Chefs use Olympic food waste to feed the homeless

Award-winning Italian chef Massimo Bottura heads effort to feed the poor with food from the Olympic Village

Italian chef Massimo Bottura sprinkling spices onto Mediterranean-style couscous before it is served to guests at Refettorio Gastromotiva, a feeding centre in Rio de Janeiro.
Italian chef Massimo Bottura sprinkling spices onto Mediterranean-style couscous before it is served to guests at Refettorio Gastromotiva, a feeding centre in Rio de Janeiro. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

RIO DE JANEIRO • Consider what it takes to keep all those Olympian machines nourished and hydrated for one meal at the Rio Games: 250 tonnes of raw ingredients to fill the bellies of 18,000 athletes, coaches and officials in the Olympic Village.

Now multiply that figure by three - for breakfast, lunch and dinner - and again for each day of the games.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Italian chef Massimo Bottura also did the mathematics and was inspired by the prospect of colossal waste.

"I thought, this is an opportunity to do something that can make a difference," said chef Bottura, 53, a fast-talking blur of a man whose restaurant in Modena, Osteria Francescana, recently earned the top award from the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

Last Thursday night, that something looked like this: In a fraying section of downtown Rio, a pack of the world's most venerated chefs were rushing around a slapdash kitchen amid a crush of volunteers as they improvised a dinner for 70 homeless people.

All of the ingredients, most of which might have otherwise been thrown away, had been donated, as had the labour of the chefs and servers, some of whom had travelled from California, Germany and Japan.

The creators of this place, Refettorio Gastromotiva - refettorio means dining hall in Italian - hope it will change the way Brazilians, and the world, think about hunger, food waste and the nourishing of human dignity.

"This is not just a charity; it's not just about feeding people," said chef Bottura, pausing to pick up trash from the forlorn playground outside his new venture. "This is about social inclusion, teaching people about food waste and giving hope to people who have lost all hope."

In the days since it began operating last Wednesday out of a hastily erected translucent box in the downtrodden neighbourhood of Lapa, Refettorio Gastromotiva has become something of a sensation - a feel-good counterpoint to the commercialisation of the games and to the gluttony that unfolds each night in the pop-up pavilions that many countries have set up throughout the city.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Brazilian actress Regina Case have stopped by and culinary luminaries such as Alain Ducasse, Virgilio Martinez Veliz and Joan Roca are among the 50 chefs who have signed up for kitchen shifts.

Last Thursday night, Alex Atala, who runs DOM, one of Brazil's top- rated restaurants, and who is the former host of a popular cooking show, helped prepare the evening's menu: Italian-style couscous with sauteed beef and panzanella, a Tuscan bread-and-tomato dish that was produced with ingredients donated by the catering companies that supply the Olympic Village.

He said the astounding deluge of international support was born of seemingly unrelated global movements: the growing awareness of food waste, the rise of the celebrity chef and widespread frustration over the persistence of hunger in even the most developed countries.

"We are a generation of young chefs who are not competing with one another, but who want to share," chef Atala, 48, said.

The project is not chef Bottura's first venture into culinary philanthropy. During the World Expo in Milan last year, he turned an abandoned theatre into Refettorio Ambrosiano and the centre continues to operate.

His latest refettorio is a collaboration with David Hertz, a Brazilian chef who has spent the past decade training disadvantaged men and women to work as kitchen assistants and spreading the gospel of slow food.

Nine months before the start of the games, chef Hertz persuaded the city's mayor to provide an empty lot and chef Bottura began the difficult task of raising US$250,000 (S$335,800).

Last-minute appeals yielded a bevy of commercial-grade freezers, ovens and an ice-cream maker. Despite the generosity, the project ran over budget and created a nearly US$190,000 hole that the organisers are trying to fill with donations.

With a 10-year lease to their sliver of land, Food For Soul, chef Bottura's organisation, plans to keep the venture going after the Olympics are over.

To make it sustainable, Refettorio Gastromotiva will serve lunch to paying customers and use the proceeds to fund more than 100 free dinners each night for those in need.

Last Thursday, the second night of operation, chef Bottura scurried about trying to figure out how to make do with the ingredients at hand - slightly bruised tomatoes, day-old bread and an assortment of other produce, fresh, but visually imperfect, that Olympic caterers had deemed unsuitable for their customers.

Asked what was bubbling in a huge cauldron of ragu, he threw up his hands and shouted: "Everything."

The idea, he later explained, was to emulate the grandmothers of the world. "They knew how to take the food that would otherwise be wasted and turned it into amazingly delicious meals," he said.

At 6pm, the door flung open and diners shuffled in, eyes wide with anticipation.

The chef explained each course, which emerged from the open kitchen on simple white china. Cheers and applause filled the room.

One diner, Mr Rene da Conceicao, said the food was the best he had had in his 40 years, the past nine of which he has spent living with his wife on the streets of Rio.

"Oh my God, he takes banana peels and makes incredible ice cream," he gushed afterwards. "And you know, we ate food from Italy!"

He explained that his meals were usually scavenged from garbage bins and that he went to bed hungry many nights.

Since the Olympics began, he said, the police have barred him from Copacabana, a neighbourhood that provides a cornucopia of discarded food and items such as cardboard that can be sold to recyclers.

More than filling his stomach, Refettorio Gastromotiva, he said, had provided much-needed dollops of kindness and respect.

"These guys, they shake your hand and they treat you like you're a boss," he said.

"I thought I was dreaming and told my wife to pinch me. But it wasn't a dream."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Chefs use Olympic food waste to feed the homeless'. Print Edition | Subscribe