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

The National - News - - NEWS | WORLD -

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.”

Peter Ye­ung

The venue is a so­cial en­ter­prise

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