The busier life gets, the more I value the little opportunities to treat myself: a driver, a shoeshiner, a tailor. Landing on a foreign continent with these services all cued up meant that I could take high tea at the iconic Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel instead of ironing out transportation and boot lacquer. Likewise, in lieu of planning a trip to northern Italy in hopes of scoring a reservation at the three-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana, once I had learned on a Friday about “An Evening with Massimo," I hopped on a flight to Hong Kong in time for him to recite Baudelaire come Saturday. Much is spoken, these days, of privilege and its inherent hangups. What to do, then, with what seemed like to me too much of a good thing? I hoped to find out.
Massimo Bottura is a genius. I’m not breaking any news here, it’s just that I finally grasped in person the international fuss over “Autumn in New York” and “The crunchy part of the lasagna,” just two of many uniquely named dishes that would earn Osteria Francescana the No. 1 spot on 2016’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants (No. 2 in 2017, by the way).
Some chefs brandish their accolades like striped epaulets. This one wears his No. 1 like a knotted scarf and his Michelin stars like Orion’s Belt. They are but part of Bottura’s broader constellation that evokes, via food, the syncopation of poetry, the eye-bending tropes of visual art, the tactile language of sculpture, and the dramatic passion of opera. In the span of an hour, he riffed off of Picasso and Damien Hirst, referred to one course as a minueto, and read Baudelaire aloud in French after we discussed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. If Bottura's life is one of luxury, he's done his homework. “I live into art because the artists are my friends,” he told me.
Bottura isn’t sought-after because he’s smart, though, or even because he can cook. It’s his ideas you pilgrimage for, whether to Modena–where Bottura grew up “under my grandmother’s table with flour dripping on my head”–or, in my case, Hong Kong.
Gathered on the twenty-eighth floor of the Peninsula were more guests–a mix of journalists, ticketholders, and general bon vivants–than could pass through his tiny restaurant over three or four nights. Held as part of American Express' Global Dining Collection, a night like this would include limited-edition baubles and signed cookbooks for us. But for Bottura, besides spreading his gospel of soulful food, evenings like this fund the daily mission work of teaching, tasting, cooking–nourishing not only guests, but legions of stagiaires who glean what they can from a master who has nothing to prove and everything to share. “You don’t evolve by copying yourself,” he said. For him, as for us, luxury is earned; something we can grow into.
This open source is fundamental to his work. Bottura wants you to know that “Oops, I dropped the lemon tart”–a dessert from Osteria Francescana–was conceived in an accident committed by Taka, his brilliant Japanese sous chef. It’s one thing to see Massimo share this story on YouTube, but it’s a whole other bowl of zabaglione to get it straight from the man himself, with the Hong Kong Harbour laser show dancing on the water below.
On the return trip, I tried to put it all in perspective, which was made all the more difficult over a Basil Gin Collins and steamed dumplings at Hong Kong International's new Centurion Lounge. When privilege comes with baggage, how do we keep luxury from feeling so sticky? The answer is one of Massimo’s tenets: responsibility. “Culture brings awareness, awareness brings knowledge, and knowledge brings responsibility,” he said. "On my menu, I took off all the magic tricks and fireworks. We use the techniques to sublime the ingredients, not to sublime our own ego. That’s part of the responsibility.” For the rest of us, it also means relishing these moments as a gift, not an entitlement.
Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, published a recent feature, “Philosophers Who Like Stuff: Their case against frugality.” Throughout history, wise men from Buddha to Christ to Gandhi have espoused thriftiness and the simple life, but, noted the story, “the philosophical consensus down through the ages is rather surprising.” Most of us, it turns out, laud the good life. As Aristippus, one follower of Socrates, said, “If extravagance were a fault, it would not have a place in the festivals of the gods.” Amen to that.
Amidst all of that Hong Kong decadence and the gift of Bottura’s wisdom, I splurged on souvenirs and sundries for family and friends. I can almost hear the words in Massimo’s accent: Make sure that somewhere in your carry-on baggage of there’s a gift for someone else.