Fish & Game, inspired by Jori’s concept of whole utilization, has aspired since opening to be a waste-free kitchen. Recently, we’re reaching a critical mass of sorts on the subject of food waste as the subject moves to the forefront of actions and discussions among prominent chefs and policy makers. France passed a law last year forbidding supermarkets from discarding old or undesirable food, Italy is debating one, and the whole E.U. is considering similar legislation. Chef Dan Barber’s wastED popups have garnered a lot of attention, and Anthony Bourdain’s new documentary Wasted! The Story of Food Waste addresses the subject head on. Full Harvest is off to a promising start building a B2B marketplace for surplus or unbeautiful food.
Probably the most viable and useful model to address the twin problems of food waste and hungry people comes from Italy, where Lara Gilmore and her husband Massimo Bottura founded Food For Soul. The nonprofit works to build a new generation of soup kitchens that collect food not fit for sale but still good to eat and have it prepared by chefs and served by volunteers to needy and at-risk people. The first one, Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan, is now in its third year. Other iterations have begun in London and Rio, and more are under way.
Gilmore and Bottura have a new book, Bread is Gold, which comes out in November from Phaidon. It’s a compendium, both elegant and matter-of-fact, of recipes from the inception of the Refettorio Ambrosiano during the 2015 Milan Expo, when chef Bottura invited his peers—like René Redzepi, Alain Ducasse, Daniel Humm, and many others, a who’s who of global celebrity chefs—to come and cook using donated ingredients that otherwise would have been thrown away: wilted vegetables, blemished fruit, meat and dairy near expiring.
The couple will be touring the U.S. shortly after its release to promote the book. I spoke with Gilmore during her brief visit to New York in September, when she accepted Food For Soul’s Global Gastronomy Post-Plate Award from the White Guide.
PB: How did Food For Soul get started?
LG: We started working on Food For Soul as an experiment during Expo Milano 2015; we had no idea what we were doing other than answering a call to feed the hungry. Massimo said “How can we feed the planet using a six-month fair in Milan?” We asked chefs from around the world to come and cook in a soup kitchen. That became the impetus to connect the two problems of food waste and food insecurity. There’s a direct connection between the amount of food being thrown away and people who don’t have anything, so the challenge became teaching people to cook delicious, nutritious food with ordinary or sub-ordinary ingredients that would otherwise be thrown away.
This is really simple; it’s not about fermentation or pickling or other things that can be done to preserve or improve food that’s on the verge of going bad. This is just “let’s cook it so people can eat it.” It’s reductive solution, a short term fix. We hope that one day it will be illegal everywhere for supermarkets to throw away food. In the meantime, we need to start bridging that gap.
PB: Are you involved in lobbying for legislation in Italy or elsewhere?
LG: No, we’re not involved in lobbying or politics. Governments change. The more important issue is that while governments can make laws forbidding food waste, it’s even more important to raise consciousness, to promote a conversation. We cannot afford to keep throwing food away; it’s not only a huge waste of energy, water, and other resources, but you’re taking something with potential energy and just throwing it in a landfill. And beyond feeding people, our goal is to raise awareness, to get the public’s minds around the issue in terms of the choices they make when they’re shopping, when they’re cooking at home.
It would be great if governments changed their policies, but that’s only part of the solution. If a supermarket can no longer throw out food, they need a distribution system in place so they know what to do with it, so it can get to people who need it. We’re trying to create a place to bring all that food.
PB: Refettorio Ambrosiano has become a permanent project. Did you envision it that way from the outset?
LG: We did. But what made the first six months special was the fact that there were already all these famous chefs coming to Milan for the Expo to cook at their countries’ pavilions. We capitalized on that, asking them if they would stay an extra day and cook for homeless people. And most of them said yes, with no idea what we were really asking them to do; they didn’t read the fine print. A lot of them, once they arrived, looked around and said “I have to cook for a hundred people using this stuff?” But the amazing thing was that once they got over their initial shock, that’s exactly what they did.
And that’s what Bread is Gold is about: get over your desire for perfect ingredients and make something beautiful with what you’ve got. It’ll be better and healthier than most soup kitchens, which are opening canned food or reheating donated fried chicken. You can make incredible food out of subpar ingredients—people did it for centuries before refrigeration—it’s going back to a simpler way of cooking. Look in your fridge and pantry, take out that old stuff you’re not using, and make a meal out of it.
We tried to create a fine dining experience in a soup kitchen: the attention to service, the plating, the quality of the food. We took all our know-how and tried to transform ugly ingredients into a beautiful meal. The incredible thing was that after six months, they didn’t need us anymore. The staff had learned how to set the tables, serve people, and clean up. It’s totally self-sufficient, and the staff develop skills that can translate into good jobs. So we figured we could start them in other communities, and other countries: our initiative, but running on their own.
PB: So you’re pitching it to other cities?
LG: Cristina Reni, our project manager, just came back from Montreal, where the mayor wants to open a Refettorio; he’s working with an organization called La Tablée des Chefs who are addressing the issue and teaching people in at-risk communities to feed themselves. We may open one in Burkina Faso.
So on the one hand we’re going where there’s interest, where we’re getting calls, and on the other hand we received this incredible Rockefeller Foundation grant [of $650,000, earlier this year] to bring this project to the United States—can we go to small-to-medium-sized cities like Baltimore or Denver, and be a resource for them? Not to change the soup kitchen model, but offer an alternative that’s more sustainable and has more benefits for the community at large: you’re not just getting a sandwich, but you can learn to cook, learn service, you have a place to go that’s safe, and creates a sense of community. We want to promote it and find partners, but at the end of the day they have to own it. It has to belong to that community because we’re on the other side of the world.
PB: How is the grant going to be used?
LG: Not to put money into opening a specific space. The grant is for build our knowledge base and find scouts around the U.S.: community leaders, chefs, charities, to see if there’s a desire or a need to use our model and have us as a resource to help them use their talents to affect change in their neighborhoods. So we’re working in Denver and Baltimore, and we’re hoping to open in the Bronx someday, which is complicated. New York is much more challenging than we ever imagined, but we feel that it would be such a powerful symbol if we can do it.
We’re also using the grant to do more fundraising in the areas where we’re planning projects. We hope to open two [in America] in the next two years. We don’t have all the answers, we’re just trying to find areas where there’s fertile ground.
PB: Is this your primary focus right now, or are you also occupied with other projects?
LG: We run a business [Osteria Francescana] in Modena, and we’re trying to have twice as many staff as we have seats so we can teach young people that the impossible can be possible. But twelve tables open five days a week is like a lemonade stand; we make such a small impact because we serve so few people. Food For Soul can make a large impact. Maybe the culmination of everything we’ve learned over the last twenty-two years of running Osteria Francescana, and Massimo’s thirty years in the kitchen, is to apply it to something that has nothing to do with fine dining.
Getting people from different cultures, in different communities, together around a table and feeding them on a large scale is our challenge—we’re stimulated by that idea, and we hope to be able to create a big enough structure that it’s a sustainable reality twenty years from now. I’m focused on creating a nonprofit that promotes change through eating, through sharing food, and I’m having great conversations with people from a lot of different organizations, including educational institutions, who are all interested in creating change through food. That’s what I’m focused on.
PB: A lot of colleges and institutions are working with local farmers to source ingredients for their dining halls. People get excited when they know there’s a story behind an ingredient, when they know they’re supporting farmers in their area.
LG: Exactly. Where does flavor come from? It comes from the ingredient you’re eating, but it also happens in your mind. The flavor receptors are in our brains, and the setting, where we’re sitting, who we’re with all come into play in forming our experience of eating. It’s one thing to give someone a sandwich in a paper bag, but it’s a whole other thing to sit them around a table and address them by name and tell them that someone made this food for them. The context is completely different, and so is the experience.
And that’s the thing that makes it sustainable, the community aspect. If you get people together, sharing meals, and helping other people, you have the potential to change something. Otherwise, it’s just charity, not fixing the underlying problem. It has to be community driven, it has to be emotional, they have to have a sense of ownership.
PB: When you open a new place—in the U.S., in Burkina Faso, wherever—do you have a training program, a team that comes in and shows people how to do it?
LG: We do. We have a team come in to lay the groundwork. In London, we came into an existing soup kitchen that had been running for twenty-five years serving lunch to 80 people a day. They arranged their little square tables so there was space around every one. We told them that people sitting around big, long, communal tables are forced to have a conversation, to connect. And we insisted that they have a firm start time of 1:00, so that everyone would eat together at the same time.
It was very hard for them to transfer over to this idea that people would sit down to a meal instead of standing in line for self-service. We found a lot of resistance. But over time, the staff realized that people were changing, talking more, breaking down barriers between them. But they had to see it to believe it. So we come in, show them what we’ve been doing, and they can see for themselves how it changes. It’s not just that we teach them to make a better, fresher lunch, but that it’s shared and communal.
PB: And the model is still a work in progress, because you have to tailor it to each situation?
LG: Right. We have a model, but everywhere we go there are different players, different priorities, and we have to be flexible and adapt to people’s needs rather than imposing our own agenda. But if we can make the first connection between the supermarkets that have too much food and the people who need that food and invite chefs to come up with great recipes for that food and then train people to serve it, that’s the beginning of a whole new way to feed people.
There are so many people all over the world who want to volunteer, but it’s not made easy for them. So if we set up a situation where you can come in, serve people food, and talk to them and it’s not hard, and it’s even fun and gratifying, you’ll want to come back. We make it beautiful, and clean, and lovely, so that people from a different sector of society won’t feel alienated and will want to help out. It’s hard to go into an ugly, dark place as a volunteer.
PB: Is the book a source of funding for the organization?
LG: All of the advance and the proceeds from the book are going to Food For Soul. We hope that it becomes a cookbook that people will use in homes, schools, and soup kitchens so we can keep the project running. They’re not preachy recipes, they’re designed to help you turn the stuff in your fridge into something delicious. It’s an encouraging message: what you have is good enough.
PB: Is there an ongoing effort to document and archive recipes beyond the book?
LG: Yes, we have a ton of recipes from chefs in London and Rio that deal specifically with ingredients they have in those places. So as the program grows, everyone can continue to add recipes and share them and make the food better. We hope some day we'll have ten or twenty Refettorios and they’ll come up with a model that’s much more efficient than anything we could have imagined when we first began. My hope is that sharing information will become like sharing food; we’ll solve a problem and build a community by doing it.
From Bread Is Gold, here’s a recipe from Antonia Klugmann and Fabrizio Mantovani’s collaboration (on August 3, 2015) that’s ideally suited to all sorts of substitutions depending on what you have available. Be inspired by scraps and wilted things! Don’t waste food! Thanks to the good people at Phaidon for letting us use the recipe and photo.
Fish Soup with Bread Gnocchi
1 lb 2 oz (500 g) stale bread, chopped
11/4 cups (300 ml) milk
3/4 cup (100 g) all-purpose (plain) flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
1/2 cup (50 g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic bulb, separated into cloves and peeled
1 can (14 oz/400 g) whole peeled tomatoes
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
4 small mullets or other white fish, cleaned and boned,
heads and bones reserved
5 anchovy fillets
2 pepperoncini or other mild chilies, chopped
2 tablespoons capers
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 hake fillets or other white fish (about 5 oz/140 g each)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for serving
Make the bread gnocchi
In a large bowl, soak the bread in the milk for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C/Gas Mark 4). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Squeeze the excess liquid out of the soaked bread. Discard the liquid and return the bread to the bowl. Add the eggs, flour, salt, and pepper and mix thoroughly to form a dough. Shape the dough with your hands to form gnocchi. In a medium pot of boiling water, cook the bread gnocchi until they float to the surface, about 5 minutes. Drain. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with the Parmigiano. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.
Make the fish soup
In a medium pot, heat the 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and brown. Add the canned and fresh tomatoes, mullets, fish heads and bones, anchovies, pepperoncini, capers, and onions and simmer for 3 minutes. Add the carrots, celery, and 1/4 cup (60 ml) water, and cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Discard the fish bones and heads and set aside the mullets. Transfer to a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Strain through a colander. In a medium frying pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the hake fillets skin side down and sear until just firm, about 3 minutes.
Ladle the soup into each bowl and top with 5 gnocchi. Divide the mullets and hake fillets among the bowls and garnish with the parsley.