FINE DINING BRINGS TASTE FOR SOCIAL CHANGE TO RIO
▶ Refettorio Gastromotiva’s free meals reduce waste, feed some of the city’s poor and train chefs – all under one roof. Peter Yeung steps into the kitchen
Plates of delicately assembled rocket, kale and beetroot-stem salads line the immaculate kitchen of Refettorio Gastromotiva, a sleek dining hall designed by prize-winning architects in central Rio de Janeiro.
A team of uniformed waiters expertly dispatches the dishes to hungry diners sitting at stylish wooden banquet tables, and pieces of modern art hang on the walls.
The scene has all the hallmarks of fine dining, except the three-course meal is completely free, it is made from food that would have otherwise been thrown away and the guests are not wealthy clientele but homeless people from the nearby, downtrodden Lapa district, a neighbourhood known for its nightlife in Brazil’s second-largest city.
“Eating here is like receiving a warm hug because the food is cooked with passion,” says diner Jose Maria Alves da Silva. “Every day is a surprise. I cannot get three courses of food like this anywhere I go, especially where I’m served with such respect.”
Mr Da Silva, 51, moved to Rio from the north-eastern city of Natal five years ago in search of work. But he fell on hard times and could not afford to pay rent.
Mr Da Silva now eats regularly at the restaurant through a local community church.
Opened in August 2016, the Refettorio feeds about 100 guests every weekday night, but organisers hope to one day treble that capacity and even offer lunches. To date, they say 140,000 meals have been served in Rio, the equivalent of 100,000 kilograms of food. In a 6.5-million-strong city blighted with poverty and homelessness – 14,000 people live on the streets – it is sorely needed sustenance.
Central to the philosophy of the Refettorio is reducing waste and “social gastronomy”, the idea of linking food to social change.
Brazil is among the world’s 10 biggest food wasters, with 30 per cent of its fruit and vegetable harvest thrown away. One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to halve global food waste by 2030.
“We’re fighting against surplus and trying to show what can be done with a different mindset,” says David Hertz, a Brazilian chef and a co-founder of Refettorio. “It’s important to understand the social context of Rio, where there’s a lot of poor communities. Most of these people just want to be seen and heard, because they never normally are. We want to give dignity and belonging to diners – and a sense of hope.”
Not even banana skins are thrown away. Instead, they are sliced, rolled in cinnamon and baked, to go along with fresh banana ice cream for dessert. On sale in the adjacent shop is a beer made from stale bread, whose production creates yeast to make even more bread. The cycle is dizzying.
The restaurant’s produce is donated by companies and prepared by a team of trainees led by professional chefs, with regular guest appearances from celebrity ones such as Frenchman Alain Ducasse, whose restaurants have won several Michelin stars. Most of the team working in the kitchen, however, come from
Rio’s slums, or favelas, and have taken a free three-month training course.
Rodrigo Ottoni, 38, a former sailor in the Brazilian Navy, started at the Refettorio by taking one of its courses last year. Six months ago he began working there full-time as a chef.
“Cooking is my favourite job of my life,” Mr Ottoni says. “It feels so nice to work here – you are making a real change for the guests. I feel so grateful.”
For the Refettorio, the challenge remains making the project financially sustainable. Charitable donations from large businesses and fund-raising events at the venue pay the majority of the bills. But donated food deliveries are never guaranteed or reliably scheduled.
“Until yesterday, we’d completely run out of food,” says Mariana Vilhena, an employee. “But the demand for it is still growing.”
The diners can be young or old and come from a variety of backgrounds: an old bearded man wearing a Flamengo
Uniformed waiters serve hungry diners sitting at stylish wooden banquet tables, surrounded by works of modern art
football shirt sits a few chairs down from a pair of teenage girls and a middle-aged woman with peroxide-blonde hair. It is clear there is a huge appetite for services that help Rio de Janeiro’s most vulnerable.
“We only offer dinner here, but people need doctors, medication, yoga, reading and legal services – we try to make people a part of that system,” Ms Vilhena says. “There’s a process of restoring their dignity, their identity and self-esteem.”
The venue is a social enterprise