In 2014, chef Massimo Bottura of world-renowned restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, had the idea to contribute to Milan's Expo 2015.
The Expo is an expansive World Fair that runs for five months, allowing countries to share their wealth of heritage, creativity and culture. In 2015 its central theme was 'Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life'.
Massimo Bottura's proposed Refecttorio Ambrosiano project aimed to address the dual issues of hunger and food wastage in urban centres. His concept was to re-design an archaic church refectory (which was serving as a disused theatre) and transform it into a dining hall for the city's most needy. As for the ingredients for the meals?
All the food was to be generated from the edible waste from the Expo 2015, transformed by a team of top Italian and International chefs volunteering their time and expertise.
This was a new twist on 'soul food' aiming to provide diners with a nutritious meal in a one-of-a-kind environment; and the opportunity for a second chance for the ingredients (and, as it turns out, for the patrons).
With the assistance of Caritas Ambrosiana, a Catholic foundation helping the homeless get back on their feet, Bottura and a team of leading artists, architects and designers worked together to transform the designated space into a work of functionality and beauty. Thirteen designers created custom-made tables, and artists Maurizio Nannucci, Mimmo Paladino and Gaetano Pesce donated works for the space.
As the project grew, lighting and seating was donated, as was an entire kitchen from Lavazza; local supermarkets provided pasta and flour.
Everything else came directly from a Coop 'Supermarket of the Future' exhibit at Expo 2015 - providing a truck full of products set to expire the following day.
From May to October 2015, the Refecttorio Ambrosiano's 96 seats hosted lunch for school children and dinner for a selection of the city’s homeless residents using ingredients that would have otherwise been thrown away. Ten tons of food waste from the Expo's 'Supermarket of the Future' exhibit were salvaged and turned into healthy, delicious meals. Massimo Bottura and his invited chefs cooked 150 meals per day with the kitchen staff of Caritas and the 87 volunteers who dedicated their time and energy over the five month period.
Post-Expo 2015 Refecttoirio Ambrosiana does not function as a soup kitchen in the traditional sense - the diners must be part of a three-month program with Caritas Ambrosiana which helps people find jobs, food and shelter. And, unlike the standard soup-kitchen, Refettorio Ambrosiano's servers meet the diners beyond the counter and engage with them.
"The most important experience for me was the evolution of the feeling," Bottura says.
"At the beginning, everyone was so suspicious, no one was talking to each other. Everyone would look at the floor, eat quickly, and then leave. After six months, there were tables of people. They were like family. It was amazing."* So far, at least five people have graduated from Refecttoirio Ambrosiana and found jobs.
A documentary by Canadian filmmaker Peter Svatek about the development of Refettorio Ambrosiano, "Theater of Life", will be released in late 2016.
* Bottura quotes courtesy of Refinery29 interview with Jessica Chou.
Source material & statistics provided by Refettorio Ambrosiano English Language Press Document.