Bread Is Gold

According to the United Nations, roughly 1/3 of the food produced each year for human consumption, about 1.3 billion tonnes, is wasted. On the other side of the coin, about 1 billion people in the world are undernourished. World Hunger is something we know exists, but it is an abstract concept – it is invisible.

Putting it into perspective, nearly 4 trillion apples are thrown out each year.  Imagine how many apple pies we could make to feed the hungry.

4 trillion apples thrown out
1 billion undernourished

On this left side we have food waste. On the right we have hunger. Do you see what is wrong with this picture? Why does one exist next to the other in this world? It is a dichotomy that makes the abstract real. Food being thrown out while people starve.

I’m going to tell you the story about one man who set out to change that dichotomy. To take the idea of food waste and turn it into sustenance for the needy.

His name is Massimo Bottura. He says he is just a skinny, Italian chef. He is much more. He created Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy. It is a Michelin 3 star restaurant and was rated the best restaurant in the world by British Magazine Restaurant.

His mission was to make visible to the world, the invisible waste in the food industry. He did not have a trillion apples, but he had bread. And, as he was to discover, bread is gold.

In 2015, Milan was set to host the World Expo. The theme was Feeding the Planet. Chefs from all over the world were going to come and create beautiful dishes, using expensive ingredients for wealthy people. Massimo said, let us do the opposite.

His idea was to open a soup kitchen during the expo. They would use the food left over from the expo each day to make dinner. They would invite the homeless and disenfranchised to come and share in a meal. He presented the idea to the Catholic Church and they agreed to help him.

He needed a name for the place. It was to be a refettorio, which was a place where, in the middle ages, monks and nuns shared communal meals. The Latin root word means rebuild, restore. The name Refettorio Ambrosiana was chosen.

Next, he needed a location. The parish priest told him of an abandoned theatre in the Greco district – the poor section of Milan.

Through a social agency, he hired shelter residents to help with the project. Architects and students from Milan’s Polytechnical School came to cleanup and transform the space, including a modern, professional kitchen.

Next came the artists, creating thematic wall sculptures.

The Fountain of Life was set in the entranceway.

The designers came and created beautiful communal tables. The famous design firm Riva donated the talent to the project.

A neon sign was set on the outside wall which read No More Excuses. It was more of an art gallery than a soup kitchen. That was the idea.

Massimo now had the location, place, working staff and the backing of both the church and Expo organizers. Now, he needed someone to cook.

He started calling his friends – 40 of the top chefs in the world. He asked them to come to Milan, prepare a meal for 100 people.

  • They would not know what ingredients they would have until the morning of the day they were to cook.
  • The ingredients would be leftovers.
  • The people they would be cooking for, would not know who they were.
  • They did not know what a Michelin star was.
  • Most likely had never had a quality meal.

The chefs would be challenged more than they have ever been in their career. Almost all said, “Yes”, they would come. They travelled from all over Europe, Asia, South America, The US and even Canada.

Here is Chef Narisawa of Japan making teriyaki hamburgers. He had litres of milk and potatoes so he started with Milk Soup. He had one of the chefs peeling kilos of potatoes and cutting them into small rectangles. The big hit was his teriyaki hamburger. Everyone wanted the recipe for the teriyaki sauce. That is when Massimo started to think about making a cookbook. 

George Brown College, Culinary Arts students went to work in the Refettorio. Here is Director John Higgins checking out what was on the truck. Each morning the truck would load up at the Expo at a regridgerated room that contained the leftovers. At the refettorio, Massimo and the guest chef would open the doors to see what they were going to work with. Then there would be a planning session on what the chef would make. Many of them said it was hard but creatively invigorating. Each of these chefs went back to their home town with a new perspective – food waste made visible.

The Refettorio was a success. It continued after the Expo closed. They would do lunches for students. Massimo, along with his wife Lara, established a foundation to open refettorios around the world.

In January, they came to Toronto to promote the book Bread Is Gold. It is not only a compilation of the recipes that were created. It is a reflection of each chef who participated – their thoughts on the challenges and rewards of the Refettorio Ambrosiana and the idea of reducing food waste.

Massimo proposed to John Higgins that George Brown open a refettorio. Massimo would be on hand for the opening and cook the first day. And I challenge you, when that happens, I want you to be there, beside me, peeling carrots and helping to make a difference. To make the invisible visible to Toronto.

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