Q&A: What happens when one of the world’s best chefs cleans out your fridge

Chef and Food for Soul founder Massimo Bottura visits the Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen to discuss
Chef and Food for Soul founder Massimo Bottura visits the Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen and studio on May 1 to discuss food waste and tips for using leftover ingredients.
(Christina House / For The Times)

Every day, we produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, and one-third of that food is thrown away. At the same time, almost 1 billion people remain undernourished. For chef Massimo Bottura, the numbers matter. Bottura is the chef-owner of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. He’s also the founder of Food for Soul, a nonprofit organization that fights food waste.

Food for Soul creates and maintains sustainable kitchens — called refettori — with a growing number of projects worldwide, involving both high-profile chefs and volunteers, who serve guests facing food poverty and insecurity. The kitchens also serve as social hubs that work to benefit the whole community.

Bottura is in Los Angeles participating in various event related to the L.A.Times Food Bowl, including the first Los Angeles Feeding the 5000 on Thursday, culminating in a free feast made entirely from fresh produce and meant to highlight the global issue of food waste.

Chef and Food for Soul founder Massimo Bottura

Bottura discussed food waste and the mission of Food for Soul in an email interview, and then visited the Times’ Test Kitchen and studio to discuss food waste, and to give tips for using leftover food items. What’s it like to have one of the best chefs in the world clean out your refrigerator? We found out.

What is a refettorio, and why do you use this name to describe the soup kitchens you’ve created?

The word refettorio (translation: refectory) has roots in the Latin word “reficere,” which means to remake, but also to restore. The dual purpose of the refettorio is to fill the empty belly and to feed the hungry soul. On one hand, a refettorio is a kind of charity kitchen, like a soup kitchen, that embraces not only the need to offer food but also hospitality to those in need.

What differentiates a refettorio from a soup kitchen is our way of serving a meal. Guests are invited to sit at communal tables and they are served a full meal by volunteers. The idea behind this kind of hospitality comes directly out of my personal experience running restaurants for the past 30 years. And I wholeheartedly believe that there is more value in a meal shared at the table together than a meal eaten alone. The social part of the experience is a kind of therapy that is good for everyone — guests, volunteers and chefs. It creates a kind of convivial atmosphere that helps rebuild dignity, all around the act of eating a meal.

Los Angeles Times Food Bowl: A new kind of food festival »

Where do your kitchens get their food? And what are some of the most common foods you see discarded or wasted?

The refettori are getting their food from surplus, reclaimed and salvaged food that otherwise would have been wasted from supermarkets, fruit and vegetable markets and donations from distributors, artisans, producers.

But we also receive a lot of expensive foodstuffs, like tropical fruit. In Refettorio Ambrosiano, it happened a couple of times to receive caviar! This is a clear indicator of what the real problem is. It is not about ugly and discarded fruit. It’s about overwhelming surplus and incoherent distribution.

Food for Soul does not believe we need more soup kitchens, but soup kitchens that do more.

— Massimo Bottura, Michelin-starred chef and founder of Food for Soul

What are some important things you’ve learned since you’ve started the refettori? Was there anything that surprised you?

In a way, I stumbled upon the issue and have since been trying to catch up. I think what surprised me the most at the Milan refettorio was the amount of packaged meat that is being taken off the shelves of supermarkets. I can only hope that the meat is being given to food banks or distributed to charity kitchens because from my experience, we were able to feed over 100 people a day from the excess of just one supermarket.

If we can make a small dent in the food chain and stop that kind of wastage by feeding people who are most in need, then we have found a simple solve to a complex problem.

You invite chefs to work with these kitchens to teach the communities and local volunteers how to sustain each kitchen long-term. Why is this so important?

There are two reasons that we invite chefs to launch our refettorio projects: one, chefs with experience, creativity and knowledge are the best people to set up a kitchen and show others how to run it properly. One of the first things that Ferran Adrià [the Spanish chef who ran the famed El Bulli restaurant] asked when he entered the kitchen was, "What's in the refrigerator?" He was asking about the leftovers from other chefs’ preparations — broths, ragouts, ice creams, and sauces — that were in excess. He would begin from there to create his dishes. That is what this kind of cooking is really all about — putting aside your ego and making due with what you have available.

The second argument for inviting chefs to cook in these kitchens is about making visible the invisible. The know-how of a chef with more than 10 or 20 years experience in the kitchen is essential to shed light on the real value of food. He or she is able to show how to grab the best out of each foodstuff, at every stage of its lifespan. Chefs can also teach how to use parts of ingredients that are usually considered inedible. One of the most iconic dishes I made at Refettorio Gastromotiva is carbonara pasta made with smoked banana peels instead of bacon.

One of the first things that Ferran Adrià asked when he entered the kitchen was, "What's in the refrigerator?"

— Massimo Bottura, Michelin-starred chef and founder of Food for Soul

These kitchens really foster a sense of community, and help to prevent isolation. Why is isolation such an issue when it comes to health — for both the individual and community?

Isolation and loneliness is a problem in cities, especially for the disenfranchised, immigrants and elderly community. Our external environment has a direct effect on our behavior and who we are, more than we often realize. By creating a beautiful, safe and inviting space in an at-risk neighborhood, you are inviting the community to bind their communal identity, either by volunteering in the kitchen, the dining room or even just using the space for their own social activities.

One of the most touching things that happened in Milan is that the elderly community began coming to lunch, when we were hosting schoolchildren. Soon after, they asked if they could take over one of the lunch services and cook for their friends and the community. Every Tuesday at noon, the kitchen and dining room belong to them. In this way, they are proud of the refettorio as something they are part of, keep it running and alive, and fight off their own loneliness.

Are there any creative examples that stand out from your kitchens about how a particular discarded food or cooking method can be used?

I think there should be an ice cream machine in every soup kitchen, not only because it is such a great way of working with salvaged ingredients but also because it brings so much joy.

As a chef, what are some simple tips you have for home cooks for rethinking vegetables and other ingredients they might normally discard?

Vegetable trimmings: pea shells, asparagus legs, celery bottoms, etc. can and should be saved and used to make vegetable broths. Aged cheese rinds can be added to enrich the flavor. Breadcrumbs made from day-old bread are a common ingredient in many Italian recipes — from savory to sweet. Breadcrumbs can be flavored in a skillet or baked with olive oil and herbs. These breadcrumbs can thicken sauces, add texture and flavor to pasta dishes or soups, as well as become sauces themselves. Breadcrumbs are the perfect replacement for pine nuts in a rich, vibrant green pesto!

Recipe: Vegetable stock »

Day-old bread in an instant becomes bread pudding or an ingredient to make bread itself. Recycling this often neglected and too often wasted resource is a question of being creative in the kitchen. Fruits, either bruised, overripe or ugly, can be puréed into all kinds of sauces and creams, added to breads and tarts, as well as turned into sorbets or ice creams — there is almost no fruit that ever needs to be thrown away. Fruit and vegetables can both be pickled and fermented to extend flavor and life.

As part of the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, Massimo Bottura will be participating in a forum at Ace Hotel on May 5 at 8 p.m., along with Mario Batali, Roy Choi, Dominique Crenn. Mary Sue Milliken and Jonathan Gold. The discussion, about food waste and what we can do about it, will be followed by a screening of “Theater of Life.” 929 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, 213-623-3233, $5 from each ticket will go to Food Forward, an L.A. non-profit that rescues fresh local produce that would otherwise go to waste.

Support our journalism

Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Instagram: @carternoelle

Twitter: @noellecarter


Why we need to stop throwing out food and thinking of it as a resource

Make this vegan pozole recipe, and learn tips for combating food waste in the kitchen

Food Bowl is coming. Here’s our cheat sheet of what to do during the monthlong festival

Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter