Together with his wife Lara, multiple-Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura founded Food for Soul. The NGO transforms local food surplus around the world into delicious and healthy meals for vulnerable people. Here, he explains the thinking behind the cultural project and how it celebrates the hidden potential of people and communities.

MASSIMO BOTTURA

Chef patron of Osteria Francescana

Coronavirus has taken many things away from us, but it has also given me something very precious: time, an element that I never have enough of. 

Having a great amount of time has given me and my team the possibility to open our minds and be inspired by new ideas, to experiment. 

This year we have been working constantly with all of our Food for Soul Refettorios (refectories) to help find solutions to feed the most fragile at this time of crisis. We have 10 soup kitchens and in every one we are providing more than 500 meals every day. Thanks to the support of our fantastic partners and the help of volunteers, our kitchens have largely remained open and have adopted different solutions to support people. Some projects have prepared lunch boxes to hand out, while others have made their resources available to the community, whether that is redistributing surplus to other associations in the area, or organising online cooking classes. Others have handed out small financial aid or vouchers to their guests, in particular to families where one or both parents have lost their jobs. We have to remember that the most vulnerable are also the ones facing the greatest challenges right now, including access to food, lack of services, further isolation and cuts to benefits. 

I always felt that cooking meant more than just feeding people. It’s an act of love, the chance to gather the whole family around the same table. Over the years, my idea of family has expanded to include the people I work with, and cooking has become an excuse to meet people who are curious about my personal approach to food and gastronomy. In 2015, when we opened the first Refettorio in Milan with the charity Caritas Ambrosiana, we wanted to express that cooking could also be a call to act and a tool for change – mind, vision, culture, society. 

We called chefs from all over the world to join our community kitchen and cook with the food surplus coming from the World Expo fair. Every day, we had to be as creative as we could to serve to our guests – people living in vulnerable situations from Milan’s neighbourhood of Greco. We wanted it to be the best three-course meal they had ever experienced and to serve it in a warm and welcoming place. 

It started as an opportunity – we took a leap of faith – but I would have never imagined that it could become a movement. After Expo, it was clear to me that food could be more: not only a bridge between hunger and waste, but a bridge for people to create new communities around nourishment. The shift happened when we realised that nourishment is not just about providing a warm meal to those in need, it’s conceived in a more holistic sense: not only to fill empty bellies but to feed hungry souls. 

This is what we do with Food for Soul, the non-profit organisation I founded in 2016 with my wife Lara to shine a light on the invisible potential of people, places and food. Since then, we have opened 7 other projects around the world – most recently a Refettorio in Mérida, Mexico – with different local partners. Partnering with different organisations allows us to offer a wider variety of services. In London, for instance, The Felix Project provides fresh, surplus food to the Refettorio, while the staff at St Cuthberts’ Centre offers a warm and welcoming place to people where they can feel cared for. We can work together because we share the same vision and values. Our focus is to act, and give a concrete sign that change is possible. 

At the Refettorios – whether in London, Rio de Janeiro, Milan or Paris – guests have been invited to sit at communal tables where they are served a full meal by volunteers. The idea behind this kind of hospitality comes from my personal experience of running restaurants for the past 30 years. I believe that there is more value in a meal shared at the table together than in a meal eaten alone. The social part of the experience is a kind of therapy that lifts everyone – guests, volunteers and chefs. It creates a kind of convivial atmosphere which helps rebuild dignity, all around the act of eating a meal. 

Where people see scraps, we see the potential for something beautiful. A bruised banana is an exceptional ingredient for a cake, stale bread can add crunchiness to a classic pasta al pesto. You have to take your daily ingredients and let your creativity flow. When we published Bread is Gold in 2017, a collection of recipes made with surplus ingredients, that’s exactly 

what we wanted to communicate. We invited people to join our movement, starting from home. The recipes are simple ways to trigger people’s imagination and involve them in the fight against waste. 

Our efforts are focused on using food surplus to make new, delicious recipes (cookingisanactoflove.org collects recipes from our Refettorios) to show that food waste can be easily avoided and to raise awareness on its social impact. We create beautiful spaces where vulnerable members of the community can feel welcome, around the table and beyond. And this has allowed us to engage with them, build bridges, and open pathways for growth. By transforming food, places and people, we aim to create a widespread cultural change. 

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Our efforts are focused on using food surplus to make new, delicious recipes (cookingisanactoflove.org collects recipes from our Refettorios) to show that food waste can be easily avoided and to raise awareness on its social impact. We create beautiful spaces where vulnerable members of the community can feel welcome, around the table and beyond. And this has allowed us to engage with them, build bridges, and open pathways for growth. By transforming food, places and people, we aim to create a widespread cultural change. 

This is why Food for Soul is a cultural project: with our everyday efforts against food waste and social isolation we want to inspire people to feel part of a community. Culture is really the most important aspect if we are aiming to build a better future. Without culture we don’t know who we are, we lose our sense of identity. With culture we gain knowledge and consciousness. And from there it is a very small step to become socially responsible – for yourself, your family, your business, and your community. After all, we are all in this together. 

Massimo Bottura is an Italian restaurateur, co-founder of Food for Soul and the chef patron of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena, Italy which has been listed in the top 5 at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards since 2010

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