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Rio 2016: Serving up the Olympics' vast vat of wasted food for those homeless who need it

An Italian chef is taking the vast amount of food wasted by the Olympics and putting it to good use

Ian Herbert
Rio de Janeiro
Monday 09 January 2017 15:13 GMT
Rio free restaurant

They don’t accept unsightly potatoes in the Olympic Village - even when there are 18,000 athletes, coaches and officials to feed each day. So they discard them, along with any fruit which is a little too soft and the tons of bread, tomatoes, cabbage, pasta and apples which go unused. They’re all a wasted by-product of the need to feed the fastest, strongest, fittest people on the planet, while poorest starve a few miles away.

It has taken someone from outside of the sporting bubble - Massimo Bottura, the distinguished Italian chef, whose Osteria Francescana in Modena was this summer named the best in the world – to see how waste pours out of the bloated Olympic machine. He wanted to create something from the waste. The outcome has been food surpassing anything the Peatys, Murrays and Farahs of this world will have enjoyed in the past 11 days.

On an unused piece of wasteland in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Bottura has thrown up Refettorio Gastromotiva, a restaurant where, for the past two weeks, Olympic ingredients have been served to those who are in the most desperate need of it, with 70 at each sitting.

The idea has gathered momentum. Chefs from across South and Central America have been arriving daily to join Bottura for the ultimate test of their profession: what to prepare when no one can foretell what the delivery lorry from the Olympic Village will arrive with next.

Volunteers have followed them, to take up an orange apron and wait on. Your correspondent was among them on Monday night, when a tomato, beetroot and mozzarella starter was followed by chicken served in one of two Mexican mole sauces. Then, a papaya and lemongrass or plum sorbet. All created from the vast supplies of fruit deemed inadequate for athletes.

The Italian Prime Minister has arrived. The German vice-chancellor has tweeted. The Brazilian actress and television host Regina Casé dropped in. The word has spread. But needless to say the Olympic movement has not been moved to help.

Bottura’s collaborator David Hertz, a distinguished Brazilian chef and social entrepreneur, approached the Rio Olympics organising committee and the IOC, and found a brick wall. “No-one was interested. There was nothing,” says Hertz, whose past decade has been spent in this country, training those from difficult backgrounds to work as kitchen assistants and spreading the message about good food.

No-one was interested. There was nothing.

David Hertz on the Olympic organisers' involvement

Bottura saw the scale of the Olympic waste on the morning he threw open Refettorio – named after the word the Italian monks used for the place they ate, replenishing body and soul. The lorry-load of surplus he’d arranged to take delivery of was so packed that he did not have the capacity to use it all. So they sent it to other organisations who distribute food in this city of deep social deprivation.

Bottura’s prototype for all of this was a restaurant built in an abandoned theatre on the periphery of the Milan Expo last year, when an event committed to ideas did not seem to see it was drowning in a reservoir of food waste.

“The Olympics are important for this. It can be an amplifier,” Bottura says, amid frantic preparations for serving the 70 diners who are about to arrive. “But they are only the start. It is about more than feeding people. We want to rebuild the dignity of people. We want people to walk in and say: ‘Wow! They are serving us?’ We want them to see what food can be. We already see it every night here. They are shaking their heads.”

The vision includes redefining what a soup kitchen might look like. “Why should a soup kitchen be ugly? Why should people eat on plastic plates and with plastic knives. Are we becoming inhuman?”

So he and Hertz have created a light, airy space fit for kings and queens, the walls graced with artworks commissioned by Bottura for this purpose. There is a mural of dripping chocolate based on the Last Supper scene by the celebrated Sao Paulo artist Vik Muniz. A frieze by the celebrated French art photographer JR captures the faces of the restaurant staff - recruited from difficult backgrounds to work here, become chefs and communicate their knowledge back to the places they came from. The frieze adorns the upper reaches of the walls. “The culture is at the heart of this,” says Bottura.

The Italian inspires, drives, imagines – and he shouts. The standards he sets do not change because those who will be serving have never sat in a restaurant. “Dai, dai, dai,” he shouts. (“Come on!”)

We are behind schedule, the onion being dressed onto the toasts with Mexican sauce of beans, cream and pico de gallo starters is not as abundant as it should be. A sink is full of unwashed pans. “Washing up! Keep everything organised,” he demands.

Kitchen staff prepare food at Refettorio Gastromotiva

The Brazilians cannot quite compute that he and Hertz have managed to accomplish this. Hertz certainly has the track record. His non-profit organisations Gastromotiva, runs four culinary schools in Brazil, from which 2,500 people have graduated. He branched out into Mexico City, with its first set of graduates last month, and will open in Cape Town next month.

Yet no investors in Brazil seemed interested. “There was no trust here,” says Cristina Reni, of Food for Soul, the organisation through which Bottura promotes awareness of food waste and hunger. It took an Italian company – Pastificio Di Martino – to help.

Bottura has put up most of the investment himself, though the time left to build the airy industrial shed with exposed brick walls and light plywood furniture was just 55 days. Only one Brazilian construction firm would touch that timescale. There is still no electricity supply. Power generators are having to do. There was also an overrun of nearly £150,000 on the project which they are trying to make god on through donations.

The benefits revealed themselves in the faces of those who were served, who are unaccustomed to cutlery being collected with the plates after the main course. There is a ten-minute briefing for serving staff, though it doesn’t include the English for ‘more water?’ There is a momentary of confusion at the table. Then the diners understand me and grin. “The best! The best!” laughs one, as he leaves.

There are subtleties to the way the serving works. The ingredients are not disclosed until the end. Revealing that a dish contains banana peel may make diners, unaccustomed to Bottura and Hertz, disinclined to eat it, says Gastromotiva’s Nicola Gryczka.

The frantic task of delivering three daily servings will continue until the Paralympic Games are complete. Then this place will stand on its own two feet – funded, Bottura and Hertz fervently hope, by donations and by opening the doors to a lunchtime paying clientele who will be asked to make a donation for pay for those who will arrive in the evening and have nothing.

It is when the diners have left that the volunteers sit down to eat. A taste beyond the wildest imaginings of athletes, stuck in the dull homogeneity of the Olympic Village, with its perfect potatoes .

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