As Massimo Bottura took to the stage at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony in New York to claim the number one position, his heart beating so fast he said he thought it would pop out of his chest, the Italian didn’t use the spotlight to relive his story, as many chefs do, but as a call to arms. He told those in front of him – a star–studded lineup of 50 of the world’s best chefs – that he needed their help. Help with what is his most ambitious project yet: Food for Soul.
Started during the Universal Expo held in Milan last year, Food for Soul is a project that has seen Bottura launch and work alongside existing soup kitchens, first with the newly opened Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan and more recently with the renewal of the Antoniano soup kitchen in Bologna, both places that help to feed people who may otherwise go hungry – using food that may otherwise go to waste.
The project invites chefs from all over the world, the likes of Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi and Alain Ducasse, to enter their soup kitchens and cook with salvaged food: ingredients destined for the trash that are transformed by the creative prowess of the chefs, “we gave dignity to ugly eggplants,” said Bottura.
As he took to the stage inside the grand setting of Cipriani Wall Street in New York, the lights twisting above his head, just minutes after hearing his Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena, Italy, was voted best in the world, Bottura looked at the front four rows, directly at the chefs, and said: “We need your help.”
“I have an opportunity right now to move this spotlight from me to a sense of responsibility, and the soup kitchen is our sense of responsibility ... It's time to give back.”
“We’re opening one in Rio de Janeiro, Montreal next year, the Italian ambassador said he wants to give one to New York City, in the Bronx – it feels so good. In just one year we have three, four, five, we are now open to people who want to collaborate, it’s not ours but for everybody.”
He said it wouldn’t be possible without the restaurant team and “21 years of hard work in the kitchen everyday.” This is what made the next step possible and it’s now the recognition of such a prolific award that will help to drive Food for Soul around the world. “Everyone in the room said they are going to come. Ducasse flew here from Paris because he said he wanted to party with me.” Bottura was visibly shocked by this show of solidarity. “He said to me: ‘I’m coming to Brazil’, I said: ‘It’s ok, just bring your bermudas and flip flops and we’re going to cook together in our chef jackets.”
“If I could, then we would open everywhere! Every city needs a community kitchen … We are considering the idea of opening in my hometown, Modena, and Palermo. But what I really hope is to bring this project abroad and prove that it can work everywhere because of its capacity of listening to the community and taking a shape that is specific to that place – no matter where you are.”
As his excited team in Modena partied into the night (police closed them down at 4am after receiving noise complaints, only for them to head back to the restaurant kitchen and continue the party until six in the morning), Bottura spent much of his evening speaking with foreign press, all the time pushing his newest idea. “It is not a charity project, it is a cultural one,” he said.
The chef believes that food and the act of cooking can affect real change and he’s on a mission to spread this idea around the world. “By cooking, you can tell someone that you care. Cooking is an act of love: it takes guts, imagination, organisation, and a lot of energy. Day after day we feed people, but this doesn’t mean we only fill their bellies: we provide inspiration. Nourishment is for the body, as well as for the soul. The role of the contemporary chef has changed so much since I began cooking back in 1986. With the rise of celebrity chefs, the various cooking channels, and television programs, chefs yield more media attention than many social activists. As part of the social fibre, I feel that chefs have a responsibility to use our voices to promote cultural ideas, not only culinary ones.
“It’s about changing the landscape of communities. It is an example for the next generation of chefs, food activists, food critics, and the public interested in bridging the gap between rich and poor, excess and hunger – through food … Everyone can embrace the mission, and together we can make the difference.
“Our local server crashed last night, the website was down, but it’s not about bringing more tables or more people to the restaurant, it’s now about sharing our ideas with the rest of the world.”