The Refettorio Ambrosiano. Quite possibly the best restaurant in Milan right now and the only one that’s not accepting bookings, ever!
“The truck arrives every morning”, explains the Italian chef Massimo Bottura as we stand at the back of the large dining hall. “The chefs take a look inside and decide what they want to use for that day but we start by looking at what can be used from the day before because we really don’t want to waste anything!” He’s talking me through his latest project, The Refettorio Ambrosiano, a professional soup kitchen inside a redesigned church in Milan. A fully operating kitchen started as part of Expo Milano 2015, a place to feed children, homeless people and groups of refugees. People genuinely in need of a good plate of nutritious food.
It runs, like all soup kitchens, on the generosity of volunteers. Dishwashers, servers, bakers and managers all give their time, spending hours inside a space that has been tastefully decorated with wonderful hanging designer lamps and pieces of Italian art - all of them donated to the cause. However, the big difference with this soup kitchen when compared with others is not the brand new professional shiny kitchen that sits at the head of the long dining room, it’s not the pieces of invaluable art in the entrance, the hand painted pictures or the perfectly polished cutlery, it’s the fact that the chefs who enter those trucks every morning to choose ingredients for the day’s menu are some of the world’s best. Friends and colleagues of Bottura, chefs he has convinced to step outside the comfortable walls of their Michelin mansions and put their skills to the best use of all - feeding those who really need it.
René Redzepi, Daniel Patterson, Daniel Humm and Gastón Acurio are just a few of the chefs who have arrived to a truck full of food destined for the trash only to spend the next 8 hours turning their haul into tasty treasure. It comes from the Coop supermarket on the Expo site and there’s no telling what might arrive. There’s always lots of bread, pasta, vegetables, dairy and fruits - with meats, fish, or a surplus hit of tinned goods close to their sell-by-date throwing up enough surprises to test the visiting chefs.
Today is the turn of a true master, one of Bottura’s closest friends, a mentor and former teacher to him and I guess pretty much all of the above mentioned chefs. In perfectly crisp whites and looking no less regal than when behind the stoves at his three Michelin starred Louis XV restaurant in Monaco, stands Alain Ducasse, spoon in hand as he tastes the sauce that will be later drizzled on top of his main course of perfectly moist veal, beef and chicken meatballs packed with fresh parsley and served on a bed of pureed aubergine - “we get a lot of aubergine,” says Bottura.
“I said yes right away when Massimo called me,” smiles Ducasse, just before the guests arrive, “we live in a society where every human being should eat, and eat the same way. For this to happen we have to change our habits, think and act differently, eating less, less nobel products, less animal proteins, more locally”.
As guests start to arrive Ducasse heads into the kitchen to set the first course, a cold soup of wheat, barley and fava beans with a rice crisp and squacquerone cheese in the middle, as Bottura happily welcomes the guests. They arrive in small groups, all men from a nearby centre, it’s at this point Bottura hits his stride. They laugh, joke and catch up - many of the men have been eating here for the month since it opened and they’ve gotten to know the chef, some show a massive interest in who is cooking, others more in the food - some are here for the banter with Bottura and all the staff who help make the night run smoothly. As Bottura introduces the chef for the evening, hilarity ensues when one of the guests refuses to believe Ducasse is French, Bottura explains in no uncertain detail that Ducasse is very, very, French, perhaps one of the most important living figures in French cuisine today, but the guest just shrugs his shoulders, “he doesn’t look very French to me,” everyone laughs. They may not be the guests the chefs are used to serving everyday but the room is brimming with lively characters and chatter within minutes, an atmosphere I’m sure many of the chefs wish for in their own restaurants.
The fun of the setting is certainly not lost on Ducasse who laughs when Bottura tells him what the guest said. It seems he’s in it for the smiles as well, “being a good chef is all about generosity. All the best chefs of the world are coming here because they are generous. We come here to offer good food using modest products with the help of our expertise, and to avoid waste. We're not changing people's life but we're giving them some happiness”.
They’re doing up to 60 covers a night at the moment and serving visiting school children for lunch, but Bottura says the capacity is bigger and they will gradually increase the numbers. It’s great to see the mix of people in the room all sitting down for a meal, perhaps the best idea is the possibility of other chefs taking inspiration from the project and opening up similar initiatives in their own countries.
“It’s so important that this spreads, says Bottura, “planting seeds and waiting until they sprout, one here, one there, you know, they’re going to build maybe a new tradition. If one is opened in New York, one in London, one in Lima. People came here and they understood exactly what we are talking about, it’s the social part of what we do - we move the spotlights we have on us all the time to illuminate other things”.
Bottura wants to see other chefs infected with the bug, “it’s not charity, it’s a cultural thing”, he keeps repeating, he wants to spread a message, he mutes the idea of a book packed with recipes - a way to help home cook reduce their own waste, it’s all so on point, the kitchen itself, run in conjunction Caritas, will stay open after the Expo finishes.
“Feeding the Planet - Energy for Life”. That’s the theme for Expo Milano 2015, the first ever Universal Exposition to focus on food, and The Refettorio Ambrosiano is one of the projects that best considers this line. Our need to feed the planet as the population grows is a massive issue but the kitchen inside this church highlights the more pressing and immediate issue of the millions of people who need feeding today, right now, as you read this very line. The huge piles of perfectly edible food destined for bins is halted, collected and weaved with technique into plates of food fit for some of the world's finest restaurants.
Perhaps Bottura sums it up best when he says: “These are the things that fill you up with humanity and genuine feeling…cooking is about love. It’s about getting the chefs involved to make the invisible visible. About putting our knowledge and using our knowledge of ingredients to fight against waste. This is going to be the example for many other chefs.”