Listen up, Los Angeles! Massimo Bottura wants to change the way you think about food waste

“Veni vidi vici”

is a Latin phrase popularly attributed to Julius Caesar, who used it after achieving a quick and decisive victory over his enemies… Translated into English it means “I came; I saw, I conquered.” That’s how I would describe the last few days of the Italian chef and owner of 2016 Best Restaurant in the World, Osteria Francescana (3 Michelin stars) in Modena, Italy, Massimo Bottura, here in Los Angeles where he attended the first ever edition of the Los Angeles Food Bowl organized by the LA Times.

We briefly met Massimo at the LA Food Bowl opening night, Chef’s Fable @the Wiltern Theater, where, even if you never met him before, you quickly realized that Massimo’s energy is equal to his passion for cooking. His love for his modern re-interpretation of what we can easlily call Italian comfort food is only matched by his knowledge of his Emilia Romagna’s traditions and products. After all, one of his most famous dishes is the “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano“—a perfect combination of tradition and innovation.

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More than just a chef: Massimo Bottura’s fight against food waste

What I didn’t know was how much of a ‘philatrophist’ he is, I also didn’t know that he cares deeply about needy people, about teaching overweight people how to eat, how much he hates wasting food, or that he likes to lecture about sustainable kitchens, food recycling… all of this and more when went to the Ace Hotel for “Food For Soul: Cooking as a Call to Act,” a symposium on food waste and sustainability.

The event featured five of the world’s best known chefs: Massimo Bottura, Mario Batali, Dominique Crenn, Roy Choi, and Mary Sue Milliken. Jonathan Gold, LA Times beloved food critic, served as a moderator. Gold was the first to strike a cord on the subject by mentioning Tasty Dishes from Waste Items, a book about eating and feeding yourself with scraps of food you would otherwise throw away, which he had read years ago and never left his mind.

RELATED: Jonathan Gold Reveals Favorite Italian Food, and Much More

The talk centered on the idea of sustainability in the food chain— a topic that’s gained more and more attention in recent years. Long story short, we listened to each of them coming up with their personal problems, experience, and solution. Each chef had their own view on the overriding idea of sustainability and the benefit of watching them debate on stage was the convergence of ideas.

Massimo Bottura and the other guests discussing food waste

From left to right: Mario Batali, Jonathan Gold, Massimo Bottura, and Dominique Crenn at the Food for Soul panel

Massimo Bottura talked about his Food For Soul, a non-profit organization promoting social awareness about food wastage and hunger, and in particular the Refettorio Ambrosiano initiative. The word “refettorio” translates as refectory, which in Latin also means to remake, to restore. During the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan, having had enough about wasting food and seeing people with empty belly going hungry, while tons and tons of food got thrown away daily… Massimo came up with the idea of creating a PLACE where to serve food, to needy people, most of them homeless.

RELATED: Taste of Italy Los Angeles: Food, Family, Traditions, and More Food!

He went on telling us how his idea became a reality, how he went to the Pope, yes, Pope Francis, asking for help, asking for a place where to congregate. Long story short, there are now Refettori Ambrosiani in Milan, Modena, Bologna, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil… and pretty soon in London too. According to him, the #1 priority is to EDUCATE, to TEACH how to use existing food excesses.


Massimo Bottura, Food for Soul, and the Refettorio Ambrosiano

Foodiamo: Massimo, why and what is a refettorio?

Massimo: The dual purpose of the refettorio is to fill the empty belly and to feed the hungry soul. On one hand, a refettorio is a kind of charity kitchen, like a soup kitchen, that embraces not only the need to offer food but also hospitality to those in need.
What differentiates a refettorio from a soup kitchen is how we serve meals. Guests are invited to sit at communal tables and are served a full meal by volunteers. The idea behind this kind of hospitality comes directly out of my personal experience running restaurants for the past 30 years. And I wholeheartedly believe that there is more value in a meal shared at the table together than a meal eaten alone. The social part of the experience is a kind of therapy that is good for everyone—guests, volunteers and chefs.


F: You invited lots of chefs to work in the Refettori because for you it is vital to teach communities and volunteers the culture of food, long-term. Why is this so important?

M: There are two reasons why we invite chefs to launch our refettorio’s events. One, chefs with experience, creativity, and knowledge are the best people to set up a kitchen and show others how to run it properly. A chef also knows what kind of leftovers he or she can find in the refrigerator: broths, ragouts, ice creams, and sauces. That is where he begins to create his dishes, making due with what’s available.
The second point for inviting chefs is about making visible the invisible. The know-how of a chef with more than 10 or 20 years experience is essential to shed light on the real value of food. He or she is able to show how to grab the best out of each foodstuff, at every stage of its lifespan. Chefs can also teach how to use parts of ingredients that are usually considered inedible. One of the most iconic dishes I made at Refettorio Gastromotiva is carbonara pasta made with smoked banana peels instead of guanciale, or pancetta.


Back to the basics: Saving food, one meal at the time

F: What are the most important solutions to this problem?

M: PREVENTION, stopping waste from occurring. Second, RECOVERY, redistributing food to people and third, RECYLING. Recycling is often neglected. Too often, wasted resource is a question of not being creative enough in the kitchen.

The social part of the experience is a kind of therapy that is good for everyone — guests, volunteers and chefs.

F: Any food-saving ideas, straight from the pantry and fridge?

M: Let’s talk about veggies, fruit, cheese, and bread. Save vegetable trimmings, such as pea shells, asparagus legs, celery bottoms, etc. and use them to make vegetable broths. Add aged cheese rinds to enrich the flavor.
Breadcrumbs made from day-old bread are a common ingredient in many Italian recipes—from savory to sweet. Breadcrumbs can be flavored in a skillet or baked with olive oil and herbs. They can thicken sauces, add texture and flavor to pasta dishes or soups, or even become sauces themselves. You can use breadcrumbs to replace pine nuts in a rich, vibrant green pesto! Day-old bread quickly becomes bread pudding, or an ingredient for ribollita (traditional Tuscany soup).
Fruits, either bruised, overripe, or ugly, can be puréed into all kinds of sauces and creams, added to breads and tarts, or turned into sorbets or ice creams—there is almost no fruit that ever needs to be thrown away. You can pickle and ferment fruit and vegetables to extend flavor and life…

What else to say about Massimo: nothing except… except that, if you happen to be in Italy, go to eat at his place. You will love it (just make sure to book way in advance). We leave you with his book, Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, (an absolute must to read) and one of my fav quotes:

My bones are made of parmigiano reggiano, and balsamic vinegar rushes through my veins. This is my story and my kitchen.


Photos by Dan Steinberg for LA Food Bowl. All rights reserved. 


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