/In a City That Worships Food, a Chef Focuses on Those Who Go Without

In a City That Worships Food, a Chef Focuses on Those Who Go Without

As flames lapping at Notre Dame captured the world’s attention, another church quietly continued its mission on the other side of Paris, in the 8th arrondissement. Down the street from Fauchon, Dior, and Chanel—and not far from the luxurious Place Vendôme—sits Refettorio Paris, a community restaurant providing meals for Paris’ less fortunate.

Buried in the windowless crypts of Madeleine Church, Refettorio Paris serves delicious cuisine to homeless people, seniors and other vulnerable communities, free of charge. It does so by repurposing surplus ingredients that would otherwise be thrown out by other restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets: Each weekday, guest chefs (many of them three-starred) turn nearly 300 pounds of recovered food into beautiful three-course meals for up to 100 guests. And because the provisions are always different, the menu changes daily.

Refettorio Paris

People are seen next to an artwork by French street artist JR on March 15, 2018 in Paris, during the inauguration of Refettorio Paris, the latest outpost of the community kitchen Food for Soul which aims to fight food waste and feed homeless people. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK KOVARIK

Outside, the well-turned-out workers who keep the neighborhood’s boutiques humming pick at elaborate bagged lunches, unaware of what’s transpiring below.

The program was started in Paris last March by Massimo Bottura, the three-star Michelin chef at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. Through Food for Soul, the organization he started with his wife, Laura Gilmore, Bottura raises awareness about food waste and promotes sustainable community kitchens globally, engaging chefs, suppliers and others in the industry along the way.

His first kitchen, Refettorio Ambrosiano, opened in an abandoned theater in Milan as part of the 2015 Milan Expo. Since then, he’s also launched refettorio in Rio and London’s swank Kensington neighborhood, with another just announced for Sydney. “We need to have 1,000 refettorios all over the world,” Bottura says. “We’re gonna fight waste, and we’re gonna feed the people in the world.” 

 Massimo Bottura

Chef Massimo Bottura attends the press conference for the Al Meni International Cuisine Festival on May 17, 2018 in Milan.
Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

To Bottura, these restaurants are not charity but cultural incubators, and an opportunity for inclusion in a world where social isolation and economic disparity are one the rise. Through haute cuisine and art, he hopes to nourish both the body and the soul. (The original refettorio, Italian for “restore,” is where monks gathered for their daily meal.)  To bring that vision to life in Paris, he collaborated with acclaimed architects and artists, like pseudonymous French street artist JR, who was instrumental in launching the French outpost. 

JR’s massive site-specific work adorns Refettorio Paris, along with art by installation artist Prune Nourry—transforming it into a beautiful, even dignified haven. A place where diners can shake the hand of the chef who prepared their meal. 

Refettorio Paris-CREDITS shehanhanwellage

Photographer JR was instrumental in realizing Refettorio Paris. His images of supplicating hands grace the gourmet community kitchen’s doorways, archways and plates—in prayer, hope, and offering. Shehan Hanwellage

Each day, the kitchen serves about 250 lunches and dinners to guests given meal cards by  local community organizations. When they arrive, they are greeted by name, told “Bienvenue!” and quickly shown to their seats. Giant white clouds hover above, with images by JR of supplicating hands gracing archways and dinner plates. 

“Beauty is an essential part of our project,” Bottura, 56, says in a promo video (below), “because through beauty we can fight and rebuild the dignity of the people.” 

In addition to the 15 or so volunteers who staff Refettorio Paris, celebrity guest chefs have including Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, Anna Sophie Pic, Tatiana Levha and Hélène Darroze. Every bit of the food “waste” finds its way onto their menus: “Orange vegetables” go into soup, stale bread becomes croutons, dried fruit add texture to desserts. (A 2016 law in France bans supermarkets from throwing away edible food; violators can be fined $4,500.) 

Refettorio Paris-CREDITS Jean Blaise Hall

Refettorio Paris’ community kitchen feeds the neighborhood’s needy and vulnerable, from those on the margins of society to seniors to the homeless. Jean Blaise Hall

Proceeds from pop-ups and workshops go right back into making more meals. Bottura also wants to open a food truck in Paris that would provide gourmet meals—and legal services—to refugees.

In 2017, he appeared alongside Anthony Bourdain in the documentary Wasted!, which explores how food waste negatively impacts hunger, biodiversity and climate change. In May of that same year, Bottura received a $650,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant to develop community kitchens in U.S. cities like Miami, New Orleans, Detroit and New York.

It’s a strategy we desperately need: The French waste about 66 pounds of food per person annually, compared to the 300 pounds wasted by the typical American. (And that’s not even including restaurant, supermarket and industrial food waste.)


Massimo Bottura prepares meals at Once Upon A Kitchen at Gotham Hall on December 5, 2018 in New York City. Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images For God’s Love We Deliver

Despite all this excess, hunger is still an issue in America: One in eight New Yorkers—and one in five people in the Bronx—are food insecure, defined as facing “limited or uncertain access to adequate food” by the Department of Agriculture.

But again, it’s not just about the food. The lights might be low in Refettorio Paris’ dining room, but the clouds encourage diners to look toward—and reach for—the heavens. “You’re there, up in the clouds, because the dream is there,” Bottura says in the video. “And you have to learn how to dream to change the world.”


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