It could have been easy for Massimo to build on the fame of three Michelin stars, the title of World’s Best Restaurant (awarded twice now) and create ‘brand Bottura.’ He could have been forgiven if he chose a life more about personal glory, perhaps endorse a knife, or set of, perhaps high-end pans and if he really wanted to, open a second, third or fourth restaurant and cement his self made success as Italy’s most daring Chef since Gualtieri Marchessi.
Every cheer though, since his first foray into the world’s limelight has been anything other than Brand Massimo; social responsibility, whether gauged through the Netflix first season opener or the Peter Svatek documentary “Theater of life” shows that we are playing with more of a Frances Beinecke than your average, high achieving, PR savvy chef.
One deft flick of a TV remote, and any 24 hour cooking station would make you think we have struck the apex of Chef fandom; regardless of quality or what is actually being said. The food lovers mourned Bourdain like the music lover mourned Bowie, and yet it both cases there was a transcendence into pop culture that felt all too similar. In a time of rockstar defiance, Chef Massimo is showing that food is something that is greater than all of this.
Refettorio Ambrosiano then, shouldn’t have been a surprise. If a jazzmaster like Quincy Jones was allowed to piece together the complex and musically groundbreaking Thriller, why can’t a chef tackle the gargantuan idea of food waste? Surely, the political route has been overplayed and underdeveloped somewhat.
Whilst the original concept was to highlight the problem for the the Global food event of 2015 at the Milan Expo, Massimo took its theme, ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’ and created the refettorio. In the Wall Street Journal, he penned the startling issue about food waste; “we currently produce enough food to feed the world’s 7.3 billion people, and yet 795 million are hungry, according to the United Nations.” Every year, he wrote, “we waste 550 million tonnes of food.” From supermarkets to producers through to the end consumer.
What was born in a Milan suburb, at a renovated theater, was a partnership with the Catholic church that has turned into a global movement, micro yet with sense and purpose. The Refettorio Ambrosiano may have attracted at the time the world’s most elite chefs, from Redzepi to Humm, Ducasse to the Adriá brothers, but its sole purpose was and remains feeding 80 people per day with leftovers. Three years on, the project continues and grows. More chefs are dedicating their calendar to the cause and the idea of food waste is becoming a modern day and everyday discussion.
What makes this a triumph is that all of this is a choice. One which has continued with new openings across the globe in some of the world’s richest cities yet with some of the most gut wrenching poverty that traverses it with such parallel ease. London, Paris, Rio De Janeiro and soon, New York each with their own refettorio; global locations of high end gastronomy and yet each city required because as Massimo says “there’s a need for it.”
The Refettorio brought light and hope, it also shone the spotlight onto a global issue. One viewing of the documentary, one glance at the recipe book, Bread & Gold and you understand that food is a global community builder; weaponised correctly, it has a purpose to nourish not only the stomachs, but the souls of everyone, done improperly and we risk losing what makes us human.
Being a chef also means being a humanitarian. There is possibly nothing more Rock and Roll about that.