For chefs, worldwide renown often leads to lucrative expansion deals: Restaurants in tourism capitals like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Vegas, and Dubai are almost a given. That’s one reason why it’s so surprising that Massimo Bottura, the chef at Modena’s Osteria Francescana — one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in Italy, and the world — has expanded in a different way, keeping just one full-service restaurant (with all of 12 tables), while focusing his expansion energy on a nonprofit initiative that aims to feed the hungry.
Lara Gilmore, Bottura’s wife, is the president of Food for Soul, a program that aims to promote awareness of hunger and food waste, while also opening ambitious “community kitchens” for needy patrons. The idea of offering food, in addition to a sense of culture and dignity, began as a happy accident in the run-up to Expo Milano 2015 — when Bottura offered to make a sustainable contribution to the city and its residents, and found eager chef-collaborators like Alain Ducasse. That was followed by Refettorio Gastromotiva, which debuted during the 2016 Olympics. Next is Refettorio Felix in London (which will feature chefs like Ducasse, Clare Smyth, and Daniel Boulud), as well as Stateside expansion, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for more than $500,000. The first two American refettorios are scheduled to open in 2018 and 2019, with seven more locations slated to open around the country. Grub Street sat down with Gilmore and Bottura to talk about international accolades, getting robbed in Rio, and why they’re using their culinary stature to nourish some of the the world’s most in-need diners.
You’re planning to open Food for Soul kitchens in the United States, which were first teased last summer when you posted on Instagram about a meeting with Robert De Niro about a Bronx location.
Lara Gilmore: It won’t happen with Robert. It got blown up on Instagram, and Massimo didn’t know something could blow up like that.
Massimo Bottura: But De Niro is De Niro!
LG: Right now, we’re scouting nine U.S. locations, including the Bronx, but also Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Miami, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It’s important for us to evaluate if our model could have a positive impact on the economy and social fiber of those cities. Our model is more radical because it’s all about bringing people together to share a meal in a beautiful space, and engaging volunteers to be more physically invested in their communities. We need beauty more than we think. It’s one of the few indivisible goods, and so often it’s not given enough value in regards to social change.