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Walter el Nagar opens his restaurant, a 12-seater chef’s countertop in Geneva, to the public only four days a week, the fifth day, is reserved for the homeless and the needy who are served the same tasting menu and wine pairing as the paying customers.
The Milan native, el Naga, believes it is a new model for restaurants that allows them to help those in need, eliminate food waste and bring people together. The cost of the food is passed ‘upstream’ to the customers, who are more than willing to help out, while the Saturday lunches, which are attended by the needy are staffed by volunteers. We caught up with el Nagar to find more.
Can you explain the concept of ‘Le Cinquième Jour’?
"It's a small chef counter in the heart of Geneva, Switzerland. The restaurant itself is just a kitchen with a u-shaped countertop table around it, with just 12 seats. It’s been a dream of mine for many years. I start working on this idea of a 'hole in the whole', seven years ago in Los Angeles, with a pop-up called Barbershop Ristorante, but for many different reasons, it never came to life. Then in 2016, I left and I opened one in Tulum and one in Singapore, which are both now closed. The name of the restaurant comes from the concept itself: we open only four days to paying guests, for lunch and dinner, serving only tasting menus, and the fifth day (cinuième jour in French) we open for free to the homeless and people in need, serving the same menu.
"Fundamentally, its nothing new on the restaurant scene: a small chef’s restaurant, mandatory reservations to control the costs, seasonal/local tasting menu only, a small team... We only use produce and ingredient from the region surrounding Geneva, let’s say from within a 100km ratio and fish from lake Leman, just a few steps from our front door. We built the restaurant on a circular economic model… which includes everyone in the city: cheap lunches for students and professionals and an affordable dinner for the “bon vivant” and expats. However, we felt we were excluding some elements of society: the people that could not afford to eat in a restaurant at all. So, I decided to implement a more humane schedule, opening just four days a week, so that my staff (and me) can enjoy the weekends with friends and family, and to open Saturday for people in need. It's pretty new, I think, and it works.
Why do you think chefs are stepping up to the plate to feed people in need these days?
I think because we live in an absurd system in which you can travel the world for a culinary trip and at your front door there are people starving. Because we face, every day, the nonsense of commercial propaganda that floods our dining rooms. People are fighting a crusade against commercial products, they demand that we serve a different type of food.
Who is supposed to start something like this if not us? If not now? We cook to live, we create food, more or less delicious or nutritious. It’s in our hands to stop wasting food, to feed the hungry and to change the paradigm. Now, from our very kitchen.
How important is it for a chef to have a cause to be dedicated to?
I think that if a person wants to fullfil himself, at one point in his life, he must take action. It’s not about being a chef or being into a different profession, it is about actions and deeds, and the closer they are, the better it is. I could donate, let say, 10% of our income to fight hunger who knows where, like many do. But what is the point when there is an abundance of people in need all around us, everywhere, most of the time invisible to the many. I don’t do it because it makes me feel like a better person, I do it because I hope it will spark a fire in someone else, that is why I decided to do it, to make an example out of it. If I can do it with such few resources, what’s up with everybody else? Do you understand?
What gave you the idea for this kind of social project?
"The sensibility arose in California where homelessness and poverty are absolutely disastrous and there is really nothing being done about it. I lived there and left with a feeling of helplessness. I always talked about eventuality doing something through a restaurant until one day I read about the Refettorio of Massimo Bottura. Life goes by and I came to Geneva to open a fancy restaurant in a fancy hotel. I loved the city and decided to stay. The Refettorio movement grew more and more in my mind every day.
"With a mix of naivete and enthusiasm I got in touch with them to open a Refettorio in Geneva: I founded a soup kitchen, put together a bunch of chefs to organise dinners, volunteers to help etc., before I realised that, in order to manage a Refettorio, you need connections and, most of all, tonnes of money, so I had to rethink the whole idea. What I came up with was my restaurant. I realised I didn’t really need a soup kitchen to feed hungry people if I have a restaurant. Even better: there is no chef’s counter in Geneva, so it was kind of easy to put the pieces together and, with the help of some marvellous people, in just a few months I managed to open in September 2018. As far as I know, it’s the only restaurant that does something like this, and I hope that it will become an inspiration for some colleagues and for young committed cooks."
What has been the reaction to Le Cinquième Jour?
"The general reaction is been enthusiastic: as you can imagine there are people that come to support the initiative, but it has gone even further. Some guests come on Friday night for dinner asking if they can come to volunteer on Saturday morning! It’s been pretty amazing and somehow flawless. Geneva is a terrific place: it’s very small but the variety of people you can get in touch with here is as vast as any major metropolis. The average expat here is, most probably, involved in either diplomacy or science (or finance), so opening the first ‘reservation only chef’s counter’ was not too difficult to sell. Among the homeless population it has been received with joy, you should see the faces of some of our guests on a Saturday, it’s like they put their life on pause for a few hours while drinking from proper glasses, wondering at the combination of blue cheese and black garlic… It’s been really awesome."
Can you tell us about the involvement of the Red Cross?
"We work with an array of different organisations. The Red Cross for example allowed us to get in touch not only with people sleeping in their shelter, but also with elderly and other people involved in their social programmes, like refugees and children. One organisation that really helped make it happen is Serve the City: they send us all the staff we need, every Saturday, in order to help me organise the meal, truly wonderful people. The main reason we need external organisation to help us is the size of our restaurant: only 12 seats. So, it would be impossible to just open the door and hang a ‘Come in, Free Food’ sign outside. In a way the organisations make it simple for us: they find the people to come, put them together, help them to arrive at the restaurant sometimes, explain the concept etc. Also, I am just a cook and sometimes you need a different sensibility in order to receive some guests, associations like Red Cross have the know-how and the people to handle all of this while I cook."
Is there much of a need for this kind of activity / is there much poverty in Geneva?
"I think it’s the best way for a small restaurant to solve the food waste problem: instead of tossing away perfectly good ingredients because they are unsold or the place closes for the weekend, you just open your doors to people in need and feed them with it. I always explain to my cooks that waste, by-products and the like, are an incentive for creativity, and we should try to reimagine and create a whole menu as a gift to the people. Geneva is not a poor city at all, on the contrary! But as everywhere, it’s a place of contrast, so there is a population of people in need even here. Geneva is special: for its history as the city of peace, the city of diplomacy and understanding, it represents all the good things you can do if you commit to a cause, take for example the Red Cross or the UN. So, it was easy to start an experiment like this here."
I see there is also a wine or beer pairing with the food at Le Cinquième Jour. Is this controversial?
More than controversial, it’s been comical at times: for example, once a wonderful lady who is a regular at our counter, donated some killer vintage wines for a Saturday, which we served to a group that requested if it was possible… well the scene was awesome: everyone got tipsy and we spent the most of the afternoon with truly happy people chatting and having fun.
What does your restaurant gain from this kind of activity?
Technically the restaurant gains a great modus operandi: if you pair this achievement of feeding people in need with the extra ingredients sitting in the fridge at the end of the week, with the reservations system, the testing menu only and a small staff, you get a great economical result each and every week of operation. We have been sustainable from day one and it is not a result that is very common in the industry. So, sustainability first: ecologically, economy and humanity. Then we get to attract people that truly care about what we do, which is: delicious food, great experiences and social involvement. In a sense, we created our costumer pool, merging high-level gastronomy with social sensibility.
What does Walter el Nagar get from being involved in this project?
I can’t say yet to be honest! It’s too young a project to forecast what I will be at the end of it. For sure, I hope to become more involved in social endeavours, to become a better chef and at the end, to become a better human being. For now what really amazes me the most is to see the different reactions of the guests, whether they are paying or not: it’s truly amazing to cook in front of the people that are going to eat your food, and it’s even more enriching to compare the opinion a banker about Tuesday night’s duck, with the opinion of a young boy from Eritrea that comes for lunch on a Saturday. You would be surprised.