How One Chef Is Tackling A Major World Problem

Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Chou.
Cook Simone De Gaetano and manager Cristina Reni at Refettorio Ambrosiano.
It is mid-October in Milan and throngs of tourists are heading to Expo Milano 2015, themed "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life." There, nearly 20 million people walked through pavilions from 145 countries, with exhibitions including human-sized tubs of Nutella (Italy), bites from food trucks (U.S.A.), and towers of salt, Nescafé, apple chips, and water (Switzerland).
The hottest ticket around, however, wasn't to any of the pavilions or even the Expo itself. Instead, the most exclusive restaurant tied to Expo Milano was in Greco, a working-class district. And it's not even a restaurant — it's a soup kitchen.

This is where some of the best chefs in the world would drop by to cook — for free. First, there was René Redzepi of NOMA. Then, Ferran Adrià from the famed El Bulli cooked with brother Albert Adrià for the first time in seven years. Foodie chefs Daniel Humm, Mario Batali, and Alain Ducasse all made appearances, as well. And it's thanks to another illustrious world chef: Massimo Bottura of Italian restaurant Osteria Francescana.

"To feed the planet, first you have to fight the waste," Bottura tells me during a weekend trip to New York City. His project for Expo was strikingly simple: Take leftovers from the Expo food providers, get the help of a few friends, and start a soup kitchen.
Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Chou.
Massimo Bottura, in New York City
Enter Refettorio Ambrosiano, a soup kitchen created to give people a second chance.

Bottura and his team reached out to Caritas Ambrosiana, a Catholic foundation which helps people who are homeless get back on their feet, and started working on a concept in an abandoned theater near a church.

"It was not just opening up a soup kitchen, it’s opening up a refectory, where monks used to eat while reading the Bible," Cristina Reni, the manager, says. "You don’t just feed your body, but also your soul."

So Bottura and his crew built a place of art. A group of 13 designers created custom-made tables (the 13th is built from the scraps of the others), while artists like Maurizio Nannucci, Mimmo Paladino, and Gaetano Pesce donated works for the space. And unlike the standard soup kitchen stereotype, this wasn't going to be a regular cafeteria assembly line; Refettorio Ambrosiano would have servers meeting the diners beyond the counter

"It’s a different approach," Reni says. "If someone is there and you don’t go out [behind the counter], you don’t shake their hands, you’re not going to talk with them. And for our diners, it's different. They come here and they feel dignified. Okay, I’m a person. Yes I’m in a soup kitchen. I need help, but it’s not a bad thing. "

The project grew: Lavazza donated the kitchen (created where the stage used to be); supermarkets around town provided staples like pasta and flour. Everything else arrived from a supermarket exhibit at the Expo. A (donated) truck arrived daily at 9:30 a.m., packed with products set to expire the next day: vegetables on the verge of rotting, meat about to go bad, and milk about to sour.
Photo: Courtesy of Refettorio Ambrosiano.
The soup kitchen, prior to transformation.
Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Chou.
The refectory today.
"Every day, it was a surprise. You never knew what would arrive," Reni says. Come evening, those "leftovers" would be transformed by a crew of volunteers and some of the best chefs in the world. Banana peels were toasted on the grill, smoked, and added to broth for extra depth; bread crumbs were mixed with Parmigiano-Reggiano and eggs to create noodles; melon seeds were cleaned, roasted, and baked into bread.

What didn't get used was preserved; meat vacuumed and frozen, milk turned into cheese, fruits into ice cream. Everything that could not be used or repurposed was sent to other soup kitchens in the area.

"At the beginning, I was so nervous. Like, 'Is it possible?'" Reni says. "A chef might ask, 'Can you buy onions?' And I would say yes. But now, it’s like, 'Well, why? Why do you need it?'" Oftentimes, she says, the chefs realized they could make do without.

"We’re so used to always having everything," Reni says. "Maybe we don’t make ourselves ask that question often enough."

We’re so used to always having everything, Maybe we don’t make ourselves ask that question often enough.

Cristina Reni, Refettorio Ambrosiano
Initially, there were some pitfalls. Some days, the refectory would send meat to other kitchens. Other days, it would go meatless because none came in the shipment. The kitchen basement houses boxes and boxes of panettone — not expired, just unwanted. (These will be sent to surrounding kitchens in need, Reni says.)

But ultimately, the project was a success: it was completely reliant on castoffs and donations, receiving some 15 tons of food from the Expo in the last five months. And it's become a distribution center for soup kitchens in Milan, deciding what extras should go where. Even now, weeks after Expo Milano ended, the soup kitchen is still running and will continue to do so with donations and leftovers from supermarkets around Milan. "We're really proud of [this]," Reni says, as nobody expected the refectory to exist without the Expo. "We didn't expect this, but [it shows] it is possible, you know?"
Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Chou.
The kitchen at Refettorio Ambrosiano.
So what's next?

Here's the uncomfortable part about Bottura's Refettorio Ambrosiano: They only serve 80 people a night and occasionally a host of school children for lunch.

"We didn’t open a soup kitchen so everyone can come here," Reni says. Instead, the diners must be part of a three-month program with Caritas Ambrosiana, which helps people in need find jobs, food, and shelter.

80 people a night — especially the same 80 people for at least three months — might not sound like a lot, especially considering there are at least 150,000 Milanese families in need, according to the Red Cross.

"The Refettorio was created like this because it's another stage up from the soup kitchen," Bottura explains. "It's about a second chance for people." So far, at least five people in the program have graduated, moved on, and gotten jobs.
Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Chou.
The staff meal on a normal day in October.
So while the refectory might be small, the effects can be mimicked. Bottura tells Refinery29 he is working on a cookbook, Bread Is Gold, compiling the inventive recipes from the refectory, to help fund a foundation to start similar projects around the world. New York and Turin, Italy, are reportedly his next targets.

"I think the most important thing is to find the chef that can be a leader of the project [in that area]," Bottura says. And the book, he hopes, will show people that you can cook with scraps, ultimately reducing the world's food waste.

Cooking with food waste isn't a new concept; neither is using supermarket castoffs, really. But proving you can consistently pull it off, every day, and never have the same meal twice (thanks to an ever-changing roster of chefs) — that's still inspirational. With small steps and high-mindedness, Bottura has evolved the soup kitchen into something else: a place to break bread with family.

"The most important experience for me was the evolution of the feeling," Bottura says. "At the beginning, everyone was so suspicious, no one was talking to each other. Everyone would look at the floor, eat quickly, and then leave."

But the last days? "Party! It was a party every night," he says. "After six months, there were tables of people. They were like family. It was amazing."

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