Massimo Bottura Is Giving the Soup Kitchen a Major Upgrade

With the help of international artists and designers, the award-winning Italian chef is refashioning the institution of hunger relief to inspire dignity through design.

With the help of international artists and designers, the award-winning Italian chef is refashioning the institution of hunger relief to inspire dignity through design.

Chef Massimo Bottura has been receiving a lot of attention lately. In 2015, he starred in the first episode of Netflix’s acclaimed Chef’s Table series; a year later, his 12-table Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, won the title of World’s Best Restaurant. (It had already earned a three-star rating from Michelin in 2011.) Together, the accolades have secured Bottura’s reputation as a pioneer of modernist regional cooking that only a few can afford, but they’ve also helped him whip up support to feed thousands of the less privileged through his drop-in dining halls—elevated soup kitchens conceived to restore the mental and physical well-being of the food-insecure through contemporary design, inspired cooking, and thoughtful table service.

Bottura’s mission began as a response to Milan Expo 2015, an Epcot Center of designer pavilions devoted to the glory of international cuisines, themed “Feed the Planet, Energy for Life!” His iteration sat across town in an impoverished corner of northern Milan—a refurbished theater donated by the Catholic church and furnished through the generosity of Italy’s most iconic contemporary artists and designers. The declaration “No More Excuses” was emblazoned in neon across the side of the building, the work of artist Maurizio Nannucci. Bottura named the venue Refettorio Ambrosiano, and welcomed the world’s best chefs, Daniel Humm and Alain Ducasse among them, to join him. Together they transform ingredients sourced from the Expo’s daily surplus into impromptu three-course meals served at communal tables by Terry Dwan, Fabio Novembre, Piero Lissoni, and other boldfaced designers. Just as paying customers who wait a year for a table at Osteria Francescana are rewarded with Bottura’s revolutionary approach to local ingredients while appreciating the works of Gavin Turk and Maurizio Cattelan, the chef believes that those lost in the system deserve no less.

From Left: Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan. Chef Massimo Bottura.

The success of this prototype resulted in Bottura’s latest cookbook—published this November, Bread is Gold collects the star chefs’ inspired and spontaneous recipes for assorted leftover ingredients—and laid the groundwork for launching similar dining halls under the nonprofit Food for Soul, helmed by his wife and business partner, Lara Gilmore.

Over the past two years, Food for Soul has opened a pair of additional dining halls, each raising enough attention to help fund the next. During the 2016 Summer Olympics, Refettorio Gastromotiva opened in the Lapa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, conceived as a translucent light box by Gustavo Cedroni of Metro Architects and furnished by the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who paired contributions from the Campana Brothers and Maneco Quinderé with his own chocolate syrup triptych of “The Last Supper.” In London’s affluent Earl’s Court, interior designer Ilse Crawford partnered with the nonprofit to resuscitate the St. Cuthbert’s Community Centre from its institutional malaise.

Lara Gilmore, Bottura's wife and business partner.

“It’s often difficult to justify beauty in a world run by spreadsheets,” laments Crawford, whose Studioilse imbued the project with the same intimate domesticity it has applied to elite social hubs like Soho House New York and Duddell’s Arts Club in Hong Kong. “Beauty is such a basic thing and evokes such a primal response, but it’s become hijacked by accountants. That’s what I like about Massimo. He also believes that creating beautiful spaces where people can share a meal together in comfort reinforces their humanity.”

Food for Soul continues to spread Bottura’s gospel in major cities around the world—future construction is planned for Montreal and Thessaloniki, Greece, this year, and for the United States and Berlin in 2019; Tokyo is in the works for the 2020 Summer Olympics—and he continues to pick up apostles to contribute to his cause in each new place where he touches down. Recalling an October trip to Paris, Bottura says he toured a potential venue with his latest partner, the French artist JR. “I told him, ‘Just wait, you have to meet another friend of mine.’” A few minutes later, François Pinault arrived. The billionaire honorary chairman of Kering, owner of luxury brands such as Gucci and Balenciaga, spent two hours with the artist and chef before declaring that he’d give them any support they would need.

A view of the mural by Luca Zamoc and Luca Lattuga at Social Tables Ghirlandina in Modena, Italy.

But Bottura and Gilmore know that not every venue requires years of planning and rounds of funding to make a positive impact. In May of 2016, they opened Social Tables Antoniano in Bologna, and Social Tables Ghirlandina seven months later, just a few blocks from Osteria Francescana. As Food for Soul’s latest endeavor, Social Tables is meant to refresh the aesthetic of charity kitchens already in operation, like the backroom of a canteen in Modena that serves low-cost hot lunches popular with office workers and university students. “Whether they’re Refettorios or Social Tables, our goal is the same,” says Gilmore. “By adding art and value to design, communities can rely on these spaces to serve as cultural centers as well as fight against food waste and social isolation.”

The walls of Ghirlandina are now embellished with frescoes depicting the best-known miracle of St. Geminanus, patron saint of Modena. The immersive landscape—completed this year by local street artists Luca Zamoc and Luca Lattuga—shows him saturating the city in a fog to protect its residents from an invasion by Attila the Hun. Similarly, Bottura’s carefully crafted environments now cloak diners in the reassurance that Modena always has and always will take care of its own—with food to restore their health, and beauty their faith.

Studioilse’s design for Refettorio Felix, in London.
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