Torno Subito, the causal beachfront restaurant at W Dubai – The Palm embodies a sense of childhood nostalgia and unencumbered fun. FACT caught up with Chef Massimo Bottura to discuss his cuisine, the effects of Covid-19 and his recent win at the Fact Dining Awards Dubai.
What is your favourite dish on the Torno Subito menu and why?
I think there is not one signature or favourite dish. The menu designed here is the expression of my philosophy, which is compressing our passion into edible bites. Bringing the best of the past into the future and renewing tradition. For example, the way Bernardo (Torno Subito’s chef) is doing the Pomodoro is exactly in the spirit of this philosophy. The whole menu reflects the quality of the ideas that we have.
The idea of being a kid and spending the summer with my mum and my sister in Rimini at the seaside. I had the most beautiful time of my life, and that’s the point of recreating something like this on the beach. Everything is matching, and it’s about coming here, having fun and feeling good – from the menu to the people working here.
When you constructed the menu here, did you have to make amendments for the Middle Eastern market?
We did out of a sense of respect. We tried to modernise and find a way with the prosciutto mortadella, but the way Bernardo is working with the product, we have found a way to substitute. Since this morning, we have been trying different things, and my palate was very satisfied with the quality of the ingredients he found. Once you’ve found a good cheesemaker or fishmonger, you have to have it close to you, and it will become part of the experience. There is a great Italian who makes the most amazing mozzarella, so it’s like, why do I have to buy Mozzarella in Italy if there is an Italian guy who came here with fresh milk who is delivering? Still, I am not telling you who he is – it’s a secret!
What do you think it is specifically about Torno Subito’s cuisine that has resonated with diners in Dubai?
It’s the fun and the lightness of tradition. We feel free with the environment to look at tradition in a very easy way and to evolve these traditions. So we make Milanese o bolognese. The Milanese is fried veal but Bernardo is playing, slicing in the middle and putting in cured beef and cheese. It’s then closed and pan-fried Bologna-style, so it’s like, is this Milanese or bolognese? We’re playing with perception and having fun. When you try our pizza, with its 48-hour dough, it’s very digestible. You will feel like you’re digesting immediately, and you’ll say wow, this is amazing.
Torno Subito is very different experience to Osteria Francescana. Was it a conclusion decision to make your Dubai opening more accessible and casual?
You know, I was looking after three stars for so many years and there was pressure in opening Casa Maria Luigia and creating this perfect circle of hospitality. So I said, in Dubai, I want to do it my way. So I brought the most amazing artisans from Italy to create a very important design. It’s chic, but it’s very affordable, so the impression you have when you’re here at W Dubai – The Palm is that we want to align with their mentality and vibe. I’ve been asked to open more branches of Torno Subito, even in the United States, but I’ve said no. I want to stay here and develop the concept.
Aziz Ansari filmed a second-season episode of Master Of None in Osteria Francescana. How did that come about?
We had Master of None, we had Stanley Tucci for the new Searching For Italy television series, and we had Michelle Obama for Mochi and Waffles, all coming to Modena just to meet me. Aziz is a great guy with a passion for Italy and a passion for pasta. He came to Italy to learn how to make pasta. He spent six months, and he learnt very well – he’s such a funny guy.
Do you think the industry is starting to bounce back from the pandemic?
I can only talk about Torno Subito and not the other restaurants. We are doing better than ever – it’s unbelievable! Hundreds of covers every day! We have a line, from 7pm to 10pm Torno Subito is busy, but with social distanced kept. It’s like paradise, especially coming from Europe, where everything is currently shut down.
What do you believe restaurant need to do to stay relevant and ensure success during these uncertain times?
I answer this question from young chefs every day, who are asking me what to do. They are investing all their savings to keep their restaurants alive and to have the opportunity to re-open. To me, it’s a big responsibility. At the beginning of Osteria Francescana, people were laughing at what we were doing. I sold everything just to pay the bill at the end of the month. It was a tough period, but I believed in my ideas. I knew I was doing the right thing. We had the opportunity to show the gastronomic critics that we were doing the right thing. We needed the people to communicate to the world our quality, and if you really believe in your ideas, you’ll do everything to give a future to your restaurant.
Do you think people’s dining habits have changed in light of the pandemic?
On 2 June, when we re-opened, I didn’t know what to expect. The tables may be three meters apart, but we’re doing more covers than ever. It’s the way you approach the food and the organisation, and the team is everything. When we opened in Modena, we were fully booked as we were on 8 March. We didn’t lose one table!
We didn’t do the menu that we had before closing. We created a new project called ‘a little help from my friends’ inspired by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and we won number one on the fifty top restaurants in Itay. I try to be a contemporary person who reflects the time in which we are living, and to me, it’s very important in this project to involve all my team in discussions on creativity. I’m inviting my friends to come on stage with me and present a menu we’ve created together. It’s very revolutionary for a chef not to be talking about themselves, but the team.
Do you have a lot of team members in Dubai who came from your restaurants in Italy?
We try to focus on teaching and spreading knowledge. After a couple of years, two of the team left and went back to Modena, but then two more arrived, so it keeps evolving. Everyone wants to come to Dubai.
How do you feel about creating dishes purely for Instagram?
I’m not cooking for Instagram. I have 1.5 million followers on Instagram, but the point is that you don’t cook for Instagram. You cook for the palate of the people. If you’re respectful of that, people will keep coming. The aesthetic is very important, but if you don’t have the ethical part, it’s the beginning of the end. We’re combining ethics with aesthetics.
Do you have a favourite cuisine you like to cook at home?
Not really. We did the kitchen quarantine as the start of the pandemic. I was cooking everything from Mexican to Thai, Japanese, and Italian. Moving from one cuisine to another very easily and exploring Italian cuisine from Sicily to the Alps. There is no one favourite.
Your career has involved a lot of accolades and awards. What is the greatest honour that has been bestowed upon you?
One of the best honours is the United Nations Ambassador. What I did during the Milan Expo was extremely important, and now it’s becoming more important because it was not a pop-up. It was something very special that now we are sharing with the world.
Even the Netflix new series with Michelle Obama and the Obama Foundations, Mochi and Waffles, is all about healthy food and embracing a good lifestyle and the idea of zero waste. Being a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations is the best. It’s totally out of the culinary world. It’s much bigger!
Was there one person who impacted your decision to become a chef?
One for sure is my mum, because I grew up under the kitchen table when my grandmother was cooking. But growing up, my mum was the one who knew me better than anyone else. She was the one who convinced my father to let me go and not become a lawyer but to pick what I wanted to do. That was something very special. Even in the moments when the restaurant was empty, I had to keep going and show my dad that my mum was right.
Finally, we just want to congratulate you on your recent win for ‘Best Italian – Causal Dining’ at the Fact Dining Awards Dubai:
I said to Bernardo. Keep working this way, keep evolving and keep the quality really high. To me, awards from journalists and gastronomic critics are extremely important. To say we did right and people recognised us is an honour.