The impetus of fine dining has long been to impress – exotic ingredients, complicated technique, elaborate presentation and posh dining rooms. As sensational as these outcomes are, there’s no ignoring the aura of exclusivity that surrounds them. Fine dining, we collectively understand, is not for everyone. Chef Massimo Bottura, owner of one of the world’s top-rated restaurants, seeks to challenge that notion with his hunger-fighting project, Food for Soul.
Bottura is quick to proclaim that Food for Soul is not a charity. “This is a cultural project,” about “social inclusion, teaching people about food waste and giving hope to people who have lost all hope.”
The seeds of Food for Soul were planted during the 2015 Milan Expo (whose theme was “Feed the World”), when Bottura initiated a project, called Refettorio (an Italian word for dining hall) Ambrosiano, based on his desire to turn the Expo’s wasted food into meals for the marginalized – Milan’s homeless, hungry, and refugee populations. He recruited architects and designers to help him transform an abandoned theater into a sparse but elegant dining hall and community kitchen. During the Expo, Bottura rounded up a rotating cast of 65 of the world’s top chefs to create the Refettorio’s daily menu – three course, gourmet-quality meals made out of random ingredients sourced from the Expo’s discards.
The project was such a success, it sparked the Food for Soul non-profit and even a book. Since then, Food for Soul has opened (and continues to maintain) its gourmet “soup kitchens” in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, and London, with new Refettorio’s underway in nine US cities, including New York.
One of the three pillars of sustainability, social sustainability refers to work that encourages peaceful, viable, and healthy societies. One definition elaborates that to become socially sustainable, we must foster “an environment conducive to the compatible cohabitation of culturally and socially diverse groups while at the same time encouraging social integration.” In creating a space where marginalized people of diverse backgrounds mingle with each other and with celebrity chefs, Bottura has witnessed the transformational power of creating a table where all who sit at it are equals (a result that inspired the film, The Theater of Life, documenting both the chefs and the beneficiaries of Reffetorio Ambrosiano’s first weeks).
On the nightly menu at Food for Soul’s Reffetorios is not just three thoughtfully-crafted, jealousy-inducing courses, but dignity, expressed in subtle and intrinsic ways – from the lighting to the dishware to the myriad special touches that anchor and deepen the Reffetorios’ act of compassion. “These guys, they shake your hand and they treat you like you’re a boss,” one diner at the Reffetorio in Rio told the New York Times about his experience eating there. “I thought I was dreaming and told my wife to pinch me. But it wasn’t a dream."
The Power of Invitation
What makes Bottura’s brand of social sustainability so appealing is its bend toward inclusivity. Food is a universal necessity, and, Bottura argues, the chance to sit in a beautiful space and eat delicious food is a human right, not a luxury. Bottura’s concept, when stripped of its details, is easy to translate into our personal spheres, where it begs the question – who do I not invite into my own life, and why?
Bottura maintains, “what makes Food for Soul so exciting is the possibility of inspiring communities everywhere.” Not just in the form of other gourmet soup kitchens, but in the form of invitations: becoming inspired to see those around us with fresh and compassionate eyes, inviting dignity to the table and into our communities.