TORONTO — Massimo Bottura, the chef behind the eminently successful Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, was in Toronto earlier this week to promote his new book, Bread is Gold. As part of the promotional tour, Bottura made a pitstop at George Brown College, where he participated on a panel featuring chefs John Higgins, Antonio Park and Jeremy Charles.
Moderated by writer and teacher Claire Tansey, the panel touched on a variety of topics including the “Refettorio” project developed by Bottura as part of the 2015 World Expo in Milano and the growing preoccupation with food waste. “This is the most important book of the past 30 years,” said Bottura, explaining that currently 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted. “One quarter of the food we waste can feed 860 million people.” In addition to running the highly rated Osteria Fransecana, Bottura is also a social activist, creating the concept of the Refettorio Ambrosiano as a way to feed the hungry from local homeless shelters, while shining the spotlight on food waste.
John Higgins, director of the George Brown Culinary Arts program was part of that project and says it changed his life. “I was totally overwhelmed when I was asked to go to Milan. We improvised with ingredients; it was a lot of fun and energy. It was the most satisfying thing I’ve done. It was such a high,” said Higgins, explaining that the day’s meals were dictated by the ingredients that came off the truck everyday. “We created something on the spur of the moment.”
Jeremy Charles, chef/owner of Raymond’s echoed the sentiments. “We were cooking on our toes with whatever was available. It wasn’t a black box but it felt so natural. There was a sense of appreciation — to give people dignity.”
Based on the success of the Milan project, the concept has now been expanded and exported around the world. Antonio Park, who runs a few restaurants in Montreal, and has recently joined Kasa Mota in Toronto, cooked at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He believes food is all about making connections. “When you start cooking for them, they open up to you. The opportunity to connect with these people is inspirational.”
Bottura challenged Toronto to come up with its own version of the Refettorio project. Higgins agreed “There’s a lot of opportunity for [food] recovery in Toronto.” Park added, “There’s no reason we can’t have one in every province.”
While Bottura has been instrumental in getting this communal-dining project for the less fortunate off the ground, and is the founder (along with his wife) of a non-profit association called Food for Soul, whose aim it is to make places like these more accessible to more people around the world, he’s quick to say, “The project is not about me; it’s about us,” urging the food community to work together. He also offered tips to the students and special guests in the audience on how to ensure they don’t waste food. “Get close to farmers, cheesemakers, fishermen and grocery-store owners. Get to know them as my mother did. Buy seasonal and buy the right amount of product. You eat better, you save money and you stop waste.” He urged students to be “humble, be passionate and dream big. Look in the mirror in the morning and understand who you are and what you want to do.”