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Michelin-Starred Chef Massimo Bottura Is Reinventing the Soup Kitchen

At Osteria Francescana, in his hometown of Modena, Italy, the chef earned the adulation of the food world (and three Michelin stars) with dishes that were as witty as they were delicious. Now he's turning to the neediest, reinventing the soup kitchen with establishments around the world—Milan, Rio, London—that convert discarded food into high-end three-course meals. Next stop, America.


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Early one sunny morning on a crescent-shaped, slightly rundown residential street in an otherwise tony part of West London, Carlos García stood in the doorway of a drop-in center for some of the area’s more marginalized residents. The traffic roar from a major commuting artery passed over the rooftops of a local nursery and a victim-support annex next door. García, the proprietor of Venezuela’s best-regarded restaurant, Alto, and a veteran of Ferran Adrià’s hallowed El Bulli in Catalonia, Spain, was awaiting a delivery from the Felix Project.

Felix is a food-waste charity whose van-driving volunteers crisscross the city each day, ferrying surplus stock from grocery stores to soup kitchens. García was slated as the last in a series of high-profile guest chefs at the St. Cuthbert’s Day Centre, recently renovated and now home to Refettorio Felix, a fine dining establishment for those who are rarely afforded the opportunity to eat in one. He had been tasked with transforming unsold supermarket food into three-course lunches for dozens of homeless diners. His daylong tenure as head chef represented a favor for an old friend, Massimo Bottura, the culinary maestro behind Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, which is regularly listed as one of the world’s best restaurants. Two years ago, Bottura founded an organization called Food for Soul, which aims to combat two problems—food waste and hunger—by offering quality cuisine to the needy served in a stylish setting. Participating chefs during the previous few weeks had included such luminaries as Michel Roux Jr., Giorgio Locatelli, Daniel Boulud, and Alain Ducasse.

Because of the ongoing food shortage in crisis-hit Venezuela, García was perhaps more prepared than most to improvise with less-than-ideal ingredients. And after unloading several crates of meat, fruit, and vegetables that were approaching their sell-by date but were still a long way from their natural expiration, the tall, shaven-headed chef with tortoiseshell glasses set to work planning his menu for the day. “Every day in Caracas is like this. You never know what you are going to get,” he explained a short while later, slicing up mozzarella skins to help thicken a carrot soup. Opposite him, his sous-chef, Federico Tischler, an Italian-Venezuelan who runs an arepas bar in Baltimore, worked on a large pile of parsnips, dextrously carving out the centers (“too fluffy”). Later, they would be sautéed, roasted, then served as a garnish.

The morning’s delivery had also included a deluge of grapes, so dessert would be a red-grape sorbet paired with red-grape confit and topped with a mint-and-green-grape salad. Felix’s suppliers include high-end department stores such as Fortnum & Mason and Harrods, which occasionally off-load surpluses of more sought-after ingredients. In a freezer the previous afternoon, García and Tischler had come across several pounds of duck left unused by a predecessor. Mixed with aging tomatoes, it had built into a rich sofrito that they would combine with rice, steak, and fresh watercress for the main course. By the time the first few diners arrived midmorning, the duck stew’s smoky fragrance had filled the small, open-plan kitchen.

Ahead of the lunchtime rush, a handful of volunteer waitresses were sweeping the floors, wiping down tables, and setting out printed codes of conduct that warned against selling drugs or violent behavior. A bay window with painted glass dominated one end of the high-ceilinged dining room, with a stage at the other that was strewn with large comfortable chairs. Lilies in vases and small potted trees lined the walls, while vast globe-pendant lighting fixtures at varying heights supplemented the sunshine that came pouring through the tall Gothic windows. British interior designer Ilse Crawford had managed to infuse the space with a bright, simple elegance at a tiny fraction of the usual budget for her projects, like New York’s SoHo House.

Dave, a man in his late 50s with white, close-cropped hair, was browsing a newspaper at one of the half dozen trestle tables in the main dining room, waiting for a bathroom to free up. He would not share his last name, for fear of embarrassment, but said for the past year he had been living in a nearby park, after he lost a construction job and could no longer make rent. Two sleeping bags, his constant companions, were propped up against the wall behind him, still damp several days after a summer downpour collapsed his tent.

Dave had never heard of García, Bottura, or any of the other renowned chefs who had cooked lunch for him over the preceding month. But he applauded their creative use of unsold supermarket produce and said he was looking forward to the day’s offering—so long as it contained no Parmesan or goat cheese. Dave had grown up in Stepney, a neighborhood at the heart of the city’s historically impoverished East End. But in the wealthy metropolis of today’s London, he was adamant that “nobody should ever be dirty or go hungry.” A friend had recommended the Refettorio several weeks ago, and as a now habitual patron of soup kitchens, he was happy to report it was “one of the best.” A St. Cuthbert’s staff member approached and asked, “Are you ready for your shower?”—which prompted Dave to pick up a wash bag and head to the door.

An estimated 795 million people go hungry each year, even though the planet produces enough food to feed every human being. Roughly a third of that food is thrown out or left to spoil. Food for Soul intends to raise awareness of this problem and help solve it, one sustainable high-end soup kitchen at a time. “To rebuild the dignity of the people through beauty, you need art, artists, a designer, and a great chef,” Bottura explains. He is at the desk of his book-filled office in Modena, just yards from the restaurant that has earned three Michelin stars. In the past two decades, Bottura has helped forge a new concept of gastronomy in a country famed for its unchanging culinary traditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who created such whimsical dishes as the foie gras popsicle and the famously deconstructed Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich, he appears to have two conversational gears—energetic and hyperenthusiastic. Dwarfed by vast oil canvases on either side of where he sits, he scampers through a diversity of topics matched only by the apparent eclecticism of his taste in art.

“Looking at artists, what I do, I steal their ideas, and I transport their ideas into edible bites,” he remarks of his own success, hands and strands of gray wavy hair in near constant motion. The voices of tourists snapping pho- tographs of Francescana’s discreet façade carry through the open window behind him as he describes long-standing social-activism efforts in his native Emilia-Romagna region. A chance conversation with an Italian archbishop helped spark Food for Soul, which he insists is more of a cultural endeavor than a charitable one. He was introduced to a priest called Don Giuliano (“He’s crazy. He’s always in trouble”) who worked with the homeless in Greco, a down-at-heel industrial neighborhood of Milan. Bottura opened the first Refettorio there in 2015, and that year it swiftly became a symbol of the city’s international expo, with its substantial focus on food security.

Just weeks after the Milan project opened, Bottura was woken up at around 6 a.m. one day. It was the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, calling to request that Bottura replicate the Refettorio project using food supplies discarded by caterers at the Olympic Village and other sources. Bottura’s American wife, Lara Gilmore, told him in bed that morning he would be crazy to do it. And given his account of the chaotic first night of service in Brazil, Gilmore seems to have been entirely prescient. “We didn’t have gas, water, and electricity,” Bottura recalls with feigned incredulity. He recounts his exasperation as he faced off with local authorities, who lacked his Michelin-star-winning attention to detail. “‘No problem,’ they keep saying. ‘No problem. What’s the problem?’” He vented his frustration by visiting a tattoo parlor, where he asked that his right shoulder be inscribed with a phrase he encountered in the work of the Italian neon-installation artist Maurizio Nannucci: No More Excuses.

Nevertheless, the Rio effort, and those that followed, convinced Bottura that he had executed a sustainable and expandable proof of concept. With architecturally inspiring spaces and resident cooking staffs that could learn from the best in the business, the Refettorios changed the way visitors and diners thought about cooking, food waste, homelessness, and their potential intersections. At the partnership kitchen he developed with a local canteen-style restaurant in his hometown of Modena, he had been shocked to see people whose faces he recognized lining up for free meals. “I didn’t know they were so needy,” he almost whispers, his eyes and arms open wide in surprise.

The British, Italian, and Brazilian Refettorios are now humming along nicely without his direct involvement. Bottura’s next target is the United States. He wants to focus on towns that have suffered from crises, both economic and natural, including Detroit and New Orleans. A New York location could also be in the cards, because, as he puts it, “New York is New York.” He plans to keep spreading the gospel, encapsulated in a slogan from his childhood: “Pane è Oro”—Bread Is Gold. “The power of sharing food is something very symbolic, especially, you know, for an Italian,” he posits about the Refettorio model’s ability to expand empathy and alter people’s attitudes toward food. “Once you’re doing one, two, three, four in the States, it’s going to explode all over the world.”

On my way out of Refettorio Felix, I had run into Dave on the street, enjoying a post-prandial cigarette and some early-afternoon sun. What did he think of Carlos García’s goat-cheese-free meal? I’d asked. “It was bloody marvelous,” he’d acknowledged. “They really outdid themselves today.”

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