But Massimo Bottura's obsession with cooking instead has paid off: his restaurant, the Osteria Francescana, may have put the noses of conservative Italian chefs out of joint, but it now boasts the title “best in the world”.
Set in the heart of Modena in northern Italy, the Osteria already boasted three Michelin stars before it snapped up first prize at the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards in June thanks to a creative cuisine that reinvents Italian traditional dishes.
Winning was a “very emotional” experience, Bottura told AFP, though he said one of the main differences between first and second place on the prestigious list was “the number of interviews” he is now asked to give.
With its blue-grey walls, taupe carpet, artworks on the walls and photographs of the singer Edith Piaf, there are just 12 tables and most diners come for the tasting menu, with its €220 euro ($245) price tag.
The fare may be world class but this osteria does not take itself too seriously. A wax sculpture of a security guard by American artist Duane Hanson startles diners at the front entrance. The levity continues once seated.
Inside the Osteria Francescana. Photo: Gigi Griffis
Dish names include “An eel swimming up the Po River” and “Yellow is bello”.
Bespectacled Bottura, 53, worked on one of his signature creations, “Memory of a mortadella sandwich”, for four years.
'Follow your palate'
“I rely on my past, but I look at it critically and without nostalgia, because I want to bring the best of the past into the future,” he says.
He says he has always “sought to look at the world from under the table, with the eyes of a child stealing the pasta his grandmother” is making from scratch.
The kitchen – and the table he hid under while his grandmother fought off his quick-fingered brothers with a rolling pin – became “my safety place”.
When he was 23-years old Bottura, who was famous for rustling up culinary delights for his friends, dropped his law studies to open a Trattoria in Campazzo, in the countryside around Modena in the Po River Valley.
On his days off, he would study with French chef Georges Cogny, who had a restaurant two hours away.
“He said to me: 'always follow your palate, because you have a great palate which will make Modena known around the world'”.
Two years and an interlude in New York later, it was another Frenchman that changed his destiny, Alain Ducasse.
After the Provencal food guru came to Bottura's Trattoria, the Italian ended up going to work for him in Monte Carlo for a time.
Ducasse had a huge influence on him: “He taught me to be obsessed: obsessed with quality ingredients, obsessed with detail”.
Back in Modena in 1995, he opened the Osteria. Never satisfied, he jumped at the chance five years later to learn from another great master, Spanish giant Ferran Adria.
Adria taught Bottura the “freedom to be creative”, to think that “a sardine can be worth as much as a lobster, but it all depends on whose hands it is in.”
'Mouthfuls of passion'
Bottura begins with local products and messes around with traditional recipes, drawing for inspiration on everything from his childhood kitchen to poetry, art and music, “compressing my passions into mouthfuls”.
His philosophy and creations at first perplexed and even angered Italy's culinary old guard.
“It's ironic isn't it? Ten years ago they wanted to string me up in the main square because I 'destroyed' our grandmothers' recipes”.
With the world prize in the bag, Bottura turns his mind back to his social projects, particularly his war on food waste.
His next big gig will see him set up a caffetteria in Rio which will transform leftover food from the Olympic Games Village into free meals for the poor living in the Brazilian city's favelas.
Everything the excitable chef does comes with the support of his American wife Lara Gilmore, who left New York for him and gave the ok for his Spanish adventure even though she was pregnant at the time.
“I fell in love with Massimo's kitchen before actually falling in love with him,” she says.
“He really got me with his creamy velvet artichoke soup”.