Karime Lopez’s food is as globally-minded as she is. Originally from Mexico, the peripatetic chef donned her toque in kitchens across Spain, Peru, Denmark and Japan before becoming Head Chef at Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura in 2018. A chic grass-green jewel box of a restaurant located in Florence, Italy, Gucci Osteria is a collaboration between the effervescent Bottura (who heads three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana) and the trendsetting Italian fashion house. The restaurant, which serves modern Italian cuisine, is located adjacent to Gucci Garden, a protean venue that houses a fashion museum, art space and retail store.
Last May, Gucci Osteria opened a wildly successful pop-up in Singapore (helmed by Lopez) and in February, made its international debut atop the Gucci store in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. It’s the latest opening that suggests food and fashion may be natural bedfellows, considering all the cross-pollination currently underway. Louis Vuitton opened its first cafe and restaurant in Japan in February, hot on the heels of Jacquemus’ Oursin in Paris and vanguards like Thomas’ in London, Beige by Alain Ducasse in Tokyo and Ralph’s in New York. And brands aren’t stopping at restaurants – Gucci previously launched its own home decor collection (including items by Kering-owned porcelain maker Richard Ginori), some of which is available at its Florentine store.
While Lopez has been charged with conveying Bottura’s vision at Gucci Osteria (and cooking Bottura classics like his iconic tortellini), she is distinguished by her unique global sensibility and deft touch. Her Taka Bun, for instance — a pillowy steamed bun hugging a sweet, sticky slab of premium cinta senese pork — is named after her Japanese husband, Takahiko Kondo, sous chef at Osteria Francescana. Her efforts have also won her the food world’s top awards — Identita Golose honoured her as its Best Female Chef in 2019, the same year she became the first Mexican woman to receive a Michelin star last year.
Lopez is a staunch sustainability advocate, working closely with local producers wherever she finds herself. At Gucci Osteria, she works with a professor-forager named Franco, who during my visit has brought her local treasures like the Ombelico di Venere, a nasturtium-like leaf with thick, sweet stems and the DOP-labelled Rosa di gorizia, an absolutely stunning radicchio that resembles a rose in full bloom. “Every week brings a new surprise,” says Lopez.
Here, Lopez shares some key philosophies behind her success:
Does fashion or food come first at Gucci Osteria?
People come here not just for “Gucci”, but because we have good food, relaxed food. I have a big responsibility because I work with this amazing brand and Massimo. But I don’t feel like I’m just working for fashion, or a fashion place. We want to cook honest food but using the best Italian produce. Like our Taka Bun. Yes, it’s a steamed bun, but it’s done with top ingredients.
How does the spirit of Gucci influence your cooking?
My food is naturally influenced by what I see here. Like the Gucci Garden, which has a room where the birds on the wallpaper fly around (using projections). The colours on that wallpaper inspired me a lot with my desserts. They change the artist (at Gucci Garden) every six months or so, bringing in new colours and ideas – which really helps get me thinking.
Also I love flowers, so I’m super happy here. You see the prints that (Gucci Creative Director) Alessandro Michele has designed for Richard Ginori, you have the Gucci Flora print, and it happens we get Rosa di Gorizia, and it all comes together right? I always feel inspired here. Imagine entering a place like this every day, with this music, this ambience, full of flowers. Your mood changes. It sparkles.
Congratulations again on your Michelin star and being the first Mexican woman to receive one.
Thank you! It was a real surprise. Since I started working, there have been more and more women (working in professional kitchens). But we shouldn’t talk about male chefs, or female chefs. Talent is talent. I feel it’s old-fashioned to talk about race, or where people come from, or what sex they are. We have to evolve beyond this, to see only talent.
How does travel influence your cooking at Gucci Osteria?
We want our customers to travel with us without leaving the table. I’m Mexican, Massimo is a typical Italian, my husband is Japanese and our team is international. We’ve worked around the world, and we want to share our experiences through our cooking. We tell our stories through Italian products (90% of what we use is sourced from Italy) but using all the different techniques we’ve learned. For example, our tostada is made using yellow, white and purple corn from Perugia but using Mexican techniques.
What were your experiences of Singaporean food?
I’ve been to Singapore four times and I love the food — you can eat anywhere and anytime, like in Mexico. There are many similarities between Latin and Asian food — we like savoury and sweet together and our food has a lot of peak points, the flavours go up and down. I love Singapore’s dan dan mian, chilli crab, laksa with cockles and oyster cake. My favourite is the coffee pork ribs, because of their caramelised sweetness.
You’re an advocate of low-waste cooking.
Yes, we try to use everything. It’s hard to use 100%, but we really try. An example is the (chianina beef) tongue that we serve in a square because it’s more aesthetically pleasing. So what do we do with the rest of the tongue? It’s good food and we eat it during our staff meals. Trimmings from vegetables and fruits are turned into soups, or salads for staff. We have an artichoke dish where we use everything – even the tough outer leaves are used to make broth. You have to be aware of each step from when you receive the product to when it reaches the table. Not wasting food also contributes to our wellbeing, because we eat well.
We talk a lot about sustainability in products and going plastic-free, but what about your people? A restaurant might be plastic-free, but are its staff happy? Are they paid what they deserve? Are they getting enough rest? To me it’s most important to be sustainable in terms of human rights and development. If you have a happy, constant team, you get a happy, constant result.