The Rio Olympics were supposed to be a “green” event, marked by a greater than usual attention to sustainability and caring for the environment. Instead, they have been marred by reports of contaminated water, fears over Zika, volunteers going without food and being forced to work hours beyond their scheduled shifts, and feeding centers for the homeless shutting down because funding is being diverted to the Olympics.
With more homeless Brazilians going hungry and food prepared for VIPs going to waste, a world-renowned Italian chef has opened a gourmet soup kitchen in one of Rio’s poorest neighbourhoods. He says the aims of this “cultural project” are twofold: restoring dignity for the facility’s homeless clients and drawing attention to questions around the sustainability of the Rio Olympics.
The chef is Massimo Bottura, owner of the Michelin three-star Osteria Francescana, and the project is called RefettoRio Gastromotiva, a play on words with the Italian word for “refectory” or dining hall, and the name of the Brazilian host city.
Feeding the World’s Poor and Restoring the Dignity of the Homeless
This isn’t the first time Bottura has been connected with a high-profile effort to feed the homeless. In Milan, during the 2015 World’s Fair, the chef set up another gourmet soup kitchen, called Refettorio Ambrosiano. In an interview about that project, Bottura spoke passionately of his efforts to feed the poor and create sustainable food service projects. “To feed the planet, first you have to fight the waste,” says the chef, who uses reclaimed ingredients from commercial kitchens to cook for the homeless.
Modena Earthquake: Risotto Cacio E Pepe
I first learned about Massimo Bottura on a Netflix documentary called Chef’s Table. The premiere episode featured Bottura and told the story of how he rescued the cheese-making industry in his hometown of Modena after an earthquake in the region damaged thousands of giant wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The wheels were worth hundreds of dollars each and represented a large percentage of the region’s production. Artisanal cheese producers feared they would go bankrupt and the world would be without this classic Italian food.
Bottura conceived a plan to promote a recipe, Risotto Cacio E Pepe, that would help to sell the cheese and promote awareness of the region’s cuisine. He called the 2012 project a “recipe as a social gesture.”
Eating at RefettoRio Gastromotiva
So what does a gourmet soup kitchen serve? Well, the menu one night recently included a traditional Milanese Osso Buco (veal shanks braised with vegetables in white wine) with a side of a South American vegetable the Brazilians call batata-baroa (“Baroness potato”). (The vegetable looks something like a cross between a carrot and a potato, and is sometimes called “white carrot” or “Peruvian parsnip” because of that. It is apparently starchy and tastes like a sort of nutty potato, or maybe a cross between celery and cabbage – not like a parsnip at all.)
The meal was finished up with a serving of Italian gelato. The clients were served at tables, in proper restaurant style, which is a big difference from the sterile cafeteria or mess hall style food service they are used to in the government-operated feeding centers. The soup kitchen operates more like a fine gourmet restaurant, complete with meals created by famous chefs and recent culinary school graduates. Feeding both the body and soul of its homeless clients, the RefettoRio Gastromotiva restores dignity and helps Rio’s homeless people feel respected once more. That’s an effort worthy of a gold medal!