Food is not said to be perfect because of the combination of its ingredients, but about who you share it with. This is precisely what refettorios are about: sharing with others, especially those in poverty. For people involved in the project, by doing so, food represents inclusion.
In the past, refettorios were places where monks ate and read the Bible: it was about nourishing body and soul, which is precisely the spirit of the scheme. Established in a rebuilt abandoned theatre on the outskirts of Milan during the Milan 2015 Expo, refettorios caught the attention of other organizations that supported the opening of new kitchens in Modena, Bologna, Sao Paulo and London.
Placing refettorios in other cities was an initiative promoted and managed by Caritas Ambrosiana, and undertaken by Food for Soul, a non-profit organization funded by a chef called Massimo Bottura and his wife, Lara Gilmore. Refettorios aim at fighting against food waste through social inclusion, empowering communities to act for change through the transformation of food surplus and neglected spaces. Reffetorios offer a three-course dinner service prepared with surplus ingredients to raise awareness about food waste and poverty.
However, refettorios are not just about charity and they are definitely not like any regular community kitchen. They are a cultural project to reduce food waste. They share a common approach based on the value of hospitality. They are famous for the combination of three main ingredients: culture, art, and the world՚s greatest chefs. On their walls, works of art made by trendy artists hang, like JR or Enzo Cucchi. Besides, refettorios offer activities for everyone, such as conferences and workshops to empower local communities. They are not only frequented by poor people, but also by pupils from different schools and elder people. For Eugenia, an old lady who visits the Refettorio Ambrossiano, it has been of great support: “After my husband died, I couldn՚t find the strength to leave the house. The Refettorio gave me a new reason to live. Now, every night, I know that there՚s someone waiting for me, so I get dressed and I go out.”
Even though it counts with a permanent staff, famous chefs eventually visit refettorios in order to collaborate, scenting the atmosphere and delighting their guests with their delicious creations. Daniel Humm, René Redzepi, Yannick Alléno and Alain Ducasse were some of the chefs who took part in the project. Alain explained in an interview that being a good chef is all about generosity. “We՚re not changing people՚s life but we՚re giving them some happiness”, explains Alain. Before chefs decide what is on the menu, they source quality and in-date ingredients, that are perfectly edible because otherwise they would become waste. Therefore, chefs need to come up with a menu using only the ingredients they have, giving free rein to creativity. “It՚s a challenge every time, but the satisfaction of gifting a moment of peace and care to someone who՚s having a difficult time, is absolutely priceless”, Ilenia di Pietro explains.
By 2018, four years after the first Refettorio was established in Milan, Food for Soul saved 45 tonnes of recovered food and served 450,000 dishes to more than 150,000 guests. “This is a revolution that started in Milan, with the Refettorio. Today this place is even more beautiful than when we opened it thanks to the great care and dedication of those who work here every day”, Bottura states.
Refettorios have proved to be unique. But what makes them even more special is the fact that they were designed to fit the requirements and characteristics of the local communities they are part of. It is an initiative that empowers people in need, raises awareness and offers an integral service to their guests. Refettorios keep gaining ground so they are expected to reach other parts of the world soon, restoring dignity to more people.
Photo: Paolo Saglia