By MASSIMO BOTTURA
WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE of restaurants—what chefs will be cooking in the years to come—the first thing that comes to mind is garbage: day-old bread, potato peels, fish bones, wilted vegetables. We currently produce enough food to feed the world’s 7.3 billion people, and yet 795 million are hungry, according to the United Nations. The reason is waste: a 2013 U.N. report reveals that 550 million tons of food are discarded by distributors, supermarkets and consumers every year. The U.S. and EU have pledged to reduce food waste in the next 10 to 15 years. This is where chefs come in.
This year the 20th anniversary of my restaurant, Osteria Francescana, coincided with the Expo Milano 2015. In an effort to address the expo’s ambitious theme—“Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”—Francescana collaborated with the Catholic charity Caritas Ambrosiana and the culture maven Davide Rampello to turn a renovated theater in the Greco quarter into a think tank and experimental soup kitchen. This collaboration was baptized Refettorio Ambrosiano after Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint. The word Refettorio has roots in the Latin word refice, to restore, and Refettorio Ambrosiano runs on salvaged waste and volunteer labor, including stints from the best chefs in the world.
In May, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park made a sweet pudding from day-old, discarded bread. In June, René Redzepi of Noma turned black bananas into mouth-watering banana bread. In July, Daniel Patterson of Coi produced the quintessential minestrone from a crate of dismal-looking vegetables. Osteria Francescana made weekly broths from vegetable scraps and peelings. The guests were not fine-dining regulars, but a selection of Milan’s homeless community. What surprised us all was just how fabulous salvaged food can become.
Every Refettorio Ambrosiano recipe is an ode to imperfection with revolutionary potential; these dishes could change the way we feed the world, because they can be cooked by anyone, anywhere, on any budget. For families in need, it’s a way to bring dignity back to the table—dignity based not on the quality of ingredients, but on the quality of ideas.
Chefs have greater social responsibility than ever before. Celebrity status has allowed some of us to become ambassadors of culture and advocates for artisans, ethics and change. But have we spent enough time and energy considering the waste that results from our work? Imagine a school where young chefs are taught to be as resourceful with ingredients as they are with ideas. Imagine chefs embracing imperfect, discarded food and treating it with the same reverence they would a rack of lamb or ripe tomato. Imagine changing the perceptions about what is beautiful, nutritious and worthy of being shared.
Cooking is a call to act. At its best it can unite, revive and restore. As populations grow and food supplies are threatened, we are called to educate and spread ideas that will be the motivational force behind the evolution of our kitchens, our communities and our future. Let us begin by turning our waste—in our homes and our restaurants—into food that’s ethical and delicious. Because something salvaged is something gained.