a taste of The NYT Food Festival: Massimo Bottura & Ruth Reichl talk food waste, the contradiction of hospitality, & a shifting chef identity

When asked about food waste, Massimo Bottura is quick to spurt out a laundry list of staggering statistics: 7 billion people on earth. 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually. 33% of production effectively down the drain. 860 million people without anything to eat. 

And at the inaugural New York Times Food Festival earlier this month, when Bottura — the chef-owner of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy — spoke on a panel alongside Ruth Reichl and Melissa Clark, he got so animated when speaking about it that he had to take off his jacket. He rolled up his sleeves, got comfortable in his chair, and took a swig of water—his commitment to the conversation mirroring his commitment to the cause — a cause, mind you, that he was in New York for less than 24 hours to talk about. But then again, if you’ve ever read about Bottura or watched his Chef’s Table episode on Netflix, you’ll know that this is not entirely uncharacteristic of him. 

“When I hear someone say, I’m too busy, I can’t come, I’m like…okay, if you want to be there, you will be there. No more excuses, that’s it,” he said, to the echo of thunderous applause from the crowd, of which not a single seat was empty. 

Bottura’s commitment coupled with his boundless energy are the very ingredients that have fueled the growth of Food For Soul, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2015 with the goal of upcycling surplus food by way of refettorios, or soup kitchens, in major cities around the world — refettorio coming from the Latin reficere, meaning to “remake” or “restore.” 

Bottura’s work as one of the world’s best chefs-turned-social activist underscores a larger cultural shift in the identity of what a chef is — or can be — in 2019, a shift that Reichl, in her 50 years of writing about food, has witnessed first hand. 

“I’m just thinking how much things have changed,” she said, reflecting on her career thus far. “50 years ago, when you went to a chef and asked for a comment, you got a yes or no. You did not get this kind of articulate vision. What has happened in the ensuing time is that chefs themselves have changed. We now have this incredibly bright, visionary, articulate group of men and women who are running the kitchen. And if you’re running a kitchen, you can’t not think about the contradiction that you’re putting out beautiful food for very rich people. And it bothers you in a world where half the people go hungry, it hurts you. People who care about food are generous. Hunger is all of our issue. And chefs didn’t used to think about that. They’d just put their heads down and cook.” 

While there have been numerous food rescue organizations sprout up over the years such as City Harvest and Scholars of Sustenance (SOS), Bottura’s work extends beyond the act of gathering surplus food and re-distributing it to those in need. That’s charity. He’s interested in culture.

“We have to feed the people with culture,” Bottura explained, “with the idea that wasting food is not acceptable in 2019. We have to change minds. Culture is the most important ingredient of the chef of the future, which is why ours is not a charity project, ours is a cultural project.”

And perhaps that’s why, unlike traditional soup kitchens, there’s no waiting in lines, no trays, no assembly-style serving at the refettorios.

“We want to create amazing meals for people sitting at the table. For volunteers to say ‘Welcome, welcome. Enjoy your dinner’” said Bottura, gesticulating to the audience with both hands outstretched. “We broke the walls and we opened the kitchen, cooking in front of the people and inviting them to sit around the table and share in the fine dining experience. In a world in which people want to build walls, we break walls. We open our arms and we say welcome, welcome everyone.” 

A cultural shift, indeed. 

While Bottura is changing minds about waste and what a soup kitchen can be, what it boils down to, argued Reichl, is a shift in what food can be in the broadest sense of the word. What it boils down to is the revolutionary premise that food is more than pure sustenance. It’s an unbridled force in the world. 

“We please people every day,” she said, referring to those in the hospitality space. “So how do we take this and change it from something that is a kind of alms for the poor to something where we say that we want you to experience food the way that we do and maybe that will change you in some way. It’s a very ambitious idea. It’s expanding what a restaurant can be.” 

Bottura was quick to agree. 

“It’s much more than simple food,” he explained. “It’s touching your heart. It’s touching the chord of the unexpected, and this is the way we’re expanding and trying to feed the people of the world. We’re trying to move the refettorio experience into every dark place to bring light and make everyone shine.” 

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