The Refettorios

From Milano to Montréal, Italian chef Massimo Bottura is creating social tables that combine art, food, design, and charity.

Text—Juliette Leblanc
Photos—Angelo Dal Bo

Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s reputation is set—there’s nothing left to prove. His Michelin star restaurants—think of the famous Osteria Francescana, in Modena—have received every possible accolade, and continue to delight foodies all over the world. So what do you do when everything’s been won? How do you extend your talents to reach new areas of society?

Bottura explains that a chef’s role goes well beyond his or her repertoire of recipes. For him this became clear in 2012, when two devastating earthquakes damaged more than 360,000 wheels of parmesan in his native region of Emilia-Romagna. Worried about all their cheese going to waste, the producers turned to Bottura. Without missing a beat, the chef created—and promoted—a risotto recipe calling for large quantities of parmesan. The recipe spread so quickly that within three months, all the damaged wheels had been sold. “Not a single job lost, not a single cheese maker who had to close their doors. More than just a recipe, this was a social act,” explains Bottura.

Refettorio began as a pop-up concept during Expo 2015 in Milan. When he was invited to cook for various official functions, including the grand opening, Bottura used the opportunity to take action. His initial plan? To set up a kitchen in Milan’s central station and invite world-renowned chefs to cook for refugees (who, at the time, were frequently passing through the station on their way to the north of the country)—and to do all this using perfectly good food deemed unsuitable for sale in supermarkets. In this way, he could feed the less fortunate and take a stand against food waste. Pope Francis (!) made a suggestion: why not make this a permanent project? Why not set up the Refettorio in one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the city—Greco—and start a daily business of feeding those in need? And so the Refettorio Ambrosiano was born.

“The word Refettorio comes from the Latin reficere, meaning ‘to re-make’, but also ‘to restore’. It was originally a place where monks gathered together to share their daily meal.”  

At Refettorio Ambrosiano, two chefs cook for a hundred people each day, with the help of local volunteers. Bottura didn’t want to create a functional, impersonal soup kitchen: in his words, he wanted to offer a chance for people whose existence was defined by constant rejection to sit down to a delicious meal in a beautiful place. The food supplies, which are either nearing their expiry date, misshapen by food industry standards, or damaged, are once again supplied by a supermarket.

Since then Bottura has set up a foundation—Food for Soul—to spread the concept to other cities. The Refettorio Gastromotiva began during the Olympics in Rio in 2016, with the goal of countering food waste, malnutrition, and social exclusion. Diverting the food from landfill is as important as the promotion and restitution of human dignity. The chefs that work here come from underprivileged areas of Brazil.

In London, Refettorio Felix (2017) works each month to transform over 2800 pounds of food destined for landfill into meals for disadvantaged populations. The centre also offers showers, clean clothes, and certified mental health services. A similar initiative was set up in the crypt of a Parisian church in 2018. In short, the concept is spreading rapidly, capturing the interest of chefs who want to have a positive impact on their communities. The first North American Refettorio was inaugurated in March in Mérida, Mexico, and two more are set to open in the USA in 2020, one in San Francisco and the other in Harlem, New York. 

A Montréal version is also on the menu for the fall of 2020. Well-known local chefs have voiced their enthusiasm for the Refettorio, which will be able to host 90 guests, twice a day. Candide restaurant’s John Winter Russell (read his profile in Issue 06 of BESIDE Magazine), will manage the operation.

Beyond their human and alimentary aspects, the Refettorios include a purely aesthetic component as well, whether in terms of the design of the space they occupy, or in the works of art that decorate them. Everyone, according to Bottura, has a right to beauty.


In response to the current social distancing due to COVID-19, Massimo Bottura is publishing a series of Instagram live titled Kitchen Quarantine, from his home kitchen.


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