June 11, 2019 - Written by: Nancy Pollard
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The Life Of An Event

image of an iconic dessert from Trattoria FrancescanaYou may know about Massimo Bottura from the first series of The Chef’s Table from Netflix.  You may know a bit more if you read our post on food waste. And now Netflix has leased for streaming a documentary –Theater of Life by Quebec-based filmmaker Peter Svatek, which is focused on Bottura’s effort to feed struggling people with produce that is largely discarded from the food industry. It’s films such as this that give me hope when the evil in the world looms large.  Even though the documentary meanders some between their lives and the culinary stars who showcase what can be done with discarded foods, this warts-and-all film might inspire you to work with similar groups in your area. It is staggering to realize that over a billion tons of food is thrown away annually, which is about a third of the food produced world-wide. 


Like A Rolling Stone

Using Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stoneas a musical backdrop to the lives of homeless people, refugees, and impoverished residents featured in this film makes it even more touching. And in fact, for me, I re-read the lyrics after watching the film, and it resonated quite differently than when I first heard Bob Dylan singing it in 1965.

Like A Rolling Stone is played by one of the homeless protagonists who is wheelchair-bound and accompanied by a homeless woman – a couple forged by mutual needs. Others featured are a recovering drug addict who works  in a pychiatric hospital (and volunteers at the Refettorio),  a wheel-chair bound  Senegalese woman who dreams of becoming a model,  a former sex worker with a child, and a Middle Eastern refugee  who has access to a car where he sleeps. The difficulty of getting a place in shelter, and the fears of sleeping in one are poignantly underscored.  still from the NFBC for Theater Of Life

From An Abandoned Theater To A Movement

An almost visual lightbulb goes off in Massimo Bottura’s head when he looks at the food waste generated from the 2015 Food Expo in Milan. From this flash of light, he and Lara Gilmore team up with a priest dedicated to helping destitute people in his parish to found the Refettorio Ambrosiano in an outlying district of Milan. An abandoned theater (hence the title of the film) is cleaned, a kitchen built, communal tables set with flowers, and art placed on the walls. Volunteers serve and converse with all gathered at the tables.  Sharp commentary from the rock star chefs is interspersed with some quite succinct reflections from the featured refugees and homeless folks. Prejudices among the diners are highlighted too. 

 Alain Ducasse observes that about half the world is overeating, while the rest struggle for not enough. Still, he gives the last word to Bottura, who insists that high-end food needs to be more than aesthetic: “It must have an ethical meaning, too.”

From A Filmed Event To An Organization

Take the best of the ingredients from every stage of its lifespan. That’s what the real beauty is: to make something valuable out of something that might be seen as not having any value at all.”

Massimo Bottura
The group powering all is Food For Soul, although Theater of Life records few details about its foundation.  We know that Food For Soul grew out of that moment in Milan in 2016.  Its participants recognize that food itself cannot eradicate the causes of world hunger.  It focuses, rather, on using food waste to develop  inclusive community dining in any locale. It is more than a food bank, as it utilizes traditional non profit organizations, designers, artists, and food purveyers to nurture smaller spaces with volunteers and paid staff (and certainly use the star power of top chefs) so that people in need are not only fed but also become part of a community, form friendships, and bring support to each other. Food For Soul is now operating the original Refettorio in Milan, one in the crypt of La Madeleine in Paris, another in Rio De Janiero and London.  Plans for more are clearly in the works. Their Social Tables program creates partnerships with existing organizations and spaces to strengthen a variety of community dining programs.  In the center of Naples, Made In Cloister combines a weekly meal from food waste with other artistic events.  While in Bologna, Food For Soul has helped to expand the regular lunch service to also include a weekly dinner (again from food waste)  for socially vulnerable families, provided by Antoniano Onlus.
While in Bottura’s hometown, Modena, Food For Soul has partnered with  Fondazione Auxilium, which produces inexpensive lunch services for paying customers,  so that now, in addition,  about 70 guests in need from the local community  can enjoy a weekly “evening of good food and welcoming conviviality”. 

It reminds me of Hermann Gmeiner and his groundbreaking social work in post-WWII  Europe.  He founded and oversaw a foundation built on a family-based care concept with a mother, a house, brothers and sisters, and a village.  Hundreds of orphaned war children in Austria and Germany were placed in homes spread out in villages  with a mother and anywhere from 4 to 10 “siblings” The children stayed in these homes, went to school locally, graduated and became independent. The village was their permanent community, their surrogate mother, there to love, feed, and provide the care needed from a parent. .  I grew up in post-war Germany (and remember seeing this first hand), and my parents were so impressed with Gmeiner’s program that our family donated to SOS Children’s Villages for decades. 


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