Massimo Bottura, Refettorio Ambrosiano

How can we beautify food waste and dignify poverty? Massimo Bottura's Reffetoria Ambrosiano reimagines the soup kitchen around a new culture of goodness

Massimo Bottura is the Michelin starred chef behind Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy which was named the best restaurant in the world this year. Bottura’s belief that restoring dignity to food is the supreme duty of a chef led him to found Food for Soul, a nonprofit organization that aims to shed light on the issue of food waste and to nurture a different food culture.

"Worldwide, some 800 million people suffer from undernourishment and malnutrition. On the other hand, one third of edible production – in stores and supermarkets, home pantries and restaurants – ends up in rubbish bins and landfills. With what we throw away we could partially solve the hunger problem. Although chefs have a duty to satisfy palates, they also have the moral obligation to respect the ingredients and care for the planet. After all, we have an extensive knowledge of food and production techniques. And knowledge develops consciousness. And from consciousness comes a sense of responsibility."

~Massimo Bottura

For Expo Milano 2015, Bottura tackled its theme “ “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” with Refettorio Ambrosiano, a soup kitchen created to raise awareness for the importance of fully utilizing the food supply. "To feed the planet, first you have to fight the waste," Bottura says. Taking over a derelict theatre in the city’s under-resourced Greco neighborhood, the soup kitchen hosted many of the best chef’s in the world, among them Rene Redzépi, Alain Ducasse, Mario Batali, Daniel Humm and Ferran Adri à, each of whom performed culinary alchemy with the exposition’s transported food waste for those most in need. “Chefs don’t need to rush to have the best caviar, the best truffle. Emotions can be transferred from a crust of Parmigiano and leftover bread. Foraging for new ingredients is not important,” Bottura says. “Foraging for ideas, this is important.”

Those ideas include the belief that it is not just about the food that Refettorio Ambrosiano should welcome its guests into a beautiful space of beauty “because goodness is associated with beauty.” Inside the theatre, thirteen of Italy’s most influential furniture designers, including Antonio Citterio, Fabio Novembre and Terry Dwan created custom made tables, while artists like Maurizio Nannucci, Mimmo Paladino, and Gaetano Pesce donated works for the space.

Further unlike traditional soup kitchens, Refettorio Ambrosiano had servers. "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,” Bottura explains. “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. "

Completely reliant on castoffs and donations, the refectory received some 15 tons of food from the Expo over five months. 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. Expo Milano ended, the soup kitchen is still running and will continue to do so with donations and leftovers from supermarkets around Milan.

Bottura intends to replicate the model in places where physical hunger goes hand in hand with a need for culture. This year they found themselves in Lapa, a neighborhood in Rio de Janerio where there are so many homeless, employing the same concept using leftover food from the Olympic Village. He is also 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. Bronx, New York and Turin, Italy, are reportedly his next targets.

Photo Credit: expoholysee; Federico Ferramola;