For Massimo Bottura, who inspired Theater of Life, nourishment is about body and soul. In this heartfelt interview, the man who also created the Refettorio Ambrosiano soup kitchen project in Milan shares passionate insights about community, his foundation Food for Soul, and the fight against food waste.
How did you first get involved in the fight against food waste?
Actually, I came at this issue from an emotional standpoint, not a political or environmental one. My 89-year old mother fell ill and went into the hospital in September 2013. She passed away in January 2014. But before she passed away I was able to share with her my plans for the Refettorio Ambrosiano – not only my idea, but also the confirmation from the Vatican that this project has the blessing of Pope Francis. It is never the change you want that changes everything.
By fall 2013, I was already getting invitations to participate in Expo 2015 in Milan. No one was asking me my opinion. They only wanted me to cook. The more I thought about the theme: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, the more I thought about waste. I just imagined how much waste a fairground produces and from there the Refettorio Ambrosiano project took flight. I dreamed of recreating Leonardo da Vinci’s vision of a refettorio with art and culture – not just food. People cannot live on bread alone. At the end of the day, this was a cultural project, not a charity project. Artists, designers, architects, volunteers and chefs working together toward a common vision: nourish the body and the soul.
Was not wasting food a part of your life beforehand?
Had I thought about food waste before the Refettorio Ambrosiano project? I had learned from my grandmother and the deep Italian culinary traditions not to waste food – not even a breadcrumb, a cheese rind or any part of an animal. This was my education, not my philosophy. This is the way I have always run my restaurant. However, when we began to really concentrate on the issue, we found so many new ways of using ingredients that we would have never thought about using in the past from black bananas to overripe fruit, meat on the verge of expiration, day old bread, vegetable trimmings and more. As my dear friend Virgilio Martinez said, “You really don’t know how much you can get out of an ingredient, until you are put in this situation.”
How does the Refettorio Ambrosiano feed the hungry in these less obvious ways, relating to humanity, dignity and community?
As I mentioned, the Refettorio Ambrosiano is a cultural project, not a charity project. The idea from the very beginning is to NOURISH by creating a beautiful and welcoming space where our guests could feel at home, cared for and respected. Art on the walls, no plastic plates or cups but real ceramic and glass, freshly baked bread and delicious three course meals were just the beginning. The volunteers, all 100 of them, addressed our guests by name, conversed and welcomed them, day after day. This is part of nourishment – not only what goes into the body, but what the body perceives.
At Osteria Francescana [Bottura's restaurant in Modena, ranked first on the World's 50 Best Restaurant List] this has always been a very important element of the dinning experience; feeling welcomed, invited and part of a much larger dialogue than just a eating a meal.
How might economically-comfortable people better relate to the global problem of food waste and be inspired to eat in a more conscious manner?
Cooking is a call to act. Eating is a social gesture and a political one as well. We can all learn how to shop more consciously, be better about NOT wasting, cleaning out our refrigerators by eating and cooking everything in them, learn how to re-think the life span of ingredients and be less wasteful in our everyday lives. If we revive the ethical practices of our ancestors, re-think nourishment and community, add culture to the big picture, then maybe we can establish new traditions that break with our consumerist past.
How does this mission come out in Theater of Life’s film aspect?
Peter Svatek came to us wanting to make a documentary about Osteria Francescana and all the struggles we went through to get where we are now. At the time, we had just begun planning the Refettorio Ambrosiano project in Milan and I invited him to take a deeper look. He decided to jump in and explore what perhaps had never been filmed before: a soup kitchen running on waste with some of the world’s best chefs cooking for a group of homeless guests. The energy was fabulous and Peter’s film crew was very dedicated to getting the story right. They have done a great job of storytelling with Theater of Life.
As the subject of the film, what did you learn about yourself and others? What was the biggest surprise?
The biggest surprise for me from the Refettorio Ambrosiano experience was the joy all of us got out of it. All of the guest chefs who joined us thanked me for bringing them to Milan to see what we had created. What was recorded by Peter and in the film is an example for the next generation.
When René Redzepi and team came to cook in mid-June, René said to me: “Massimo, you know, you are in this for life.” I didn’t really understand what he meant until I received months later a call from David Hertz, the founder of a Brazilian organization called Gastromotiva which helps people out of poverty through teaching cooking skills. Gastromotiva cooked the most amazing black banana peel chutney at the Refettorio in August. David called early one morning in December and said, “Massimo, Rio needs a Refettorio.” After knocking on many doors, the town of Rio donated an empty lot in the Lapa neighbourhood of Rio. Could this be the next Refettorio?
So this may be just the beginning…
More calls like Davide’s started coming in from Italy and abroad. Rio got me thinking: How could we continue what we had begun in Milan? In February 2016, I founded Food for Soul, a non profit cultural project to bring to the rest of the world the miracle of Milan.
The question is not, ‘Do we need more soup kitchens?’
We NEED MORE places that UNITE people at the table
We NEED MORE places that REVIVE neighbourhoods
We NEED MORE places that RESTORE the body and the soul
If we change the way we think about ingredients, nourishment and community;
If we stop throwing away our food;
If we revive ethical practices in the kitchen;
This can be the start of a new culinary tradition
This is Food for Soul.
What do you hope to achieve by joining us at the Phi Centre for Theater of Life?
I hope to spread the message that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Making the Refettorio Ambrosiano project come true was a lot of hard work and we really didn’t know if it would all come together in the end… but it did and it was very rewarding. It also led to Food for Soul, maybe a Refettorio in Rio or Detroit or Torino, who knows? I hope to share some of that energy and spirit with audiences at the Phi Centre in Montreal and ignite a flame of consciousness and responsibility. We can all learn to fight waste, hunger and the consumerist culture.
Photo credit: Paolo Terzi