Massimo's Black Swans
Osteria Francescana is a restaurant in Modena, Italy that serves Italian cuisine in a completely unfamiliar way. (If you’ve seen Chef’s Table episode 1 on Netflix, you already know all of this. Also, spoilers follow for Chef’s Table episode 1.)
Its head chef/owner/operator Massimo Bottura is a brilliant chef. His wife Lara, who co-owns and runs the restaurant, is a creative marvel. Today, Osteria is considered the best restaurant in the world. It has 3 Michelin stars.
But for years, it was empty, and reviled by many. In the first episode of Chef’s Table, I saw that a chef’s talent in the kitchen, creating the ambience of a restaurant, developing new dishes with creativity and inspiration, their education, whatever it may be – nothing under the chef’s control is enough to make a restaurant successful. Nassim Nicholas Taleb would agree, I think, that “black swan” events are what both make and break a restaurant.
Massimo’s first restaurant was an enterprise he wasn’t prepared for. The stress took a great toll on him, and of all things, his infirm neighbour saved him. She was an experienced and gifted pasta chef who dawned upon his doorstep unprompted. She taught him about traditional cuisine, and taught him a unique management tip, to have a meal with your staff and treat them like a family. If she’d never reached out to him, he would have likely burned out, or never gained enough success to continue in the restaurant business.
Not long afterwards, Massimo took a trip to New York, where he stumbled upon a café. He offered his help in the kitchen to the owner. Apparently, one other woman did the same, days before, and their first shifts were at the same time. This woman was Massimo’s future wife, Lara; the same woman to whom Osteria’s general manager credits for the ultimate success of the restaurant. Meeting your partner is a my favourite example of a black swan, but in Massimo’s case, this random occurrence sealed his future success.
Lara showed Massimo an appreciation for higher art, and when that combined with his own sensibilities, Massimo started creating dishes that were deconstructions and parodies of classic Italian meals. The Modenese, I learned, are highly protective of their cuisine (there is a great piece in The New Yorker about the Italian people’s puritanical attitudes towards their gastronomy). They were angered by Massimo’s cooking to the point where local critics would give horrible reviews. Osteria Francescana (2016’s best restaurant in the world) was completely empty, and Massimo nearly quit. I think the probability of it all ending was no less than a coin toss. It was Lara who convinced Massimo to stick it out for another year.
Then, a car accident forced a hugely prominent food critic to take a detour in Modena, and he ate at Osteria Francescana by random selection (he’d never heard of the place). He experienced Massimo’s cuisine (which he dubbed essentially “post-modern Italian”) and Osteria suddenly became renowned.
Many people credit grit and determination as the key factor to success. But the only benefit of grit and determination is that it causes you to expose your labour to the world for a greater period of time. During that time, chance (not luck) will determine whether you fail or succeed. Grit and determination are the only factors we observe across a majority of successful people, but we forget there are plenty of miserable failures who were gritty and determined.
It is shocking to me that Osteria Francescana was empty for its first several years. I thought that surely, the most talented would rise to the top naturally. This is a statement about the fickleness of humanity; recall that Massimo Bottura only became the world’s best once some hotshot said his food was good: and before then he was hated. This is also a reminder to look back at our role models and observe how chance or privilege put them on their pedestal. The world is so random, we can’t even fathom it.