“20 years ago nobody cared about what chefs have to say. Look how that has changed … we can all make visible the invisible.”
Admittedly, I jumped on the Bottura bandwagon a little late in the game. It was after watching the first episode of Netfix’s Chef’s Table featuring Massimo Bottura that I became an immediate fan of his passion for food and living life.
A little background on Bottura. His three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana won No. 1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 and came in at No. 2 at this year’s awards. In addition to being one of the best chefs in the world, he’s known for his fervent energy, drive and dynamic personality. Most recently his restaurant was featured on the new season of the much beloved and surprisingly food-centric show, Master of None. Furthermore, equally as passionate about his cuisine as he is about food sustainability, Bottura is the founder of Food for Soul, a nonnprofit that seeks to eliminate food waste in support of social inclusion and individual well-being.
Recently I attended the Institute of Culinary Education’s (ICE) first-ever Zero Waste Food Conference, a two-day event focused on discovering better methods for the way we produce, distribute, consume and dispose of food in cooking and dining environments. It was here that I listened to Bottura’s keynote address on his mission to empower communities though sharing meals that go beyond simply filling the stomach.
Food for Soul began as a project during the Expo 2015 in Milan, of which the theme was “Feed the Planet.” From this initial prompt, Bottura created Refettorio Ambrosiano by teaming up with well-known artists and designers to help transform an abandoned theatre into an inspiring community kitchen.
“We saw the expo as an opportunity to raise awareness about food waste and food insecurity as two sides of the same coin,” said Bottura at the Zero Waste Food Conference. “We saw the opportunity to create a community through cooking to feed those in need … to show that chefs are more than the sum of their recipes. And so we created a soup kitchen in the style of a refettorio.”
Food for Soul isn’t a charity project, but rather a cultural project. Instead of creating a temporary pop-up, Bottura took his idea further by launching an organization to take what was started in Milan and continue it globally. “In looking for solutions to eliminate food waste, we found potential for a wider change … We need more places to unite people at the table. More places to revive neighborhoods. More places to restore dignity,” said Bottura. “We need to change the way we think about ingredients, nourishment and people. We stopped throwing away our food. We listened to the needs of the local community … this is why we founded Food for Soul.”
“We transformed ugly ingredients into delicious meals. We replaced a traditional soup kitchen with restaurant style table service, we served meals in a safe and beautiful space with art and design. What is a refettorio: a place to restore, a place for beauty, a place to be nourished … It’s a place where you’re invited to share meals.”
Photo by Jonathan Grassi
Bottura explains that three key values were made evident within this initial project:
1. Quality of ideas: “Creativity and expertise make the quality of ideas and are the keys to working with reclaimed food with surplus.” It’s no easy task transforming subpar ingredients into delicious dishes.
2. Power of beauty: “People can’t live by food alone. Beauty is what nourishes the soul, it is an invisible good … it’s not only about feeding people, but also how we did that.” Bottura and his team worked to welcome guests one by one, serving each guest at the table as they would a paying customer. The meals transformed into celebrations, which in turn created a revived, ongoing dialogue.
3. Value of hospitality: “Sharing the meal was a gesture of inclusion.” When everyone is welcome at the table, guests, chefs and the greater community are inspired to make change for the greater good. Bottura ascribes to providing nourishment in a holistic sense. For both the body and soul.
This inspiring chef is changing the way people approach helping the less fortunate. His roadmap for fighting food waste — while revolutionary — is rooted in a simple concept: treating those in need with respect and dignity. Though Food for Soul is relatively new, it’s been a force to be reckoned with. With the same year as its inception, it opened its first international project: Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, during the Olympics, converting surplus food from the Olympic Games into tasty and healthy meals. Soon thereafter, Food for Soul established the Social Tables project in Modena, Italy.
Refettorio Felix launched in London in June 2017, and more international projects are in the works in cities including Berlin and Los Angeles. The refettorio initiatives illustrate his approach, offering a relevant template in rethinking food distribution and consumption around the globe.
In regards to the everyday chefs, how can they begin to reduce waste in their own kitchens? “Get a recipe book. Learn to make stock — that’s one way to use up a lot of ingredients, and don’t be afraid to try something new. Part of the reason there’s a lot of waste is that no one wants to eat the icky parts of things,” said chef Bill Telepan of Oceana during his hands-on cooking session at the Zero Waste conference. “They don’t know that if you cook the fish head and roast it off there’s a lot of (tasty) meat in it.”
On a larger scale, how can chefs around the world get on board with eliminating waste? Paste spoke with Michael Laiskonis, ICE Creative Director, to find out.
Paste: How do you respond to the main question everyone wants answered: how to minimize food waste?
Michael Laiskonis: The issue of food waste is both incredibly simple on the surface, yet also requires a deeper look at our entire food system. On a personal scale, there is obviously much we can do be more mindful of our own waste — whether the result of shopping habits, spoilage, or a failure to utilize scraps, and byproducts.
At a higher altitude, however, it becomes a political question that can be influenced at every stage of food production and distribution. In the end, it’s a mental shift toward recognizing the true value of food beyond its cost. In the face of an increasingly “disposable” driven culture, we have been slow to respond to this strange dichotomy of abundance on one hand, and crippling food insecurity on the other.
With regard to Bottura’s keynote and the projects he seeks to develop:
ML: Massimo’s work is important and incredibly effective at drawing this connection between two vital issues — waste and hunger/food insecurity. New York City-based group City Harvest was among the first to work with chefs and restaurants in this way, to re-purpose by-product from the industry toward hunger relief — and I’m proud to have worked with them over the years!
I love the idea of scaling Massimo’s prototype (even the idea of reclaiming architecture or space in the process,) and I think this could be repeated in communities at a small scale. It’s interesting to consider that by raising the value perception of “scrap” it may also remove some of the stigma for those on the receiving end, who in this case are being fed perhaps with more dignity and respect. But again, solving the wider problem goes far beyond what is essentially charity; the will to carry through on a larger scale, whether city-wide, nation-wide or globally, requires work on the political and economic level.
Here in the U.S., programs that merely treat the symptoms of hunger are already under attack; full-scale reform that addresses the underlying causes appears, for the moment, extremely challenging.
Hailing from California, Chelsea Davis is an inquisitive dessert enthusiast and Golden State Warriors fan. Since graduating from Columbia University, she has amassed a colorful professional background, with experiences in industries that include news production, radio, public relations & media communications. Upon realizing that her true passion revolves around traveling the world, immersing herself in new cultures and eating, she is now a full-time freelance journalist, based in New York City. Chelsea’s work has been featured on Thrillist, The Daily Meal, Yahoo! and MSN, among other nationally recognized outlets. Follow her on Instagram and her blog .