A pop-up project run by the world’s top chefs show us how to make the most of left­overs

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOOD & DRINK - By XAN­THE CLAY

It was half past 10 at St Cuth­bert’s Hall, now home to Re­fet­to­rio Felix. The chefs work­ing in­tently in the kitchen (from Alain Du­casse’s three­Miche­lin-star restau­rants in Lon­don and Paris, and Mas­simo Bot­tura’s three-star Os­te­ria Frances­cana in Mo­dena, Italy) care­fully pat­ted chicken stuff­ing into roasted aubergine slices and sorted let­tuce leaves with sci­en­tific pre­ci­sion.

But the cus­tomers, gath­er­ing in the newly painted eau-de-nil din­ing hall, were not the type to fre­quent Miche­lin-starred restau­rants. St Cuth­bert’s Cen­tre, which for 25 years has been pro­vid­ing them with hot meals, cloth­ing, med­i­cal sup­port and men­tal health ser­vices, de­scribes its clients as “marginalised, vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple”, more than half of them home­less.

Re­fet­to­rio Felix, which launched in Earl’s Court last Mon­day at the start of Lon­don Food Month, is part of Bot­tura’s Food for Soul project, aimed at rais­ing aware­ness of food wastage and hunger. It’s the third “soup kitchen” restau­rant, af­ter Re­fet­to­rio Am­brosiano launched at Expo 2015 in Mi­lan and Re­fet­to­rio Gas­tro­mo­tiva in Rio de Janeiro, which opened dur­ing the 2016 Olympics.

Back in the kitchen, my job was strip­ping the leeks of their outer leaves to re­veal their bright cen­tres, ready for the chefs.

The in­gre­di­ents for the Re­fet­to­rio are pro­vided by the Felix Project, which re­dis­tributes food which would oth­er­wise be des­tined for the dump, much of it still in fine con­di­tion. The booty in­cluded a sack of crisp-leaved wa­ter­cress, whose thick stems ex­cited per­ma­nent chef Nas­sim Khal­ifa most. She snapped off a piece, fat as a marker pen, and gave it to me to try. It was crisp, juicy and pep­pery. “Good, eh?” she ex­claimed. “I can use it like cel­ery.”

This is the kind of im­pro­vi­sa­tion that has seen Khal­ifa, a tiny Gu­jarati woman, through nine years of cook­ing at St Cuth­bert’s Cen­tre. With just one helper, she pro­vides a choice of dishes to a clien­tele many of whom have bad teeth, poor di­ges­tion and very firm ideas of what they want to eat. “Mostly com­fort food,” she ex­plains. “No al dente veg­eta­bles; they want pies, lasagne, fish and chips — and they love my cur­ries.” There’s a heav­ily sub­sidised charge of £2.50 for a three-course meal, though, as Stephen Milton, the cen­tre’s man­ager, ex­plained, “no one goes away hun­gry if they can’t af­ford to pay”.

Dur­ing Lon­don Food Month, how­ever, the din­ing room, re­named Re­fet­to­rio Felix, will be of­fer­ing a free, no-choice menu cooked by a rota of top chefs in­clud­ing An­gela Hart­nett, Sat Bains and Michel Roux Jr.

At bang on 11am, Alain Du­casse ar­rived, im­me­di­ately tast­ing the purée due to be served up with the stuffed aubergine. He mur­mured to the chef, Ro­main Meder, who snatched up a cheap plas­tic pep­per grinder. It broke in his hands, show­er­ing whole pep­per­corns into the pan.

As Meder del­i­cately scooped out the pep­per­corns, Mas­simo Bot­tura came bound­ing past in train­ers and black jeans, stop­ping to chat with cus­tomers as their food was brought to them by vol­un­teers.

The cus­tomers paused from read­ing the news­pa­pers or do­ing the cross­word to set­tle in to lunch. Guy, who was once a chef at the Mar­riot in Groves­nor Square, de­clared his cour­gette veloute with cherry and radish chut­ney “stun­ning”.

Gin­ger, a long-haired Scot who was home­less for 10 years and now man­ages on £75 a week dis­abil­ity ben­e­fit, was less sure. “Big plates, small por­tions,” he de­clared, eye­ing his two slices of aubergine. When I pointed out that I’d seen lots of empty plates go­ing back to the kitchen, he replied: “That’s be­cause they were al­most empty when they came out. I’ ll need to go some­where else for a proper meal.” Oth­ers agreed that Bot­tura’s pasta and pesto, served the day be­fore, had been more sub­stan­tial.

I asked Du­casse if the small bowl of soup, stuffed aubergine and berries with a milk foam and chilli sor­bet was fill­ing enough. “If you have all three cour­ses, it is fine,” he in­sisted. Even if it is the only meal you’ ll get all day? He paused, then con­ceded: “Per­haps not.”

Both in the kitchen and the din­ing room there may be some adapt­ing to do, but even when the high-end chefs leave at the end of the month, Re­fet­to­rio Felix will stay, and Khal­ifa will have the new kitchen com­plete with €12,000 (£10,400) ice­cream maker, in­stalled by the Food for Soul project, in which to work.

2 medium aubergines, sliced into rounds 2cm thick

Olive oil 300g chicken meat, finely chopped (leg, thigh, or breast — or scraps) 1 egg ½ teacup­ful fresh bread­crumbs ½ teacup­ful cooked rice 4 tbsp grated Parme­san 2 tbsp chopped pars­ley 1 onion, chopped 1 clove gar­lic, chopped 1 x 400g tin chopped toma­toes Method Pre­heat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Scoop out the mid­dle of the aubergine slices to make an in­den­ta­tion in each (keep the trim­mings). Brush with olive oil and sea­son with salt and pep­per. Ar­range on a baking tray and bake for 25 to 30 min­utes un­til ten­der. Mix the chicken, egg, bread­crumbs, rice, Parme­san and pars­ley. Fill the aubergine slices with the mix­ture, smooth­ing the mounds. Re­turn to the oven and bake for 30 min­utes, un­til cooked through and lightly browned. Check part way through and cover with foil if they are get­ting too brown. Heat one ta­ble­spoon of olive oil in a small pan and cook onion un­til ten­der. Chop the aubergine trim­mings and add them to the pan with the gar­lic. Cook for an­other minute. Add the toma­toes, and sim­mer gen­tly for 20 min­utes, to make a sauce. Sea­son with salt and pep­per. Serve the stuffed aubergine slices with the sauce, plus a green salad.

Serves 4 In­gre­di­ents

To vol­un­teer at Re­fet­to­rio Felix, email info@ food­for­soul.it or drop in@stcuth­berts­cen­tre.org.uk

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