Last year, when the eyes of the world turned to Expo Milano (aka the 2015 edition of the World’s Fair), Italian chef Massimo Bottura came up with a progressive exhibition of sustainable cooking: He transformed an abandoned theater in the Greco neighborhood, a Milan suburb, into an avant-garde soup kitchen to educate and feed refugees, homeless, and working poor using more than 15 tons of salvaged food. Bottura invited more than 65 international chefs (such as Daniel Humm, Joan Roca, and Gastón Acurio) to cook at his Refettorio Ambrosiano, as he called the refectory set up in the once-derelict theater. The 15 tons of food waste was sourced from the exposition’s pavilions and ultimately was turned into more than 10,000 meals.
Bottura, famously the chef/owner of Modena, Italy’s Osteria Francescana, will repeat the feat in the next few weeks, when the Olympic and Paralympic Games will start in Rio de Janeiro. Bottura joined Brazilian non-profit organization Gastromotiva, a group founded by chef David Hertz to promote social change through gastronomy, to recreate his community kitchen model: Refettorio Gastromotiva will open its doors on August 9 in Rio’s Lapa neighborhood. As more than 800,000 visitors will flood Rio during the course of the Games, according to an estimate by the International Olympic Committee, Bottura’s concept will offer free meals to those city inhabitants in need.
“Now that I am considered the most influential chef in the world, my voice is screaming instead of whispering.”
“Now that I am considered the most influential chef in the world, my voice is screaming instead of whispering,” Bottura told Eater earlier this summer, just a few days after Osteria Francescana was named the top restaurant in the world by World’s 50 Best. He hopes that the recognition will help him drive his non-profit organization, Food for Soul, around the world. After Rio de Janeiro, Bottura has plans to open the soup kitchens in cities like Montreal, Berlin, New York City, and his hometown of Modena.
Bottura met Gastromotiva’s David Hertz when the Brazilian chef joined the Refettorio Ambrosiano team in Milan (while there, the duo cooked Brazilian-Italian mash-ups like tapioca dumplings with parmesan cheese). Hertz founded Gastromotiva in 2004 to reach young people from low-income and immigrant families, hoping to create a social movement while filling a labor gap Brazil’s restaurant community. “We’ve been talking about this project since last year,” Hertz says of Refettorio. “It was hard to raise the investments needed, but we decided to move forward anyway when we got from the local government a place to install our kitchen, betting that Massimo’s award would attract more investors. This status provides a new level of marketing to the companies.”
The 108-seat Refettorio Gastromotiva, which took less than 59 days to get ready, is located in Lapa, known as a bohemian Rio de Janeiro neighborhood. During the Olympics, it will open for dinner every day, and Bottura and more than 30 guest chefs (including Alain Ducasse, Alex Atala, Joan Roca, and Virgilio Martínez) will be working with whatever ingredients are available daily. These surplus ingredients (most raw and some cooked) will be sourced from the Olympic Village’s catering services, as well as surplus food from sponsors and partners’ grocery stores.
According to Lara Gilmore, Bottura’s wife and a driving force behind many of his creative projects, the inability to prepare recipes in advance is the real challenge for the project’s participants. “These are not typical or ordinary meals,” Gilmore says, though she hints that some familiar Bottura dishes might appear. “Massimo is very interested in creating recipes with leftover bread, so perhaps a pasta such as passatelli made with breadcrumbs in a broth of ‘everything,’ or a dessert inspired by ‘Bread is Gold,’ a recipe we serve at Osteria Francescana based on a milk and breadcrumb dessert from Massimo’s childhood.” To help Bottura execute his vision, three chefs from Osteria Francescana will accompany him to Rio.
Some familiar dishes might appear, like a take on Osteria’s milk and breadcrumb dessert.
“The project is important since it deals with sustainable food and fighting waste, which is a global scale issue,” says Tania Braga, head of sustainability and legacy on the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. “We incentivize our suppliers to donate their surplus ingredients to the ReffetoRio Gastromotiva.” All 5,000 planned meals served in Refettorio will have three courses: antipasto or pasta, main course, and dessert. After the Olympic Village closes post-Games, the food will come from various sources, including local distributors that salvage still-edible fruits and vegetables from markets and grocery stores that would otherwise be thrown away, burned, or discarded. The Refettorio Gastromotiva will also be receiving donations like pasta and cheese from Italian sponsors.
After the Olympics, Refettorio plans to increase its reach by becoming a culinary school with the concept of “pay a lunch and leave a dinner,” where clients who eat lunch there contribute to a dinner for people in situations of social vulnerability. It’s a longer-term mission: The space has been granted to Gastromotiva by the government for the next 10 years.
In addition, the Refettorio Gastromotiva will be a hub for projects related to food and social inclusion: It will offer workshops on healthy nutrition for families, cooks, and school managers, as well as workshops about reducing food waste. “The project doesn’t end with the Games,” Hertz says. “We are trying to create not only a better condition to nourish those in need, but also awareness about the way we waste our food.” In Brazil, more than 3.4 million people live in state of food insecurity (or 1.7 percent of the population), according to the Brazilian non-profit Banco de Alimentos (Food Bank). Hertz hopes to continue feeding those in need at no cost.
But as Bottura points out, the concept “is not a charity project, it is a cultural one.” According to him, waste became the most important problem related to food in a society that cannot handle its redistribution of resources. That’s not something new: Bottura says that this is the foundation of the Italian cuisine, or cucina povera, when matriarchs needed to use all the parts of an ingredient to provide a meal to their families. “We are going to bring back our grandmother’s way of thinking and are translating it into a contemporary work: ‘Do not throw away that piece of meat, don’t waste this Parmigiano-Reggiano crust,’” Bottura says.
“Culture brings knowledge and consciousness, and consciousness brings a sense of responsibility.”
Bottura believes that the rise of celebrity chefs yields more media attention than many social activists, and that the global stage of the Olympics — like that of the Expo Milano — is the perfect site to bring awareness. “We create culture everyday in our kitchen. Culture brings knowledge and consciousness, and consciousness brings the sense of responsibility that leads us to create projects such as Reffetorio,” he says. “That’s why I think the most important belief in the future, for a chef, is culture.”
In other words, Bottura, along with many other chefs, is becoming more and more conscious about his work as a social role model. “We, contemporary chefs, are going to think at least for one day as our grandmothers did. We want to explain to the world what is possible to do with an overripe banana, an ugly tomato, or with bread crumbs,” Bottura says. The Rio Olympics will provide the stage. “The answer to the universal exposure that I am having now is: fight waste. I hope I can make people think more about that. That would make my prize [the World’s 50 Best designation] worth its while.”
Rafael Tonon is a Brazilian journalist and food writer based in São Paulo.
Editor: Erin DeJesus