When I first pick up the phone to talk to one of the world’s best chefs, he’s clutching a warming tea with a big chunk of ginger (you know, for energy). It’s an apt way to start my conversation with Massimo Bottura, about how his concern for food waste ended up creating new spaces of solidarity and community, and a new culture. You may have heard about his latest project to turn food that would have been wasted, into nourishment for thousands every day at the Rio Olympics.

But I want to know what led him to use his ginger-fuelled energy on such projects in the first place. So we start at the beginning.

Even before his restaurant Osteria Francescana officially earned the title of the “world’s best restaurant” 2016, Massimo was regularly being approached for food projects from all corners of the world.

“But no one was asking the right questions. No one was asking how we felt about feeding the planet.”

“I was reading this article from the FAO, and it said that every year, 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted. And one quarter of that could help feed 870 million people who need it. So I said, okay, if we have to think about feeding the planet, first we have to fight the waste.”

Eventually, he found some interest from the church for a new project – but with a few conditions. “We had to give light. We had to give pride to the periphery.” So they went to the poorest part of Milan, and found a 1930s theatre by the train station. Thanks to David DePaolo, the project attracted artists and designers that brought the space to life and made it a place of beauty.

Creating spaces for connection, learning and change

Refettorio Ambrosiano was born, and it continues to transform lives, as well as transform food that would have been wasted into nourishment. But the project isn’t just nourishing the “needy.” Massimo’s wife, Lara Gilmore reiterates that “it’s not just about soup kitchens, it’s about creating more spaces that revive communities. It’s about renovating them with beauty and art and creating spaces that bring people together, and bridge rich and poor,” she says. “Restaurants are usually very particular parts of our society, they’re not always the most inspiring places. But we need more places where people can help out, just hang out, learn, be informed about the world.”

refettorio-photo-by-emanuele-colombo

Image credit: Emanuele Colombo

The spirit of social inclusion is also a part of RefettoRio Gastromotiva, where Massimo has teamed up with Brazilian chef David Hertz to produce thousands of meals each day for the Rio Olympics using ingredients that would have gone to waste. Prior to the Olympics, Hertz’ Gastromotiva provided culinary skills as a way out of poverty for hundreds.

Both projects essentially act as transformative spaces. At Refettorio Ambrosiano for example, volunteers and chefs connect with their communities in unexpected ways. “Sometimes I wondered who needed the kitchen more – the homeless or the volunteers,” Lara says. “For some it’s become a second home, where they’ve found a second family.” Volunteers also learnt things they never would have had the chance to do elsewhere.

“There are so many couch potatoes out there, watching shows on TV passively, but we want to electrify them into getting out of their chairs and going to a soup kitchen and meeting local and international chefs. But meeting them by doing something, not just passively watching them.”

One of the volunteers, Alberto, learnt how to bake bread from some of the best chefs in the world. Not a bad way to connect with the likes of Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, or Alain Ducasse! And see them unload trucks full of ugly vegetables no less.

Some of these incredible stories of connection have been captured in Theater of Life, a feature documentary on the project. The film actually became a way for Massimo to connect with diners: “I was serving them for six months but I didn’t know all these stories, and I was so moved that I almost cried!”

The even better news is that the film will be screened in Australia through Demand.Film, a cinema-on-demand platform which allows you to host your own screening if there isn’t one in your area. Tickets to some special screenings will also support OzHarvest in Australia, feeding 14 hungry people in need.

Creating a new culture

Both of these projects are pretty damn inspirational, but I ask Massimo: how can the rest of us get off our butts and make saving food an uplifting experience too, no matter where we are?

“It is very easy no? You have to change the mind of the people in general.”

Massimo gives the example of chefs creating new recipes to change and create new traditions. “Think about cucina povera [peasant cooking]. It’s something that’s been created over centuries from people who didn’t have anything. But they had spirit, and they had creativity.” Changing minds doesn’t mean dispensing with old traditions though. “Put everything in relation to our own culture,” Massimo advises – and for him, this meant breadcrumbs. In his youth, before bed, he enjoyed a warm cup of milk with breadcrumbs, some sugar, and chocolate.

Speaking of young generations, Massimo feels it’s important that we

“don’t be afraid to confront a ripe banana, or breadcrumbs.”

“Because we have shown the world that with some breadcrumbs, you can make a pesto that is not just from basil, because there wasn’t enough basil. So use thyme and mint. We created a pesto without pine nuts, but just breadcrumbs from bread that was two days old. And it came out just amazing.” Oh, and those overripe bananas? At Refettorio Ambrosiano, they were transformed into sorbet with lime and its peel, while the blackened skin was turned into chutney. The bananas were also fermented to be used in the main course.

“In Osteria we create culture. So every day we confront ourselves with the future. What we do is we have art everywhere – art became our motivational source. We are looking at painting, sculpture, music, in a very deep way. And we use this culture to transform passion into edible bites. And it’s the culture that creates knowledge.”

“Knowledge opens the consciousness. And from consciousness it’s a short step to a sense of responsibility.”

Over the years, they developed many simple recipes – recipes that helped the environment and the community while strengthening local identity. One example was the cacio e pepe risotto that emerged from the 2012 earthquake that hit Modena. The simple but sensational recipe wasn’t just a means to save thousands of wheels of precious parmigiano reggiano. It became a catalyst for bringing people together from all over the world to support the producers who had been affected. In two months, the cheese sold out. No one lost their jobs. No cheese company closed. This wasn’t just a recipe that used a shit ton of cheese – it was a recipe for solidarity. It’s also an example of what Massimo means when he said “cooking is a call to act” at MAD Sydney.

“Culture is the most important ingredient for the future. I think chefs arrive in the kitchen too soon, and they don’t have enough culture to understand so many aspects of life.”

It’s why Massimo became involved in saving an agricultural school – by building a kitchen there, so the farmers of the future could grow close to the chefs of the future. “To me, the future is that the chefs know more about soil and farmers know more about taste.” From the brink of going outta business, the school now has a waiting list.

My conversation with Massimo draws to a close, but a totally new door in my mind has been opened when it comes to saving food. It’s not a charity project. It’s not an environmental project. It’s pretty simple, really.

“Cooking is an act of love, and a cultural project.”

Check out our SpoonLed campaign to be part of changing culture, one act of cooking, and conversation, at a time.

Top image credit: Paolo Saglia

Zo Zhou

Zo Zhou

Zo is the National Communications Manager and will basically never shut up about vegetables.