious. His English was perfect and he jumped right into a conversation about the status of student interns in his kitchen. He compared American students to students from other countries including Korea, Canada and Australia; I sadly recall my students were not portrayed favorably. I believe he used the words unfocused and entitled. Yet still, he was hopeful about the future. Unlike some of the other Italian chefs I worked with, Chef Bottura was willing to spend time with American interns from our school. I appreciated his professionalism, his insight and his patience. He sympathized with other chefs in Italy, but made it clear that it was a chef’s duty to mentor students. And then Chef Buttora’s invited us to eat.
We sat down in an elegantly appointed dining room. I recall minimal distractions; it was all about the food. Service was impeccable — not invasive or fussy. It was a few years ago and I would not be telling the truth if I named the menu items I was served. I do remember feeling that I was being treated to something very special. The food was simple and the ingredients fresh. There were some deconstructed dishes; however, they were easily identifiable and they made sense. My palate has always been somewhat unsophisticated, but I know what I like.
For the record, I no longer work for a company with an expense account. I prefer to eat out when I feel like eating out and I don’t mind paying my own way. As for Osteria Francescana, I’m not sure which is a more vivid memory, Chef Buttora’s exceptional dishes or Riccardo going the wrong way down a one way street in downtown Modena. One thing is for certain, both experiences were thrilling.