Michelin-starred chef transforms food waste into fine dining for the needy in Paris

Italian chef Massimo Bottura opened his sixth Refettorio community kitchen in Paris last week. The concept? To provide a sumptuous feast to the most vulnerable of Paris while also battling food waste.

Don’t talk to Bottura about charity. For the only chef in Italy to earn three Michelin stars, his chain of restaurants – the Refettorii – is above all a community project.

“I didn’t want to recreate a soup kitchen where you have to stand in line. At the Refettorio, we serve them as clientele should be treated, with consideration and dignity,” Bottura told FRANCE 24.

In Milan, Modena, London, Rio and, as of March 15, Paris, the most vulnerable will not have to accept food handouts or face the frequently dehumanising soup kitchens. At Bottura’s Refettorio – which translates as “recuperate” or “restore” – they are invited to enjoy a delicious meal carefully prepared by a professional chef in a warm, convivial environment surrounded by exquisite artwork.

“On the opening day of our Refettorio in London, a 92-year-old woman told me it was the most beautiful place she had been to in her life. For her, we had created a community. And that’s the very essence of the project. We restore dignity for the forgotten with a stunning dining experience,” the chef said.

Waste not, want not

“Do you know what the most important ingredient in a kitchen is? Culture!” Bottura exclaims.

Yet in a world where 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted each year, the link between a cultural experience and cuisine isn’t always obvious.

“From culture comes knowledge, and from knowledge comes awareness, and from awareness comes action. The Refettori aren’t soup kitchens, because in our kitchens we’re not working with urgency. Our meals are a cultural, hopefully life-changing experience. We’re trying to construct a better future. There are more than 860 million people who don’t have enough to eat: the goal isn’t to produce more, but to waste less,” the chef said.

For Bottura, 55, a native of the northern Italian city of Modena, the birthplace of “cucina povera” or the art of simple cooking, the fight against food waste is almost innate. From his childhood kitchen table to his community kitchens, not throwing away food is instinctive.

“You can’t throw away bread – that’s sacrilege! Even stale bread can be used to make a delicious recipe, like bread pudding or pesto,” explains Bottura, whose Proustian madeleine cookie recipe calls for one cup of warm milk, bread crumbs and a dash of coffee.

‘You make garbage taste so delicious’

Cooking with surplus ingredients is an art that Bottura has mastered. “You make garbage taste so delicious,” the American late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel joked after inviting Bottura to cook on his show in February with leftovers found around the studio.

The subtitle of Bottura’s most recent book of recipes, Bread is Gold, more or less sums up the chef’s entire philosophy: “Extraordinary meals with ordinary ingredients”.

Bottura was trained by the best. “My fight against food waste is an homage to my grandmother,” he explained.

Growing up, food was no laughing matter in the Bottura household. They grew it, cooked it and ate it.

“I come from a large family. We were at least 10 at every meal – my brothers and sisters, my cousins, my grandparents, my friends. We grew up with the idea of being together at the table. It was a moment where we could talk to each other, share ideas, dream,” Bottura recalled.

His career as a lawyer (“to make my father happy”) was short-lived. Since then, Bottura has been no stranger to success. The Osteria Francescana, his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Modena is fully booked five months in advance. Want to reserve a table? Prepare to beg.

After winning the “Best Chef in the World” title in 2016, Bottura has nothing left to prove. Yet despite his myriad of awards and honours, he isn’t content serving just the rich and famous.

‘Why should art and fine dining be reserved for the wealthy?’

“Why should art and fine dining be reserved for the wealthy?” Bottura demanded. When reminded of the massive gap between his wealthy clientele at the Osteria Francescana and the more vulnerable patrons at his Refettori community kitchens, Bottura replies matter-of-factly. “The ingredients may change but the process is still the same.”

“Who says that a chef should keep his mouth shut behind his stove? That’s absurd,” Bottura’s friend, the Danish chef René Redzepi, exclaimed in a Netflix documentary on the Italian.

Bottura is also a famous activist. In 2010, while hiking in a regional park along the Po River, he came across a ranger who deplored the state of the neglect of the wetlands. The chef kicked up such a fuss that the local government eventually invested €16 million to restore the park.

Bottura, who is also an advocate of Italy’s Slow Food movement (a group that promotes local food and traditional cooking), was approached in 2012 by a consortium of parmesan cheese producers. A string of earthquakes in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region had left more than 300,000 wheels of the famous cheese damaged. Bottura came up with the idea of transforming the recipe for cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) into a risotto that replaced the traditional sheep-based pecorino cheese with parmesan. Two months later all of the damaged wheels had been sold.

The beginning of Refettorio

In 2015, the organisers of the World Expo in Milan invited Bottura to talk on the theme, “Feed the planet”. The Italian chef, however, took it one step further. After founding the non-profit Food for the Soul, he opened his first Refettorio community kitchen in a suburb of Milan. Some of the world’s greatest chefs flocked to support him, preparing meals for the city’s most vulnerable populations using only surplus ingredients. A cuisine and design enthusiast, Bottura also invited artists and architects to help create a warm and inspiring venue. Mens sano in corpore sano, or “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, was his motto.

The initiative was such a success that the Refettorio, which was meant to shut its doors at the end of the World Expo, remained open. Even better, the model has since been exported abroad. In France, it was the French photographer JR who came up with the idea of launching a Refettorio in Paris while at a dinner party hosted by his friend Jean-François Rial, CEO of the travel agency Voyageurs du Monde. Rial is now president of the Refettorio in Paris.

“JR told me about Massimo Bottura’s Refettorii around the world, and proposed launching one in Paris. I thought it was a great idea: restoring dignity to the impoverished through quality food, a quality environment and the quality of the chefs,” Rial said.

Every evening, from Monday through Friday, a team of five staff, including one young chef, prepare approximately 100 meals in the Crypt Restaurant beneath the Madeleine church in Paris’s 8th arrondissement for a clientele made up of migrants and the homeless. The kitchen will regularly be taken over by some of the most famous names in French cuisine, including Alain Ducasse, Yannick Alléno, Jean Imbert, Olivier Rollinger and Michel Bras.

“Chefs can no longer content themselves with cooking in their restaurants. They have a responsibility to the future of global food security,” Bottura argues. On his left arm, a tattoo of the words “No more excuses” serves to remind us of that.

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