Let's start with the bad news: iconic Michelin star Italian chef Massimo Bottura does not plan on ever opening a restaurant in New York, mainly as his own way to "separate church and state." That brings us to the good news: Bottura's and wife Lara Gilmore's refectory in Harlem, a collaboration between many parties that seek to provide fare to the less fortunate, is very close to opening.
"I want to keep distance between my restaurants and the refectories, one is business and the other charity," says Bottura while in town to celebrate the International Friends of Festival Verdi Spring Gala. "Cultural projects like the refectory require a lot of energy and I don't want the two things to [mix up]. I know I'm giving up big markets but I've never been very focused on business. Having a refectory is just a way for me to give back to a city that gave me everything."
Culinary aficionados will surely be disappointed by the revelation. Bottura is, after all, at the helm of Osteria Francescana in Modena, named best restaurant in the world multiple times, and if there's one thing that New Yorkers don't like to miss out on, it's very good food.
But lest you misconstrue Bottura's decision as a diss to our town, think again: the chef absolutely adores New York. "What I want to see and experience when I travel is the feeling of being home," he says. "In New York, I feel at home."
Below, Bottura dishes out on one of his favorite local spots (you can very easily guess which one!), what the world can learn from New Yorkers and why he's decided to set up a refectory in Harlem.
On one of his favorite destinations for Italian food
"I love Eataly. To me, it's the cathedral of the 21st century. It's an expression of what Italy is in our country for our farmers, fishermen, cheese makers and more. You walk in and taste the mortadella, the pizza and other delicacies and you feel like you're in Italy."
On what people can learn from New Yorkers
"When you speak with New Yorkers, you immediately understand how they grew up and the fact that they have freedom in their mind. They see the world from a different perspective. It's a unique place in which so many different cultures and religions get together and find a way to stay together. Even if there is some crisis—and New York has gone through many different crisis—New Yorkers rebuild and find a way to create something new. Even after the pandemic, after hundreds of restaurants and stores closed, they found new seeds that are now growing and transforming into beautiful flowers. It's the energy of the place."
On opening his refectory in Harlem
"New York has always been the place I consider my home away from home because of my wife [Gilmore was born in Washington, D.C. and the two met in New York on the day they started working at the now defunct Caffé di Nonna in SoHo] and many other things. I come, walk down the street and lose myself in a very good way. It's the essence of everything for me so to create a refectory in Harlem—in the heart of a community that I love because of jazz, R&B and the mythic concerts at the Apollo theater, among other things—was just a natural way to give back to a city that gave everything to me."
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