As 150 countries commemorate World Food Day on Wednesday, this United Nations-sponsored event is spurring loud calls to help the one in seven people (a total 820 million) who face hunger across the globe.
Meanwhile, in a posh section of Paris’s 8th arrondissement, chefs and activists working to address hunger among the homeless, isolated and vulnerable are carrying on with a quiet mission they have pursued for the last 18 months.
Nestled in the crypt of La Madeleine church, not far from the luxurious Place Vendome, and situated amid chic shops like Fauchon, Dior and Chanel, is Refettorio Paris, an epicurean – and secular – restaurant that provides meals for Paris’s less fortunate.
Refettorio Paris’s community kitchen feeds the neighbourhood’s most marginalised members. It does so by repurposing surplus food that would otherwise be thrown out.
Each day, guest chefs (many of them three-starred culinary masters) turn 130kg (286lb) of recovered food into seasonal, healthy and delicious three-course meals intended for up to 100 guests.
“Here is a vision of the kitchen I like – giving good beautifully, without wasting anything,” said Alain Ducasse, who is among the celebrity chefs volunteering at Refettorio Paris.
The initiative was begun by Massimo Bottura, the three-star Michelin chef of Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy. Through Food for Soul, an organisation based in Modena and begun with his wife, Lara Gilmore, Bottura has attempted to raise awareness of food waste, and to promote sustainable community kitchens globally while also engaging their support services – from food suppliers to chefs to artists to designers.
In Bottura’s vision, these restaurants extend beyond quotidian soup kitchens. Food for Soul is committed to the importance of social connection and the simple yet radical idea of “the equal right of all to beauty.”
These are not charity projects, but cultural ones – opportunities for inclusion in a world in which social isolation is increasing, and in which the one percent becomes more bloated while access to sustenance for the remaining 99 percent diminishes. Through beautiful food and art, Bottura saw the opportunity to transform both the body and the soul. “Refettorio” comes from the Latin “to restore”.
Refettorio Paris opened in March 2018 and has involved architects and storied artists such as the photographer JR – known for his monumental, collaborative, location-specific imagery. JR was instrumental in launching the project and his work, along with the art of Prune Nourry, adorns the space to turn it into a beautiful, safe, inviting, dignified – and, crucially – culturally stimulating experience where you can shake the hand of the chefs who are cooking for you. It’s an environment worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant, but for those who can’t even afford to eat at McDonald’s.
The kitchen serves about 250 lunches and dinners daily. Guests can receive a meal card through community organisations with which Refettorio Paris partners, such as the nonprofit Ozanam Madeleine. When the diners arrive, they are greeted with the word “bienvenue” (welcome) and their names, and are shown to their seats amid floating clouds, where they are served three-course meals by approximately 15 volunteers.
“When guests start to make suggestions on the food and having their own comments, this is a strong sign of inclusion,” says Bottura. “They feel part of something, and they want to have a role. They raise their voices because they feel a profound sense of dignity.”
Outside, below La Madeleine’s distinct Greek colonnade and atop the church’s grand steps, well-turned-out employees who keep the area’s luxe shops humming eat elaborate bagged lunches – often entirely unaware of those begging below and the vulnerable being served within.
Food for Soul has developed an innovative model that transforms surplus food into healthy, delicious meals that are shared with dignity and respect.
Renowned guest chefs including Guy Savoy, Anne-Sophie Pic, Tatiana Levha and Helene Darroze repurpose reclaimed food into beautiful gourmet meals. Every bit of the food “waste” finds its way into the chefs’ menus. Dried fruits add texture to desserts, “orange vegetables” become soup, herbs wend their way into appetizers. One hundred percent of the ingredients – even stale bread – are used.
A 2016 law in France banned grocery stores from throwing away edible food; violators can be fined 4,000 euros (around $4,500). Surplus food is collected by food banks, such as the country’s Banques Alimentaires network, where it is donated to Refettorio Paris and other food kitchens, charities and community resources.
France is said to waste approximately 30kg (66lb) of food per person annually – while the United States wastes some 181kg (400lb) a person each year. The World Health Organization notes that 820 million people across the globe faced hunger in 2018 – an already dire situation only exacerbated by climate change.
Food for Soul has set up Refettorios in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, and London’s swank Kensington neighbourhood. After launching Refettorio, Food for Soul initiated Social Tables, a project that invites families and individuals experiencing isolation and food scarcity to dine in a community space once a week. There are now Social Tables in Bologna, Modena and Naples.
In May 2017, the organisation received a 589,000 euro ($650,000) grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop Refettorio community kitchens across the US in cities like Miami, New Orleans, Detroit and New York.
“Food for Soul has developed an innovative model that transforms surplus food into healthy, delicious meals that are shared with dignity and respect,” says Devon Klatell, the Rockefeller Foundation Food Initiative’s managing director, who notes that on a global basis, one-third of food produced is lost or wasted annually.
“We need to have 1,000 Refettorios all over the world,” says Bottura.
Refettorio Paris nourishes not only through food; it also hosts pop-ups, supper clubs, cooking classes and workshops, with proceeds going back into the project’s meals. Its goals include a Paris-based truck to provide gourmet food and legal services to refugees. Bottura also appears (along with the late chef Anthony Bourdain) in the 2017 documentary, Wasted!, which explores how food waste negatively affects biodiversity and climate change – and takes food from the mouths of the hungry.
But again, it’s not only all about food. The lights might be low in La Madeleine’s crypt, but Refettorio Paris’s clouds are intended to encourage diners to look towards – and reach for – a vision far more illuminated. Says Bottura, in the project’s video: “You’re there, up, in the clouds. Because the dream is there. And you have to learn how to dream to change the world.”
Artist JR’s images of supplicating hands – gracing archways and plates in prayer, hope, and offering – also lend a touch of the divine.
“By providing a delicious meal for people in need, Food for Soul’s projects involve their guests to be part of a community able to elevate their potential,” says Bottura. “Food is the starting point to create interaction and union, and once you feel welcome and accepted, this feeling opens the doors of the unexpected.”