Here’s how you know you’ve brought Massimo Bottura the right food gift: He licks his fingers.
Bottura, one of the world’s great chefs, whose Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, is regularly ranked in the top two in the world, was in Miami for two nights to cook a $650-a-person meal with Miami chef José Mendín.
So I brought him pastelitos. What better way to welcome him to South Florida than with that warm box of Miami magic?
The second I opened the box of Vicky Bakery pastries (the original location at 860 SE Eighth St., Hialeah), he started making yummy sounds, “Ooh, ooh, ooh ...” and wiggling his fingers over them, wondering where to start.
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He started by tearing off a piece of every item and tasting it. A chunk of ham croqueta. A wedge of papa rellena (a fried ball of meat-stuffed mashed potato). He tore off the end of a cheese pastelito and used it to scoop out the cheese inside. (“I love the pastel de queso,” he said.)
His eyebrows raised at the taste of a guava and cheese pastelito. And after a hearty bite into a warm, flaky guava pastelito, he finished by sucking his fingers clean.
“What are you looking for when you’re tearing through that box?” I asked him.
“Culture,” he said with a mouthful of papa rellena.
You can tell so much about a culture by looking at its most basic food, he said. Take that papa rellena. It’s all mashed potato with a dollop of meat inside, all deep fried to a crisp. By surrounding the most costly and scarce ingredient with an abundant one, a family could stretch its dollar. Leftovers can become a main course.
“When I say a potato can be better than truffle, I mean it,” he said, turning the papa rellena over in his hands. “I look for the crunchiness. The proportion between the potato and meat and then the flavor — that’s what stays on your palate.”
The genius of Bottura — who has become so well known he was featured in the Emmy-winning second season premiere of the Netflix show “Master of None” — is what he sees behind the food. For a real treat, find the episode of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” for a luxurious documentary on Bottura that is a feast for the eyes. (After he painted a tablecloth for a dinner he held at Sotheby’s, the auction house took a picture of it and displayed it lifesize on its walls.)
For Bottura, creating a dish that rises to the level of art starts with understanding the basics that make a food a staple in a culture. Though he always says he is not an artist, but an artisan.
“In Osteria, I try to feed people with emotion,” he said. “There’s nothing more emotional than to feel like a kid who steals the crunchy part of the lasagna from the big pan of lasagna that the grandmother brings to the table. ... You need to eat incredible emotions.”
All of the inspiration he needs, he said, can be found in something as simple as a box of pastelitos.
“This,” he said, tapping the box of pastries, “is keeping a tradition alive. You can improve it. You can look at these in a different way. But to keep the tradition alive you have to look at the past in a critical way, and bring the best from the past into the future.”