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In a High-Class Paris Neighborhood, a Star Chef Feeds the Homeless

How Massimo Bottura’s refettorios hope to launch a food revolution

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The internationally known and yet anonymous artist who goes by the moniker JR hoists a platter of gâteau de chou (“cabbage cake”) up in the air and catwalks it through the new Refettorio Paris. Located in the historic Madeleine church in the 8th arrondissement, the windowless space features a long, narrow dining room with a vaulted ceiling and stone walls, and JR is prowling it like a runway.

Chaud devant!” calls the “photograffeur”-cum-volunteer waiter, as he hawks his wares at this new community kitchen that is open only to refugees, the homeless, and the socially vulnerable, who eat without charge. “Gâteau de chou!”

“It’ll be great if JR drops it,” a pastry chef says, watching expectantly from the sidelines.

It’s dinnertime on Friday during the second day of the restaurant, a project of chef Massimo Bottura’s nonprofit Food for Soul. As such, it aims to fight against food waste by using surplus food — and the power of celebrity — to feed the hungry. Bottura, whose restaurant Osteria Francescana was rated No. 1 among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016, was inspired during Expo 2015 in Milan (whose theme was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”) to create the first refettorio in the Expo’s host city, followed by Rio, during the Olympic Games, and then London last year.

Earlier in the day, Bottura was relaxing outside of his latest soup kitchen. Dressed in, literally, head-to-toe Gucci (black GucciGhost sweater, Gucci jeans, and Gucci socks), he makes one non-Gucci concession — New Balance sneakers — because wearing Gucci footwear would be, according to the enthusiastic brand ambassador, “too much.” (He is also brand ambassador for Maserati; he describes the gig, which involves driving around in one of the brand’s cars, as “pretty good.” )

Indeed, a good part of Bottura’s life may be spent around luxury. At Osteria Francescana, in Modena, he caters to small group of international elite who can afford to eat (and travel to) the three-Michelin-star restaurant. Nonetheless, Bottura shows an undeniable energy and passion for his nonprofit initiative, which he hopes will one day encompass 50 refettorios worldwide.

“Beauty, no doubt, does not make revolutions,” Bottura said during a Thursday press conference, quoting Camus’s The Rebel. “But a day will come when revolutions will have need of beauty.” That day, Bottura says, is now. He tells the story of a 92-year-old woman at the opening of his London refettorio, who told the opening-day crowd that it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen, that it would create a sense of community and that she could die happy now.

“When you receive a message like this from a 92-year-old, you understand that beauty can change the world,” he said. “Beauty is not just for rich people. Through beauty, you can rebuild people’s dignity.”

The gâteau de chou, luckily, arrives safely back in the kitchen, and is then cut up into portions and kept warm in an oven. The cabbage cake — made, like all of the dishes at the restaurant, from products that would otherwise be destined for the trash — is basically a sort of lasagna, with curly leaves of Savoy cabbage serving as the noodles and layered with an herbed pork sausage filling.

The guest chef for this evening, Christopher Hache, the charming 36-year-old head chef of the luxury Hôtel de Crillon, has spent hours lovingly concocting his creation, blanching the cabbage leaves, fishing them out of the water with a skimmer, adding the layers, baking it and finally unmolding the “gâteau” with calm professionalism. Inherent in the refettorio’s mission is cutting down on the 1.3 billion tons of food that are wasted globally each year. At the restaurant, chefs work with surprise daily deliveries from supermarkets and other donors, without the ability to order even staples. Ultimately it will be Maxime Bonnabry-Duval, the full-time chef after Bottura’s three-person team has returned to Italy, who will deal regularly with the unorthodox sourcing method — a task, Bonnabry-Duval says, that “will definitely be a challenge.”

Among the 70 or so diners who have come this evening’s seating — all guests are given a card by various nonprofit organizations that gives them access to the restaurant — the cabbage cake sees its share of success. (For the single seating of the three-course dinner, diners are offered some alternatives for the main course.) Because some guests are Muslim, there are also many takers for the roast beef option and the pesto penne.

The pasta’s popularity is so unexpected that it sends the kitchen staff scrambling, but not without some intermittent clowning backstage. Italian chef Pasquale Torrente chases JR through the kitchen and menaces him with a three-foot-long wooden spatula while Bottura films the antics.

“It’s crazy here,” Bottura says, emerging from the kitchen. Torrente brings a large pot of pasta out to the staging area. Bottura himself adds the final dusting of Parmesan after the dishes are plated and taking to the dining room.

“It’s wonderful. Everyone is speaking at the same time — in three languages,” comments the elegantly dressed Carole Doménech-Cabaud. “There’s so much love, so much energy.” Doménech-Cabaud is the director of the 49-year-old Foyer de la Madeleine, which offers 250 lunches on weekdays for a reasonable 9-euro ($11) tab (plus a 7-euro yearly fee) to the elderly and people who work in the neighborhood, while providing 1-euro ($1.23) meals to the needy. Her group has agreed to share the venerable site with the Refettorio Paris, which is open only for dinner. (The refettorio’s goal is to serve 100 meals daily.)

Meanwhile, Bottura, JR (whom Bottura met during the Rio endeavor), and Torrente (whose specialty is pesto with a touch of anchovy sauce, which he’s brought with him from Italy) continue to noisily make pasta. Hache looks on as a good part of his gâteau de chou starts to dry out in the oven. “I made 100 servings of pork,” the Michelin-credentialed chef says regretfully. “It’s a beautiful gâteau.”

It’s close to 7:20, and guests, including families with children, have been arriving for almost an hour. They’ve finished their butternut squash soup and some still need their main dish. A volunteer brings a boy in a green sweatshirt jacket back to meet Bottura. “He’s hungry,” the volunteer says.

Two men at a table in the rear, invited by the homeless association Agora, are aware that a “well-known” chef is at the helm this evening. The older of the two men, who has come from the relatively distant 18th arrondissement, says of the guest chef, “He knows how to do his job well.”

The fact that the satisfied guest wasn’t from the neighborhood isn’t surprising. The 8th arrondissement is one of the most expensive in Paris: The Madeleine shares a square with luxury food shops like Fauchon and the chocolatier Patrick Roger, and is just west of the Place Vendôme, home of the city’s high-end jewelers. Placing the refettorio here is akin to putting a soup kitchen on Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, across from the Plaza.

Asked about the choice of location, Bottura says breezily, “The Madeleine chose us,” adding that he was won over by the energy of the others involved in the project.

JR, with his connection with Socialist Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, was central to organizing the Paris initiative. “We needed a place that was safe for everyone and to use as an operational base,” says the sunglasses-and-hat-wearing artist, known for fly-posting his photographs in public spaces like graffiti. In addition, the Madeleine already had the infrastructure and a large kitchen, which were central to organizing the project in a lightning-fast five months.

The intention, JR says, is that food trucks will eventually be employed to deliver food to the city’s parks. There is also space alongside the church to park a medical truck that JR envisions helping the city’s migratory populations. (When queried, Bottura’s team demurs, clarifying that the trucks are a proposal, not definite.)

In any case, the diners tonight are satisfied. At the end of the service, the mood is jubilatory, with everyone’s stomach nicely rounded out with banana-cashew-caramel crème brulée with chocolate ice cream (ripe bananas were a last-minute addition when the team ran out of sugar). Hache, his coat already on, is paraded through the dining room. “Le chef! Le chef! Le chef!” Everyone applauds, and some North African women ululate.

A quarter of an hour later, the rest of the kitchen team gets the same treatment (“Les autres chefs! Les autres chefs!” — “The other chefs!”), including Bonnabry-Duval, the full-time chef. For the next two months, Refettorio Paris plans to host three well-known guest chefs per week (this week, Michel Troisgros is slated; elsewhere, chefs like Yannick Alleno, Joan Roca, René Redzepi, and Ana Ros have contributed their time and creativity to Food for Soul, and those contributions are immortalized in the group’s recipe book).

But the real success of the restaurant lies perhaps with the self-effacing Bonnabry-Duval, who will be here long after the press and celebrities have disappeared. Soon, he’ll be face to face with his daily delivery of surprise groceries — and his task of feeding the planet, one plate at a time.

Sono Motoyama is a journalist who lives in the Paris area. Eileen W. Cho is a Korean American photographer based in Paris, France.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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