The Soul of a Restaurant, Part I

Two and a half years ago, I talked my parents into a dinner. They were coming to visit me in Italy, we were going to spend a few days in Bologna, and so, I figured, we should probably take a short train ride down to Modena and dine at Osteria Francescana. I’m no star chaser, but a stellar triad and a top five on the World’s 50 best certainly seemed worthy of a 27th birthday dinner to me…

To my surprise, I was able to snag a reservation only three weeks out. 7pm on a Thursday night, table for 3. That morning, I hopped a train from Bra to Milan, picked up Mom and Dad at Milano Centrale, and transferred to the Italo to Bologna. We settled into our Airbnb, they caught me up on their travels thus far, and then we changed and boarded the train for Modena. We disembarked in the medieval town an hour or so before dinner, giving us plenty of time to wander, and, of course, work up an appetite.

The food was excellent. It was traditional dishes transformed to new heights. The standout for me, the dish that I remember now, that I will describe for years to come, the dish that is probably featured in each new documentary and Food Network special about the place because sometimes things are so truly wonderful that everyone agrees and there’s no reason to talk about anything else. Five ages of parmigiano in five different temperatures and textures. Parmigiano is never anything less than delicious. To bear the name Parmigiano it is, almost if not certifiably by definition, delicious. You could set five blocks of Parmigiano on a plate in front of me and make me deliriously happy. But the kitchen did more than that. They took an already excellent ingredient, and, while I hesitate to say elevated it, certainly transformed it into something equally as delightful as the original.

Yes, the kitchen did great work that night. We left with our bellies full and our taste buds dancing. The technique was precise, the flavors were spot on. But the experience? Empty. The room felt…dull. Like a conference room in a hotel. The service was attentive but lacked personality.

Contemporary food can often seem like an Emperor’s New Clothes situation. Innovation seems paramount and flavor comes next, if at all. And we are supposed to be so amazed, so blown away by the creativity and resourcefulness that the “is it good” question is never even asked. But often times, it really is that good. And on this night, it was. Deliciousness was never the problem.

I’ve talked a lot about context before. About how the details of a situation can render a dining experience extraordinary or less than ordinary, independent of the actual quality of the food. But what about when the context and the quality are supposed to be intertwined? When you go to a restaurant with the understanding that the experience of being there and the food you consume will only serve to heighten the actual enjoyment of both?

In short, what I am talking about is the soul of a restaurant. The intangible. The force that connects the food with the experience and elevates both, but is apparent to so many of the diners – not uniquely experienced, but commonly understood.

It is so extraordinary that a restaurant can be the expression of a person. That one individual can conjure mind-bending experiences for so many diners, diners from a myriad of backgrounds, interest levels, countries, cultures. And when you read about Osteria Francescana, the real life fantasy borne from the maddening mind of Massimo Bottura, that is what you learn. You learn of him, his personality, his storytelling, his food, his ability to tell stories both in person and through his food. Every single person I spoke with who has dined at the Osteria before or since my meal tells of Massimo coming to their table, relaying the stories of his dishes, perhaps using the very same words with which our server presented each plate, but conveyed through his soul, his character, as the creator.

Bottura is described as a magician, a mad scientist. A showman. An entertainer. But that night, while we were in Modena, he was in London, so the soul of the restaurant must have been somewhere over central France.

This is not to diminish the accomplishments of the restaurant or its staff in any way. It is simply to ask, if a restaurant is so tied to the creator, if the character comes from the presence of a single person, then what business does it have being open when this person is not present? When a person’s absence can dull the very atmosphere of their restaurant, why bother? As it turns out, it’s very much worth the bother. The reason Massimo was in London that night, while we dined deliciously but soullessly at his restaurant back in Modena? To move up a spot to number 3 on the (rather arbitrary) list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. That was in 2013. He’s now at number 2, which, coincidentally, is also the number of new restaurants he’s opened since then, meaning the likelihood of his presence in Modena on any given night has dropped substantially.

There is a bit of a shift right now in the culinary world. A backlash toward the rarified world of tasting menus and pointless, arbitrary boundary pushing. But that’s not the problem with a place like Francescana in principle. The problem is that in practice, the absence of the master storyteller, that arbitrary boundary pushing is exactly what it seems like the menu is doing. Like I said, parmigiano is delicious on its own. Don’t reinvent it just because you can. Reinvent it because you have a reason to, a story to tell. And make sure that story it told.

Parmigiano in its natural habitat

Parmigiano in its natural habitat

 

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