Massimo Bottura, the world-renowned chef, doesn’t like to waste food.
In 2012, earthquakes shook Northern Italy, destroying his three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana, located in the town of Modena. But rather than just worrying about rebuilding his own business, he wanted to help the many cheesemakers in the region who might lose millions of pounds worth of Parmigiano Reggiano. By raising awareness about the crisis, he managed to help salvage and sell 360,000 wheels of cheese, which helped support the local producers. “I realized about the power of food as a platform for ideas,” Bottura said from the stage of the Fast Company European Innovation Festival in Milan today.
Bottura has spent the past few years thinking about all the other ways that food is wasted in the world. The statistics are staggering. Around the world, humans waste about a third of the food we produce. This happens for many reasons. Sometimes, it is a matter of logistics. Food often goes bad before it arrives at its final destination in the global supply chain. People in developed countries often buy more food than they need, then throw it out when it is past its expiration date. Food waste is now arguably a top contributor to climate change, he points out. It takes a lot of resources, water, and human capital to grow and distribute food, much of which doesn’t even get eaten.
Bottura has traveled the world and found that food waste is a problem in many places. When he was recently in Brazil, for instance, he discovered that 11 trucks worth of fruit and vegetables are burnt every day even though there are 2.5 million homeless people who could really use the food. “It is more expensive to distribute the food than burn it,” he says.
Bottura is now committed to tackling the problem. His experience with the wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano helped him see how being a chef gave him a platform to spread awareness about important issues. “Food is not about the quality of the ingredients,” he says. “It’s about the quality of the ideas. Chefs can do much more than just chop vegetables and fry them in a pan.”
In 2016, he launched a new initiative called Food for Soul that offers a creative new way to draw attention to the food waste situation. He has created a network of community kitchens in Paris, Milan, Rio de Janeiro, and London where he and his teams cook up food that would otherwise go to waste for dinner every week day. He then invites people from the local community to come and eat it. Some of these guests are people in need, but Bottura makes it very clear that this is not a soup kitchen. “It’s a cultural project, not a charity project,” he says. “Serving a proper meal in a beautiful setting can rebuild people’s dignity. Spending time with other people over a relaxed dinner can restore fragile souls.”
Bottura calls these dinners Refettorios, which is the name for the dining halls where monks gather to share their communal meals every day. The word itself comes from the Latin word refincere, which means “to restore.” The idea is to restore value to the food that would otherwise go to waste and also restore the people who attend the meals. Bottura says that an essential part of the experience is that the guests—whomever they may be—feel welcome and special, like they would at his main restaurant. And part of the charm of the events is that he also invites everyday food lovers to sign up for the events, so you never know who might be at your table. A homeless person might sit next to someone who has actually eaten at Osteria Francescana in the past.
While Bottura is interested in helping people who are food insecure, the entire concept of these Refettorios is to draw attention to how much food is wasted every day. Each meal is made using food that would otherwise end up in the trash. One dish, for instance, uses bread crumbs and overripe, bruised tomatoes. In Bottura’s hands, these ingredients become bread crumb pasta noodles. “They are my kid’s favorite dish,” he says.
Bottura feels lucky that we live at a time when successful chefs have a platform. He doesn’t want to squander it. “I realized that people started seeing chefs like rock stars,” he says. “But I wanted to show that a chef could be more than the sum of their recipes.”