Massimo Bottura, the Italian chef who founded a global movement
Massimo Bottura is not your typical celebrity chef. Wearing a pair of dark-framed glasses and an unassuming V-neck sweater as he speaks to an attentive audience at the UN Headquarters in New York, the Italian displays no hint of the flamboyance or kitchen tyranny that helped build the respective reputations of Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay.
Bottura’s fame is not only down to the skills that saw his three-Michelin-star restaurant – Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy – named the world’s best restaurant in 2018 as well as in 2016. He is just as well-known for his selfless commitment to tackling food waste, food insecurity and social exclusion.
Bottura, along with his wife Lara Gilmore, runs Food for Soul, a not-for-profit whose stated goal is to “empower communities to fight food waste through social inclusion”. He has come to the High-Level Political Forum in New York to tell his story at an event organized by UN Environment, with the goal of inspiring further action against food waste.
Bottura had his personal epiphany aroundExpo Milano 2015, a global jamboree that was themed under Feeding the Planet, but drew criticism for its high cost and corporate sponsorship.
“860 million people are undernourished, but we waste 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year. This is not acceptable,” he says. “During the Expo in Milan, I decided to feed the planet my own way, involving all of my best friends to cook the inevitable surplus.”
Bottura set up his first Refettorio (refectory) in Milan’s working-class district of Greco, roping in some of the best chefs in the world to knock up tasty meals from the Expo’s surplus (otherwise going to be wasted) and feed some of society’s most vulnerable sections – including Italy’s growing migrant population. He did not foresee another soup kitchen. Rather, the model was to create a pleasant environment where people could sit down, relax and feel like they belonged.
“We created an amazing space in which we fed the refugees, the migrants and the homeless of Milan,” he says. “We created everything through the quality of the ideas of the chefs, the power of beauty through collaborations with artists and designers, and the value of hospitality. Welcoming people in an amazing space is how you rebuild their dignity.”
Since then, Food for Soul has begun to spread across the world.
“The Mayor of Rio called me asking if I would be able to open another one in Rio during the Olympics,” Bottura says. “After that it became a global movement. Now we have them in Bolgona, Rio, Milan, Paris, and London. Naples is going to open one on 30 September.”
Food for Soul has so far used 45 tonnes of recovered food to feed 150,000 guests, with the involvement of 830 volunteers and 340 guest chefs. But Bottura is far from done. He wants to inspire further action on food waste across society by showing that discarded ingredients that are considered inedible – such as imperfect vegetables or produces beyond arbitrary sell-by dates – can become something delicious and nutritious.
“In the Refettorios, we unload the truck that comes at 9am – full of vegetables, meat and cheese that was going to be wasted – and cook whatever we have,” he says. “We are showing the world that it is an opportunity. An overripe tomato, some breadcrumbs and some zucchini: these are normal ingredients in the hands of a chef.”
The action Bottura wants to inspire is long overdue.
Approximately one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted at an economic cost of $940 billion to farmers, companies, and consumers. Each year, consumers in rich countries waste an estimate 222 million tonnes of food, equal to the net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. This also means a massive impact on the environment – with the energy, water and other inputs used to grow this uneaten food contributing to climate change and resource scarcity.
UN Environment, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, Messe Düsseldorf collaborate on the SAVE FOOD initiative and the Think Eat Save Campaign. The work contributes to Sustainable Development Goal target (12.3) of halving food waste per capita by 2030. UN Environment and FAO are also working on developing a methodology for the target as a part of the One Planet Sustainable Food Systems Programme.
Of course, simply repurposing food waste is not going to fix the problem on its own. Consumers should look at their own consumption profiles, buying only what they need and not throwing out perfectly good leftovers. Supermarkets need to look at their food dating practices and standards for produce to cut back on the amount of food they throw out. And so on down the chain all the way to the farm.
“Food waste by consumers as well as food losses in agriculture, during processing and transportation pose a serious problem at the global level,” says Bernd Jablonowski, Global Portfolio Director, Processing and Packaging at Messe Düsseldorf and founder of the SAVE FOOD initiative. “The rethink in our approach to food has to happen among all those involved in the food value chain – from the political sphere and agriculture to retail and to us as consumers.”
However, there is one commonality that unites everybody, and that is the love of food itself. By reconnecting to the value of food – as Bottura is trying to do – UN Environment believes we can tackle unsustainable food systems and ensure there is enough to go around to fill the bellies of everybody on our growing planet.
“Massimo and others are inspiring people to change,” said UN Environment head, Erik Solheim. “We need to look at how we can make something people can want to be part of. Let’s be inspired by the chefs to bring the change we want to see.”