Dumpster to dining room: Chefs take the food waste challenge

Uplifting and elegant: Refettorio Ambrosiano offers food for the homeless.
Uplifting and elegant: Refettorio Ambrosiano offers food for the homeless. 

Refettorio Ambrosiano​ is not your average soup kitchen. Famous Italian artists Enzo Cucchi​ and Mimmo Paladino​ have exhibited everywhere from MoMA in New York and the Tate in London but they're also hanging in the newly renovated Teatro Greco. Attached to a church in a working-class Milan suburb, the once disused 1930s theatre has been transformed into an uplifting and elegant dining hall for the vulnerable and homeless.

Tying on an apron each day in the Refettorio's well-appointed commercial kitchen (installed where the stage once was) is a stellar rotation of chefs reading like the guest list from the annual World's 50 Best Restaurants awards night. From Noma's Rene Redzepi to international Michelin man Alain Ducasse, leading lights of global gastronomy have committed to assisting Italy's Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana (currently second on That List) with an ambitious project, cooking for the food-waste cause.

"It wasn't hard to convince the chefs," says Bottura, "They're all aware of the problem of hunger and waste. Fixing things is what we do every day in the kitchen. We solve problems, feed people, and have to think about how to make our kitchens more sustainable." 

Former theatre Refettorio Ambrosiano.
Former theatre Refettorio Ambrosiano. 

Each morning at the Refettorio, a van arrives carrying mostly overripe fruit and soon-to-expire meat and dairy products otherwise destined for supermarket dumpsters. As with the MasterChef Mystery Box, the guest chef of the day will turn the day's delivery into dinner for up to 100 Caritas "guests" (mostly men, either homeless or from nearby shelters) and occasionally, lunch for school kids in church holiday care programs. "It's to teach them that delicious food can be made with not-so-beautiful ingredients," says project manager Cristina Reni. "And that nothing needs to be thrown away."

Food waste is increasingly on the public agenda. And so it should be. In Italy alone, it's estimated that a quarter of each week's shopping is thrown away – a staggering €8.7 billion  worth ($13.2 billion) each year. Australian figures are equally scary and on a world level, the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) warns, food loss and waste totals $1300 billion annually.

And while industry, governments, the UN and the not-for-profit sector have launched initiatives to reduce those stats (with greater or lesser impact), chefs with influence are also taking the challenge. Recent projects include Redzepi's zero waste policy at Noma, New York author-chef Dan Barber's waste-focused pop-up, wastEd, and here, activist Joost Bakker's​ now-closed Brothl​ project in Melbourne. 

Rene Redzepi and Massimo Bottura at work.
Rene Redzepi and Massimo Bottura at work. 

Subtitled "Food For Soul", the Refettorio Ambrosiano was launched in partnership with the Caritas charity to coincide with Expo2015 - the World Expo held every five years and this year, in Milan. Food for the project comes from the Expo's Coop supermarket hall. Inspired by the Expo theme, "Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life", the ever-energetic Bottura rallied everyone - from equipment suppliers and chefs to artists and designers. Guests are seated at beautifully designed wooden tables and eat from china plates, not plastic. 

"This is the challenge and the beauty of this project," Bottura says. "It's about respect and culture and dignity – for the ingredients, for each other's cooking and for our guests." 

Plated as if in a three-star restaurant, three-course dinners – primo, secondo, dolce – might include anything from Redzepi's superb vegetable broth (vegetable peelings, black pepper, burnt limes) to French chef, Yannick Alleno's​ (Pavillon LeDoyen, Paris, three Michelin stars) glorious French jus (simmered from the carcasses) on grilled supermarket chicken. 

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With mountains of soon-to-pass-use-by-date mince, burgers are something of a theme. With the Osteria Francescana pastry-chef, Redzepi's Australian sous-chef Beau Clugston​ baked individual brioche buns for each patty (served buttered with house-made tomato sauce, parmesan and grilled eggplant). Japan's Yoshihiro Narisawa made his own teriyaki burger sauce. 

Overripe fruit makes its way into sorbet – there's a donated ice-cream machine – and endless variations on fruit salad. (Redzepi adorned his with foraged pine shoots and wild rose petals left from a grand dinner he'd cooked at Milan's Bulgari restaurant the night before.) And old bread makes a daily appearance – to thicken soups, bind burgers or as dessert – tres leches by Gaston Acurio's (Astrid y Gaston, Lima and worldwide), grilled and sweetened pain perdu from Alleno.

In essence, it's all about good old-fashioned cooking – the kind our frugal grandmothers used to practise, perhaps; transforming what Barber calls "lowly" or "uncoveted" ingredients into something delicious. Converting Blue Hill, his Manhattan restaurant, into a shabby chic pop-up earlier this year, Barber's WastEd was designed not to sermonise, he says, but to raise consciousness about food waste.

"More often than not, what we consider "waste" – be it a fish head or a broccoli core – has enormous culinary potential," says Barber, who served wastEd guests everything from burgers made with juice-bar fruit and vegetable pulp to a salad of fruit and vegetable peelings, and tossed with a foam of canned chickpea water. (Note: I dined there and it was all delicious.)

Closer to home, chefs are also rallying. Food rescue charity OzHarvest will next weekstage a giant soup kitchen in Sydney's Martin Place – and other events nationally – under the banner Think.Eat.Save, aided by some of the country's leading chefs. They are also holding a series of dinners inspired by humble ingredients and the zero waste theme, with guest chef Diego Munoz​ from Peru – head chef at Acurio's famed Astrid y Gaston in Lima.

"It's not up to us as chefs to take responsibility," Redzepi says. "It's about everyone taking responsibility to make things better." But there's no denying that chefs' actions are powerful in setting the course. And, at the very least, it's an inspiration to us all to remember that deliciousness is in the eye of the beholder. Or simply, that somewhere in that fridge full of limp carrots, mushy fruits, ageing lettuce and mouldy cheese rinds, there's the makings of a three-hat meal.

Diego Munoz at harvested
6pm Wednesday, July 29, 2015
56 Harris Street, Pyrmont
$200 a person including wine
To book email events@ozharvest.org or call 1800 108 006 

Diego Munoz at Rockpool Est 1989
6pm Sunday, August 2, 2015
11 Bridge Street, Sydney
$400 a person including wine from TarraWarra Estate
To book call (02) 9252 1888