Massimo Bottura
Massimo Bottura

If you’ve never given much thought to Tallinn, Estonia, you’re probably not alone. Few, if any, of the big-name chefs who attended the first-ever Sauce culinary conference earlier this week had visited the Estonian capital before. But given the success of the event, it seems likely they’ll be back.

Me, I just happened to be bumbling through the Baltics, hanging around charmingly medieval, appealingly post-Soviet Tallinn long enough to warrant a daily incredulous “You’re still here??!” from the staff at my hostel. However, good things come to those who overstay, and that’s exactly what Sauce was.

Italian chef/author/art aficionado Massimo Bottura — who happens to be the no. 2 chef in the world at the moment, according the Pellegrino folks — was the surprise headliner, and a pretty damn good get for a first-time conference in kind of a random place. Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson made the journey from his Fäviken restaurant in rural Järpen for the occasion. Sadly, Christian Puglisi of Copenhagen’s Relæ, who had originally been on the docket, had to cancel, reportedly because of illness. And then came the Russians, headed by Vladimir Mukhin of Moscow’s White Rabbit, anointed this year as the no. 23 restaurant in the world by Pellegrino’s 50 Best list. There was plenty of talking, eating, drinking and even an exciting announcement by the publishers of the White Guide. Check it out below:

Massimo Bottura

Whatever else comes out of Sauce, I think I found my new guru; I could listen to Bottura talk for hours. He went on for quite a while yesterday, but not long enough for anyone in the audience, which was hanging on every poetic and philosophical word, whether Bottura was talking about jazz or contemporary art or, oh yeah, cooking. (I’m late to the Massimo fan club, but in case you are, too, check out the Chef’s Table episode starring him on Netflix and try to get your hands on his year-old memoir of sorts, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.)

Bottura’s presentation yesterday didn’t feature anything quite as extreme as that nonna cannibalism tortellini film from MAD a few years back, but he did start out by reading a sort of poetic essay that touched on Lou Reed, jazz and improvisation. “It is the dissonance that makes the harmony melodic,” he intoned in a deeply serious and disembodied voice (while concealed backstage). He then jogged onstage in running shoes and jeans, looking wiry and energetic and, well, skinny, then launched right into an excited update on the soup kitchen he opened in Milan in May with the help of (no joke) Pope Francis. In a converted theater known as Refettorio Ambrosiano, the likes of Rene Redzepi, Mario Batali and Alain Ducasse have come to “cook scraps for kids and students and poor people,” he said.

“Last year at MAD we said, ‘We are very tired of talk, we want to act,'” Bottura explained. “Italian cuisine comes from nothing, from bread crumbs, from using whole animals.” He switched PowerPoint slides to a picture of a bowl of soup. “We make a broth of everything. It is the symbol of what we do. It comes from my past.” The broth might contain “pigeon, veal, duck, guinea hen, frogs, eels, potato peels” and “smoked banana peels to give the end sweetness,” a trick Bottura learned from a Brazilian chef doing a similar project in the favelas of Rio.

He then jumped to a slide of a camouflage military truck juxtaposed with a camo-hued Picasso canvas and related an anecdote about the artist walking with Gertrude Stein in Paris and having a revelation after spotting such a truck. “We did that! That’s Cubism,” Picasso reportedly exclaimed. Bottura turned to the audience: “Don’t be the Google generation. They know nothing about everything. If you know things in a deep way, you can imagine Cubism as a military truck.” He paused, then smiled. “I know it’s confusing, but that’s my mind.”

The chef talked a lot about cooking as an act of love, and of transferring emotion through food. He related his own Proustian memory: “One of the best dishes I ever had was in 1965: a plate of bread crumbs with milk and chocolate and sugar made by my grandmother. We had nothing, but we were so happy.” In the same vein, he said that in Italy, “no one ever talks about the artisans: the cheesemakers, the farmers, the fisherman. These are the people that make it possible for us to transfer emotion through food.”

Bottura then touched on Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s sculpture of millions of ceramic sunflower seeds, explaining that each one represented an artisan. Perhaps referring to those interested in artisanal food over the last decade or so, he remarked, “We are going to create the revolution. I see in the eyes of the younger generation the sparkle of something new.” Shivers all around.

Listening to Bottura is inspiring and dizzying and exhilarating. You feel as though you are chasing around and scarcely keeping up with the leaps of an incredibly active mind, a mind that’s embodied by the wild-haired New Balance–wearing chef himself as he hops from the stage to the floor, standing or pacing or sitting on the edge of the stage as he speaks.

Estonian craft beer (photo courtesy Sauce)
Estonian craft beer. (Photo courtesy of Sauce.)

Bottura told us, in a number of different ways, to first learn the rules expertly, and then think about breaking them. He talked about smashing Neolithic vases (complete with a slide of slightly horrifying photo evidence) as a metaphor for breaking with the past and creating new forms. He talked about making a lasagna where every portion is the crunchy, congealed corner piece. “Every child in Emilia-Romagna knows the corners are the best part,” Bottura said, referring to his home region in Northern Italy. (No wonder his Modena restaurant, Osteria Francescana, reportedly has a waiting list some 1,800 names long.)

Answering a question from the audience about where a young chef should start, he prescribed the following: “You must learn pasta from Lidia [Bastianich]. Then you must travel to France and learn classic techniques from [Alain] Ducasse. Then you travel to Asia to eat in the middle of nothing. Then you go to California and learn the new trend of raw food. Then to Peru to learn about potatoes. Then to Japan to learn about sharp knives.” He continued: “You must travel and learn, always with the place that you come from in your heart. You have to learn everything and then forget everything.” See what I mean? The guy’s definitely guru material.

Magnus Nilsson

I snuck in during the middle of a chat by the young dudes behind Taxinge Krog, a sort of Swedish answer to the trendy Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s that focuses on vegetables and local game meat. As luck would have it, I plopped down right next a long-haired blond guy dressed all in black, looking a bit like a Viking metal rocker, only to realize that it was Swedish star chef Magnus Nilsson. Nice.

Nilsson took the stage a bit later to talk about creativity. “I think creativity is a misused term,” he declared in his friendly, gentle manner. “People who are considered to be very, very creative are often just extremely productive. I look at myself as a moderately creative person. What I’m good at is producing circumstances where things can be produced.” Often, he explained, what we see as creativity is “really just a manifestation of someone’s skill as an artisan.”

Nilsson continued, “In order to have a big creative toolbox, you have to go through life accumulating experiences. And not always know what the purpose is.” That sounded a bit like Bottura’s advice about traveling and learning, and also made me feel reassured about my own dilettante ways. Nilsson then mentioned his own interests in “hand-pollinating cucumbers” (say what?) and watercolor painting, a hobby he gets so absorbed in that he loses track of time. “I forget to pick up the kids at daycare, and then they call to tell me to come pick them up, but I don’t even hear the phone ring,” he said.

Later, I chatted up Nilsson a bit at the afterparty. He’d agreed to come to the unknown conference, he said, because his sous chef, Peeter Pihel, is Estonian, and Nilsson had never seen the country before. I asked him about his kids, and he told me he had three of them. Knowing he’s only 32, I floated my theory that chefs tend to start families young. “Maybe they’re looking for stability?” I suggested. He laughed. “Yeah, that sounds possible, since our industry is so crazy. But for me, it just happened that way.” He said a big chunk of his guests at Faviken are Americans and Brits. “You should come visit,” he said.

The Russian Delegation

I am genuinely  curious about the future of Russian cooking, which is what one afternoon panel was intriguingly titled. After spending two nights in St. Petersburg by taking advantage of a visa loophole for those who ride the ferry from Helsinki, I realized that I truly do love a Ruski meal. Blinis, borscht: Bring it! I was excited for a conversation about the topic.

Yet that’s not exactly what I would call this portion of the afternoon; there wasn’t a lot of back and forth. The same day Putin and Obama were battling it out over Syria at the U.N., some weird dynamic was happening (quite unnecessarily at a friendly food conference) in the Tallinn concert hall where Sauce took place. I suppose it could’ve just been language differences; that certainly didn’t help. But as I know from the Sauce gossip mill, I wasn’t the only one who found the presentation lacking.

Even though everyone else at the conference spoke in English to be understood by the widest possible audience, presenter Vladimir Muhkin of Moscow’s celebrated White Rabbit eatery insisted on speaking in Russian. He then spoke so stridently nonstop, so incredibly fast that those of listening to the translator on our headsets probably got to hear only about a third of his speech.

Muhkin’s restaurant does sound pretty cool, from what I was able to gather. He’s mining the regional cuisines of his enormous country and using other exciting ingredients, like pickled watermelon from the south, and also referring on the plate to fairy-tale legends about vegetables like turnips.

After Muhkin’s presentation, there was a Q&A, and the moderator asked some damn good questions — the kind designed to spur interesting dialogue. Take the recent international sanctions against Russia over military intervention in Ukraine: How have they been positive and how have they been negative for gastronomy? “I don’t understand; I haven’t gotten used to this,” Muhkin replied, still in Russian. “It’s great for farmers, though,” he said. “If you need a special dish, you bring from Far East or central republics. Before, we brought shellfish from France. Seafood from Black Sea has a different taste; you have to know how to work with it.” All right, awesome. At last some realness! Interesting topic.

The second question was about how to bring Russian cuisine to a wider audience worldwide. “Everyone around the world eats Spanish tapas, but they might not know Russian cuisine,” the moderator pointed out. Muhkin seemed to sidestep the question, instead relating some anecdote about how he introduced pickled cucumbers to Italians on a recent trip.

Closing thought from Muhkin: “We have much to learn from Estonia, a country of 1.3 million. They have the cuisine of the Nordic countries. Let’s learn and visit each other and forget politics.” Great idea, I suppose. But I’m not sure anyone in the room accomplished it during that rather odd, definitely disappointing presentation.

Mmm, Estonian cheese...
Mmm, Estonian cheese…

So what else happened?

Well, we ate a lot. Estonian food is big on meat and sausages, fresh veggies, cheeses and many different kinds of rye bread, or “black bread,” as they tend to call it in English. We chowed on that stuff at lunch and then tried some fancier spins on things at a dinner later that night. We drank some Tallinn-brewed craft beers by Sori Brewing and Tanker. I talked with the only two Lithuanians at the conference, one of whom, Deivydas Praspaliauskas, is only 26 and heads up the kitchen at the country’s best restaurant, 1Dublis in Vilnius.

Also, the publishers of the White Guide, which ranks the best restaurants in the Nordic countries, made an exciting announcement: When the publishers release the 2016 guide in November, it will contain a new section, White Guide Baltics, focused on the best restaurants in Estonia. If that’s received well, the plan is to add Latvia and Lithuania over the next few years. Things definitely seem to be on the up and up culinarily around here. See you next year at Sauce.