I always felt that cooking meant more than just feeding people. That’s why in 2015, when I was asked to contribute to Expo in Milan, I decided to open the first Refettorio with Caritas Ambrosiana, to express that cooking could also be a call to act and a tool for change – mind, vision, culture, society.
We addressed the issue of food waste through cooking and engaging the community and those most in need. All of these was possible because we did this through beauty. By creating welcoming, well lit and well-designed spaces and gathering diverse people around the dining table we were able to restore dignity and a sense of belonging.
It started as an opportunity, but I would have never imagined that it could become a movement. After Expo, it was clear to me that food could be more: not only a bridge between hunger and waste, but also a bridge for people to create new communities around nourishment. And this is how Food for Soul was born.
BUILDING THE REFETTORIO
The Refettorio Ambrosiano was born in 2015 from the intuitions of chef Massimo Bottura and director Davide Rampello, who immediately involved the Diocese of Milan and in particular Caritas Ambrosiana to create an idea of solidarity that meets art, culture and food, believing that beauty, in all its forms, is a vehicle for promoting dignity.
Refettorio Ambrosiano is located inside the spaces of an ex-theatre in the outskirts of Milan, which had been abandoned for many years. The structure of the 1930s has been completely renovated by Caritas Ambrosiana and Davide Rampello following a project designed by the Polytechnic University of Milan.
BEAUTY AND DESIGN
Five artists and 15 designers helped transform the space of the Refettorio Ambrosiano into an inspiring cultural place by donating artworks and furniture. Carlo Benvenuto, Enzo Cucchi, Maurizio Nannucci, Mimmo Paladino, Mario Bellini, Aldo Cibic, Pierluigi Cerri, Antonio Citterio, Terry Dawn, Michele de Lucchi, Giulio Iacchetti, Piero Lissoni, Alessandro Mendini, Fabio Novembre, Franco and Matteo Origoni, and Patricia Urquiola.
The principle on which Refettorio Ambrosiano was created is simple: sharing a meal around a table is a simple gesture that can help people to connect and communicate. For this reason the thirteen oak tables at Refettorio Ambrosiano were each made by a different designer following the principles of a convent table: solid, stable and suitable for at least eight guests. But the most important thing is that they are designed so that nobody can seat at the head of the table, making guests feel welcome and included.
The decorations on the Porta dell’Accoglienza by Mimmo Paladino are all symbols of things that can be shared, like bread, and are meant to inspire inclusion and togetherness welcoming anyone who sets food inside the Refettorio Ambrosiano.
One of the biggest lessons we learnt at Refettorio Ambrosiano came from the guests. I clearly remember the very first days, when all these people walked in, sat down, ate from their plate and did not speak to each other. But day after day, they started talking, laughing and even giving advice to our guest chefs! It was a party every night. These people who once didn’t dare to look at each other in the eye, were hugging now right in front of me. So I understood that it was not only about feeding people. The way you cook and serve the meal, as well as the surrounding environment, can really make the difference.
This monumental door, named Porta dell'Accoglienza, was created by artist Mimmo Paladino in 2015 and it stands at the entrance of the Refettorio Ambrosiano, welcoming guests as they come in. This door is so much more than just the main access to the Refettorio, it's a commitment by the community to always welcome those who walk through it and a promise that nobody will ever feel left out or unwelcome. The same door is placed in Lampedusa to welcome migrants as they arrive in Italy from North Africa.
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The anchor meal service is aimed at people in difficulty, homeless, elderly, Italian and foreigners. Hot meals are served making the most of the surplus food recovered and collected by Caritas.
But the Refettorio is not only a soup kitchen, it is also a place that promotes education on the theme of food and the fight against food waste and serious marginalization, promoting solidarity. Over the years, numerous events and aggregation activities have been organized aimed at citizens, schools and the neighborhood.
“I could not find the strength to leave the house. The Refettorio gave me a new reason to live. Now, every day, I get in order and go out, because I know there is someone waiting for me."
Eugenia, one of the elderlies in the neighborhood who participates in the workshops.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A GUEST
5 YEARS LATER
Despite the difficult times we are living, the Refettorio Ambrosiano never ceased to offer services that respond to the actual needs of the community.
During the lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, volunteers and staff packed lunch boxes, instead of serving meals - hot and complete meals were prepared inside the Refettorio’s kitchen and then distributed through reception centers, at home or on the street. On average, 90 meals a day have been distributed. At present, the service has re-opened its doors with new measures that could allow guests to feel welcome and safe at the same time.
For us, volunteering gives meaning to life, it represents the desire to give back, to live responsibly and to share with others, even the other volunteers, the effort of serving the community. What we did was simply being responsive by finding new ways to move forward.
Luciano Gualzetti, Director of Caritas Ambrosiana
20,800 meals served to 336 people.
82 volunteers, 6 trainees, 1 volunteer in the framework of the national voluntary service involved.
More than 60 tons of food recovered and distributed.
102 events hosted.
30 training events were organized for 1,244 children and 32 workshops for the elderly
IN OUR FUTURE WE SEE MORE FUTURE
Needless to say, this moment will have long-term effects, especially for the most vulnerable people in our society. I think this fear should be reworked and oriented towards building a better future for everyone, without leaving anyone behind.”