20 Aug 2016

Celebrity Chefs Turn Wasted Olympics Food Into Meals for Homeless

The Refettorio Gastromotiva, a dining hall for homeless people that the Italian chef Massimo Bottura helped open in the downtrodden Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. CreditDado Galdieri for The 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 tons 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, the Italian chef Massimo Bottura also did the math and was inspired, not by the tantalizing dimensions of herculean consumption but by the prospect of colossal waste.

“I thought, this is an opportunity to do something that can make a difference,” said Mr. 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.

On 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 labor of the chefs and orange-aproned servers, some of whom had traveled to Rio 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.

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“This is not just a charity; it’s not just about feeding people,” said Mr. 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 on Wednesday out of a hastily erected translucent box in the downtrodden neighborhood of Lapa, Refettorio Gastromotiva has become something of a sensation: a feel-good counterpoint to the commercialization 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.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy and the Brazilian actress and television host Regina Casé have stopped by, and culinary luminaries like Alain Ducasse, Virgilio Martínez Véliz and Joan Roca are among the 50 chefs who have signed up for kitchen shifts.

Mr. Bottura sprinkling spices on couscous before it was served to diners at Refettorio Gastromotiva, where ingredients are donated and other well-known chefs have volunteered.CreditDado Galdieri for The New York Times

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

Mr. Atala 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 each other, but who want to share,” Mr. Atala, 48, said.

The project is not Mr. Bottura’s first venture into culinary philanthropy. During the World Expo in Milan last year, he turned an abandoned theater into Refettorio Ambrosiano, and the center 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, a movement that emphasizes local culinary traditions and high-quality, locally sourced ingredients.

His nonprofit, Gastromotiva, runs four schools in Brazil that have graduated 2,500 people, most of whom have been snapped up quickly by restaurants across the country. A branch in Mexico City produced its first class last month, and another is set to open in South Africa in September.

Those successes have earned Mr. Hertz speaking engagements at TED Talks and at the World Economic Forum, but he said he had grown frustrated by what he described as the “empty talk” of the moneyed elite.

Nine months before the start of the Games, and with little time to waste, Mr. Hertz persuaded the city’s mayor to provide an empty lot, and Mr. Bottura began the difficult task of raising $250,000.

They found a chilly reception, an outgrowth of the political polarization that has roiled Brazil amid efforts to force President Dilma Rousseff from office, said Cristina Reni, the refettorio’s project manager.

“People right now just don’t trust each other, and most of these companies didn’t want to get involved in a project they thought could get messy,” she said.

Last-minute appeals yielded a bevy of commercial-grade freezers, ovens and an ice cream maker. The structure, a gleaming industrial shed outfitted with art and crisp plywood furniture, was built in 55 days. Despite the generosity, the project ran over budget and created a nearly $190,000 hole that the organizers are trying to fill with donations.

With a 10-year lease to its sliver of land, Food for Soul, Mr. Bottura’s organization, 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 108 free dinners each night for those in need.

“This is not some pop-up project,” Mr. Bottura said.

On Thursday, the second night of operation, the refettorio was the site of controlled chaos. Workers struggled to churn out three successive seatings while coping with a shortage of natural gas and an inadequate electricity supply that made it impossible to use the deep fryer, ovens and freezers at the same time.

Mr. Bottura scurried about, fussing over dishes, barking orders and 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 caldron of ragù, Mr. Bottura 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.

It is a philosophy that has captured the attention of other cities, including Montreal and Los Angeles, where iterations of his upscale soup kitchen are scheduled to open next year. He has also set his sights on New York.

At 6 p.m., the door flung open and the 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, Rene da Conceição, said the food was the best he’d 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 afterward. “And you know, we ate food from Italy!”

A thin, bedraggled man with a wide, infectious smile, Mr. Conceição 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 neighborhood that provides a cornucopia of discarded food and items like 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.”