Food fighter: Chef Massimo Bottura

Chef Bottura in the kitchen of Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro. Angelo Dal Bo

Every night in Paris, homeless men and women make their way down into the crypt of the 190-year-old la Madeleine church, where they sit under gilded arches to dine on three-course meals served on plates designed by artist JR. On the outskirts of Milan, a refurbished theater suggested by Pope Francis; in Rio de Janeiro, an industrial-chic canteen with translucent walls; and in London, a plant-filled hall hung with warmly lit paper lanterns are grounds for similar mealtimes.

Any of these restaurants – Refettorio, as they are named – is easily sophisticated enough to serve as another Michelin three-star restaurant from chef Massimo Bottura, who created them alongside his wife Lara Gilmore under their non-profit Food for Soul. But their mission is a bit different: to capitalize on the fact that the world wastes one third of the food it produces by using it not only to tackle the hunger of urban marginalized populations – the homeless, the elderly, refugees – but also to address their loss of dignity through art, design and genuine hospitality.

Running entirely on food waste (fashioned into haute cuisine like ossobucco and gelato) and volunteers (which, given Botturo’s renown, include celebrity artists, starchitects and other Michelin-starred chefs), the Refettorio mission shows just how much can be done with what we throw away.

The dining room of Refettorio Paris. JR

You often describe Refettorio not as a restaurant but as a movement – a societal mission to change people’s mindsets. If the movement and mission you envision is achieved, what specific changes will we see take place in society at large?

The word ‘refettorio’ comes from the Latin word reficere, which means to remake, but also to restore. The aim behind every Refettorio is not just to provide a warm meal to those in need.

Nourishment is conceived in a more holistic sense: fill the empty belly and feed the hungry soul. First of all, each Refettorio is a community kitchen, which offers food and hospitality to those in need. We recover surplus ingredients from markets and supermarkets that are transformed into tasty and nutritious meals by guest chefs and a local kitchen team. At the core of Refettorios is the volunteer team – people like you and me who join us to welcome our guests and serve them directly at the table. The spaces are filled with art and beauty, which is a universal language that goes hand-in-hand with ethics, so that everyone can get inspiration from every corner. By everyone, I don’t only mean our guests, volunteers and chefs, but the whole community.

The doors of our Refettorios are open to anyone who’s willing to act for his or her own community and make a change. This is why Food for Soul is not a charity project, but a cultural one. Our aim is not only to feed as many people as possible; we aim for a change of mindset. We want people to look at everything that is discarded, marginalized and neglected – food, spaces and other people – with different eyes.

What did your upbringing in Italian culture teach you about wasting food?

I’m an Italian chef. One of the golden rules of Italian culinary tradition is to make the most of nothing and to never throw anything away. No crumbs or bones ever get thrown in the bin. A ragù is nothing other than a sauce made with scraps of meat or fish or vegetables. The Italian concept of cucina povera means making the best out of each ingredient, at every stage of its lifespan. Every part of an animal, every part of a vegetable and every leftover ingredient is used.

Cucina povera teaches us to go beyond the appearances, because ugly fruits and vegetables can taste just as delicious as beautiful ones. Sometimes they’re even better: just think about brown, overripe bananas – they’re perfect to make gelato or scented banana bread loaves. A browned banana, a bruised fruit still has a huge potential in terms of smells, flavors, texture. So many wonderful recipes can be made with breadcrumbs, from pastas to hamburgers to desserts.

Our responsibility is to find that inner beauty in each product, at every stage of its lifespan.

That’s what real beauty is: to make something valuable out of something that might be seen as not having any value at all. At the end of the day, something recovered is something gained.

Colorful salad made from food waste in Rio de Janeiro. Angelo Dal Bo

Given the diversity of their locations, how do your four Refettorios relate to one another?

The strength of each Refettorio stands on its uniqueness. We design our project by listening to the community, by finding the needs as well as the potential. Only in this way can we guarantee that the project is truly impactful and can stand long-term.

The common point is that all these projects are not pop-ups: we build them to stay permanently, to leave a legacy to the city, and to be a pivotal space where the whole community can meet and grow. Once opened, we want to make sure that every Refettorio will run on its own legs. And then, we hope to connect Refettorios from all over the world in a useful learning a network so that they can share ideas and experiences. They can empower each other, and grow together.

Could you walk us through a single day at a Refettorio, from receiving the ingredients to locking the door? 

The day starts with a van loaded with surplus ingredients approaching the kitchen of each project. We usually recover food from supermarkets and food companies, but sometimes we collect food directly from the city central market, like in Modena. Our chefs then decide what to cook based on the ingredients they find on the desk. Their know-how and creativity is essential to this task, but it’s also essential to raise awareness on the real value of food and spread a message that goes even outside of our kitchen. Volunteers set up the table with real cutlery and plates, sometimes even flowers, and they wait to welcome our guests and lead them at their seat. Every dinner or lunch is a feast that usually ends up with cheers and laughs. It’s a celebration of the community that comes out from one of the simplest gestures possible: a shared meal. This is the real power of food.

What are some things you do to make your own lifestyle more sustainable, less wasteful and more socially conscious? 

We can all be part of the solution of reducing food waste by looking at ingredients with different eyes, look at the potential of every product even beyond it’s not-so-appealing appearance.

My advice is simple: avoid processed food, shop regularly and buy fresh ingredients. And before buying more food, open your pantry and your refrigerator and find the inner beauty in the humblest ingredients. Learn how to make soups from vegetables that look sad or old; use bruised fruit to make cakes or salads; use the meat in your freezer to prepare a ragout, or meatloaves or meatballs.

It only takes a little bit of awareness, curiosity, creativity, and an open mind to create something new and genuine. Never forget that there is someone hungry out there, so do your best to teach your children not to waste food.

The fight against food waste starts from your home. Together we can make the difference.

Chef Bottura, center, with volunteer Refettorio chefs. Emanuele Colombo

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