How do you salvage 360,000 damaged wheels of cheese? Just ask Massimo Bottura. In 2012, after two major earthquakes devastated Italy’s Emilia- Romagna region and its famed stores of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Bottura, a dab hand at creating opportunity from crisis, conjured a risotto recipe that heavily featured the king of cheeses, then promoted it through the Slow Food Movement. Within three months, all the formaggi was sold, thus averting disaster.
More recently, the energetic chef — who helms three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena and founded one- Michelin-starred Gucci Osteria in Florence — debuted Food for Soul, a non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lara Gilmore, to combat waste and feed the hungry. Billed as a “cultural project” that shines light on the invisible potential of people, places and food, the organisation’s chain of Refettorios (from “reficere” in Latin, meaning “to remake” and “to restore”) are styled as community kitchens where the socially vulnerable are served nutritious, delicious meals crafted from surplus food that would otherwise have been discarded.
Having started as a pop-up in Milan in 2015, Refettorios have now opened in Rio de Janeiro, Paris, London, Modena, Bologna and Naples, with plans underway to open in North America. But these are not your conventional soup kitchens. Each Refettorio is designed as a beautiful, welcoming space that is open to all in the community and offers creative fare turned out by local and international chefs.
However, with communities still reeling from Covid-19, it’s not business as usual for Bottura even if his flagship Osteria Francescana reopened in June. In fact, it’s more important than ever to “change people’s mindsets” about food waste, he reminds us.
How did the pandemic affect you?
I used to travel constantly; if I was in Modena, I’d divide myself between Osteria Francescana and Casa Maria Luigia, our B&B in the Emilian countryside. Suddenly everything — our routines and our lives — changed. We started Kitchen Quarantine [Bottura’s nightly cooking show on Instagram, which stars his family], which was a fun way to interact with families all over the world, as well as to share ideas and good practices like cleaning out the refrigerator to limit food waste.
We also started deliveries from our Modenese bistro, Franceschetta58, for the first time. We deliver different elements that compose each dish and people simply have to follow our instructions to put the ingredients together at home.
The virus has taken much from us but it has also given us something very precious: Time. Having a great amount of it gave me and my team the chance to open our minds and be inspired by new ideas.
How did work continue during Italy’s lockdown?
Over the last few months, I asked the Osteria Francescana team to each create a recipe at home using the iconic Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as inspiration. It kept us connected, creative and focused, even while working apart. When we returned to the kitchen in late May, we started tasting the recipes and narrowed them down to 12 courses. Our new tasting menu is called “With a Little Help From My Friends”. I’m very proud of it, because it really expresses our identity as a team, working together with a completely new energy.
How does Food for Soul’s Refettorios benefit communities?
The Refettorios are community kitchens, offering both food and hospitality to those in need. What differentiates us from soup kitchens is our way of serving meals. Guests are invited to sit at communal tables and are served a full meal by volunteers — the kind of hospitality that comes from my personal experience running restaurants for the past 30 years. The social part of the experience is a kind of therapy that’s good for everyone, from guests to volunteers and chefs. It creates a kind of convivial atmosphere which helps rebuild dignity around the act of eating a meal. Guests can also be inspired by the art and design that’s part of every Refettorio.
Food for Soul is a cultural project. Culture is the most important and influential aspect of the future of food. With culture, we gain knowledge and consciousness. And from there, it’s a very small step to becoming socially responsible — for yourself, your family, your business and your community.
During the lockdown, our Refettorios had to close but we adjusted our service to ensure guests could still access food and support. Some projects prepared takeaway meals and others started delivering meals door-to-door while offering financial and psychological help to make sure nobody was left behind. In April alone, our Refettorios worldwide reclaimed more than 35,000kg of surplus food and served and delivered more than 100,000 meals to frontline workers and people in need.
Any particularly memorable encounter at a Refettorio?
One night after service, one of our guests approached me and said, “I have never felt like this before. I felt like a prince”, and thanked me. This really struck me — I’d never have expected to have such a powerful impact on someone else’s life.
How would you convince doubters that low-waste cuisine can be “high- end” and delicious?
We always use every part of an animal or vegetable, even leftover ingredients in all our restaurants. We teach young chefs to be resourceful and not wasteful with ingredients, and to have respect for the food we prepare and eat daily. Our staff meals are healthy and fresh because we believe in the regenerative power of food.
Every chef in every restaurant can highlight the real value of food in very simple ways. First, use ingredients in their entirety. Use vegetable peels and scraps, fish and meat bones to make broth. Second, don’t judge by appearance. You can’t imagine how much good food is thrown away because it’s ugly, like a brown banana, or is close to the expiration date, like a box of ricotta cheese that’s still perfectly good to cook with. Ugly fruit and vegetables can taste just as good, or even better, than beautiful ones. Overripe bananas, for example, make delicious gelato or banana bread.
Straight out of the oven, a loaf of bread is good enough to be eaten as it is. The day after, it will be perfect for making pappa al pomodoro (Tuscan bread and tomato soup) or bread pudding. After two days, it can be used for breadcrumbs for meatballs, passatelli and cakes. That’s where real beauty is — to create something of value from what appears worthless.
You recently unveiled a series of marble tables with designer Piero Lissoni under Design for Soul, part of Food for Soul. How does furniture connect to food?
The Design for Soul series uses discarded but precious materials to create a unique piece of design that’s also sustainable. This is exactly what we do with Food for Soul — we highlight the potential of people, places and food to reduce waste while treating our planet and our communities with respect. We all have to be united and change our perspective if we’re going to make change happen. As we always say, something recovered is something gained.
This story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of A Magazine.