The struggle is to keep my phone from sliding off the kitchen counter as I dice pumpkin and listen to Italy’s beloved culinary son, Massimo Bottura. On the stove, supermarket pasta twiddles in boiling water. “Lasagna is not pasta”—Bottura’s warning warbles out of the speaker with comic timing, dismantling everything I know.
Ah, well. Not like I was planning on recreating the “crunchy part of the lasagna kids fight over,” which Bottura, chef patron of Modena-based three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana, speaks so vibrantly about. In the middle of an Indian lockdown, I’d be hard-pressed to find the ingredients for an authentic ragù, the minced-meat-based sauce that infuses life into the dish, let alone Parmigiano Reggiano. My refrigerator, true to its good-Bengali owner, had instead been crammed with fish and vegetables, of which the lone laggy of a half-moon pumpkin remained. Before I can despair, Bottura, live on Instagram from the European country that took one of the heaviest hits from coronavirus before steadily recovering, shows the way. The beauty, he insists, is in recycling everything you have, “chop it up and put it together with the ingenious of the rasdore” (women who took care of the economy of the house). He was taking about the ragù, but having been granted the privilege of philosophy during a pandemic, I adopt it broadly. A good rasdora is one who is able to “use everything, not waste anything.” A good rasdora, I was going to be. Out came wrinkly packets of processed cheese and the blender. Pasta in creamy pumpkin sauce is not a terrible side to my big serve of Melbourne Food & Wine Festival – The Online Edition.
Connecting lunchtime Mumbai to Bottura’s Modena morning is Aussie food journalist Pat Nourse, whose backdrop of bulging bookshelves and a quirky owl centrepiece have not gone unappreciated in previous sessions. If you’ve followed the MFWF creative director during his 15-year stint as a food writer at Gourmet Traveller, you’d know that deadpan humour is his seasoning of choice. In these refreshingly unrehearsed, hour-long sessions with the global royalty of wining and dining, Nourse behaves no differently. When Danish chef René Redzepi, an old friend of Bottura’s, suffered a technical glitch during his session two days ago, Nourse asked me and my 319 co-attendees if we’d prefer jokes or singing as filler entertainment. “Although my singing can be a bit of a joke…” he trailed off solemnly, before Redzepi, who owns one of the world’s most talked-about restaurants (Noma in Copehagen), sprung back in frame, the restaurant’s green foraging grounds behind him. Where I saw the rare opportunity of cruising through Noma’s backyard, a pastiche of carrot flowers, pixelated swans and artichokes, Nourse saw a quip. “Very artichokey,” he murmured.
But MFWF’s virtual dialogues are not just fun banter. The gentlemen went to discuss the future of food and travel, and how the uncertainties of our times coexist in a Venn diagram of possibilities. Redzepi would know, having just taken a leap of faith with the experimental addition of an outdoor burger-and-wine bar to Noma’s exclusive model. It’s already a success, which would indicate our love for communal experiences might survive the pandemic. It’s a step towards the restaurant “as we know it” bouncing back in near-future, after 10+ weeks of inactivity. “We still set the tables, because we want to be ready,” Redzepi reveals. The resilience in his voice elicits an eruption of thumbs up/heart emojis.
A more lighthearted moment that invoked emojis was when baking wizard and Ottolenghi star Helen Goh shared her confusion with the nuances of Instagram live. As she figured out live how “these comments” appear with a little help from Nourse, the comments themselves filled up with love for the Malaysia-born, Australia-bred chef who now lives and bakes in West London. “People are saying Helen is amazing, but get rid of the bald guy,” Nourse piped up, even as the pair circled back to Goh’s experiences as a child steeped in Asian heritage (“Mum only cooked Asian food at home”) and her journey of cultural and culinary exchange after she moved to Australia. Hearing a celebrated chef talk about her first, disorienting brush with cutlery and sour cream—“I had no idea what to do with them… it was a lot of learning”—the conversation turned bigger than food.
That’s the thing about a premiere food event being thrown open to everyone from acclaimed chefs (Is that Kylie Kwong’s comment below mine?) to hyperlocal business owners, from cookbook authors to happy eaters, especially at a time when social isolation is our unshakable reality. It gives people an unprecedented in, into the coveted, curious worlds of legacy and innovation, where plans for 2021’s disruptive menus are already underway. It is a lot about food, but like food itself, it is also about the comfort of community. You feel it when you ‘meet’ restaurant gardeners on the other side of the world, digging up soil for the next season, or scan the backdrop of Goh’s kitchen, where conversations smell of fresh pastry and hope. Sitting through another afternoon laden with the overlap of your privileges and your restrictions, you relish that hope. Sometimes the hope is shy, like steak master Neil Perry’s Internet before it stabilised, sometimes it is instant, like Melbourne baker Mike Russel’s sourdough solutions. But it is there, and it is not all conjecture. When Bottura, who like many others had to down shutters in early March, discusses how his now-reopened restaurant takes inspiration from The Beatles’s defining album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—“We want to change everything, like they did 43 years ago,” I feel the rush of building back. Even in the moment, I am aware that most business owners, in food service or otherwise, aren’t in Bottura’s shoes, that for them poetic inspiration alone cannot surmount the realities of financial setback. Mid-pandemic hope, like some chocolates, leaves traces of bittersweet.
But it’s still enough to exact six days (May 25-May 30) of diligent participation. During the week, I learn how to ace a Cubano—ham, cheese, slow-roasted pork, mustard, pickle et al—from Danielle Alvarez. I admire Matt Stone cooking a “whole chook” with no intentions of imitating. I realign with the reckoning that while restaurants and bars are opening back up in some parts of our connected-disconnected world, even as some other parts continue to struggle with the enormity of logistics.
I’d ask the chefs if I could, many of whom I now feel inordinately familiar with: What is it about food that makes one so emotional? I fancy the answer tucked in between the layers of a Bottura-approved lasagna. “The spaces are important, to create a certain softness.” Our emotions, at time when emotions can run dry so easy, exist between safe spaces. Food is one of them.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.