Chefs like Italy's Massimo Bottura regularly hatch plans for new restaurants all over the world: They build in Dubai, launch in Vegas, test their culinary mettle in London. That’s how dining empires are built. And that’s the typical trajectory of a talent like Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in Modena is No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But Bottura has other ideas about what it means to broaden his reach.
The 53-year-old chef has decided to franchise compassion rather than high-concept cuisine. Last year, Bottura founded a Milan soup kitchen, Refettorio Ambrosiano, focused on zero-waste cooking. Through his and his wife Lara’s nonprofit, Food for Soul, he’s lending recipes and design ideas to a 60-year-old soup kitchen in Bologna called Antoniano. Most recently, he launched a project to feed the poor during the Rio Olympics in partnership with chef and activist David Hertz of Brazil’s Gastromotiva. “This is a cultural project,” Bottura affirms, “not a charity.”
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Bottura’s global soup kitchens got their start at the 2015 Expo Milano, where he enlisted a team of designers and artists to turn an abandoned theater into Refettorio Ambrosiano. Using Expo ingredients that would otherwise have been thrown out, he cooked broths and ragùs, bringing 65 of the best chefs on earth on board to help. “Ninety-nine percent of the people we asked came,” Bottura says. Alain Ducasse prepared Moroccan-inflected meatballs. René Redzepi turned out burgers with eggplant. Daniel Humm prepared trays of lasagna. Each meal made a statement about food waste and equality, treating fresh, delicious and healthy cooking not as a luxury but as a human right.
Long after the Expo has closed, the refettorio remains open; Bottura is working on an Ambrosiano cookbook to be published by Phaidon next year. A maxim he learned from his mother—“Cooking is an act of love”—will guide him as he launches soup kitchens in Modena, Turin and beyond. “I’m talking with chefs, social workers, city councils and partners in the Bronx, Detroit, L.A. and Berlin,” he says. “What makes Food for Soul so exciting is the possibility of inspiring communities everywhere.”