Lara Gilmore: Food For Soul

As millions of American families gather this week for their Thanksgiving feasts, we thought we’d take a peek behind the curtain at one of the world’s most celebrated restaurants while at the same time discussing food waste and insecurity. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Lara Gilmore, who along with her husband, chef and restaurateur Massimo Bottura, run the world-renowned Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. In addition to running a three-star Michelin restaurant, ranked the top restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2016 and 2018, Bottura and Gilmore have created a unique template for feeding the needy through their nonprofit, Food For Soul. Based on the concept of the Italian refettorio, a place where monks gathered together to share their meals, Food For Soul has elevated the soup kitchen to a whole new level, cooking and serving delicious meals in warm, elegant environments.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Lara Gilmore 0:17  I think that the most important thing is we realized that food for sale was not only a platform and a refettorio to be able to give a meal to someone in need, but also a teaching platform for people to understand how to cook better at home and wasteless food

Narrator  0:36  As millions of American families gather this week for their Thanksgiving feasts, we thought we’d take a peek behind the curtain at one of the world’s most celebrated restaurants while at the same time discussing food waste and insecurity. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Lara Gilmore, who along with her husband, chef and restaurateur Massimo Bottura, run the world-renowned Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. In addition to running a three-star Michelin restaurant, ranked the top restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2016 and 2018, Bottura and Gilmore have created a unique template for feeding the needy through their nonprofit, Food For Soul. Based on the concept of the Italian refettorio, a place where monks gathered together to share their meals, Food For Soul has elevated the soup kitchen to a whole new level, cooking and serving delicious meals in warm, elegant environments.

Alex Wise  1:53  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend Lara Gilmore. She is the co-founder and President of Food for Soul. She’s a partner in life and business with restauranteur Massimo Bottura. Their flagship restaurant is Osteria Francescana, one of the finest restaurants in the world in Modena, Italy. Lara, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Lara Gilmore 2:14  Hi, how are you Alex?

Alex Wise 2:17  It’s so good to have you on this is a real treat. I only wish we could eat some of your delicious food together. Lara is right now in your new restaurant with a lot of Ferrari artwork behind you explain a little bit about that.

Lara Gilmore 2:35  Well, I’m in I’m in Maranello, which is a town that is about 20 minute drive from Modena. We’re in the Emilia Romagna area of Italy, which is northern Central Italy. And in Maranello, there is one thing and one thing only. And that is Ferrari. Ferrari Enzo Ferrari moved his company from Madena to Maranello when he bought land here in 1943. And on this piece of land, which he then created all his factories and in the whole beautiful Ferrari car business. There was a farmhouse and he decided that that farmhouse was not going to be torn down. But it was going to become the Ferrari canteen for all the new workers who were coming to his business. And then in the 1950s the canteen was such a success it got turned into a restaurant for the public. And from the 1950s on it’s been a roaring place to celebrate Italian and Emilian food culture Lambrusco on ice, and also car culture. So when I, when my son when I talked about Madonna, we often describe it as the place of slow food and fast cars, slow food being parmesan reggiano cheese that needs to be aged for at least 24 months for it to be officially sold as Parmigiano Reggiano or prosciutto or any of the salumi that have their aging process as well all the way up to a Chitose amico, which really doesn’t get put in a bottle until it’s about 20 years old. So that’s the slow food. And then on the other side, we’re in the land of Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, you know, incredible car companies that began at the turn of the century and have been innovative in Italy and engineering cavallino open this summer, and it’s a place to celebrate the slow food and the fast cars that defines this region.

Alex Wise 4:37  So I want to learn more about Food For Soul. But first, are you hungry yet? Just I actually have not even had my breakfast and yes, hearing about Salome’s and aged cheese and vinegar is definitely wetting my appetite but tell our listeners a little bit about your story of coming to Italy and falling in love and becoming restauranteur extraordinare.

Lara Gilmore 5:01  All right, well, I’m going to try to make a long story very short. When I did move to New York, I was a struggling artist and struggling to find any job at an art magazine. And I worked for a magazine called aperture, which is a photography magazine. And of course, you know, the salary was what it was. And I had to find a job on the side just to be able to pay my rent and my little East Village apartment, which was so small, you couldn’t even close the door of the bathroom. I walked into a little cafe on the corner of grand and Mercer, called Cafe Nona. And this is 1993. And it was run by a third generation Calabrian, who was looking for someone to be behind the bar, who knew how to make a cup of Chino, who could talk about wine, who could talk about Italy. And I had those that vocabulary, and I had that language, and I knew about Italy, and I could speak it. And I could tell stories of my trips I had taken since I started studying Italian back in 1985. And in walked my husband, pretty much the day I started working, and he was taking a sabbatical year from, from his restaurant in Montana, that he had opened nine years earlier back in 1986. And we met and we spoke and he told me that my cappuccinos were terrible every day and but he helped me make them better. And we joked around in Italian, and somehow that place became a place to make new friends and create a whole new community around Italian culture and life. And somehow in between that we fell in love. And he convinced me to move to Montana when he had to move back to Montana himself. And so I’ve been in Moderna ever since.

Alex Wise  6:42  And one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you not only because I can almost taste the delicious food that you and your husband present to people from all over the world, is that you have a different perspective about food than a lot of fine restaurants would I mean, it’s pretty all consuming to try to get one Michelin star as you mentioned, and now your three Michelin stars and routinely ranked the number one or two best restaurant in the world. But you were able to find the time to carve out this nonprofit Food For Soul. When we think of the sumptuousness of an of Osteria Francescana. The other end of the spectrum is food scarcity. And you and your husband did not turn a blind eye to that reality want to explain the mission of your organization?

Lara Gilmore 7:31  I will Alex, I just want to take one step back and mentioned that, like anything, we can always find time for anything in our lives we fit in time. But more important, I think was for us that we discovered this calling and this mission through our process. So are the 17 years that it took from when we opened our restaurant in 1995. To when we were able to be awarded those three star Michelin those three Michelin stars in 2012. Our whole obsession during those 17 years was about quality was about small producers was about communicating, you know the beauty of Italy and its stories through food. But we were completely focused on getting our Michelin stars. And once we got those stars, something so interesting happened. We realize that those stars really only had value because they had given us a voice and that people were listening to us and whether we were talking about a heroic farmer or butcher or cheese producer. We were making a difference. And six months into our three Michelin stars. There was an earthquake here in Emilia Romagna may 2012. And in May 2012. I’m not going to say it damaged our business as a restaurant. It damaged the town, economically, tourism emilia-romagna. But more than anything within days of the first earthquake, we found out that 450,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano had been destroyed, they had literally fallen off the shelves because of this earthquake. And at that moment, Massimo and I looked at each other and we said this is an opportunity for us to use our voice to use these three Michelin stars, to use our culinary skills to use our the quality of our ideas to create something that will create more awareness about this problem and to help these cheese makers survive to communicate that anywhere from around the world. If you buy Parmesan cheese in this moment, you’re supporting an industry that is in great difficulty. And so we did this through creating a recipe a recipe which Massimo took classic spaghetti ketchup paper and he transformed it into a result of ketchup paper. And instead of using pepper in Reno cheese, he used parmigiano and he shared this recipe virtually with Low food, and basically communicated this message. And the reaction was incredible. And no dairy farmer closed a no cheese maker had to, you know, shut its doors. And we realized that we a recipe can be a social gesture, and can be an act of solidarity. And from that moment on, we started looking at the world from a different point of view and started realizing that we could have a great impact of things that happened outside a restaurant, not only inside a restaurant. And so when Expo came along in 2015, and the theme was Feed the Planet Energy for Life. And lots of people were asking Massimo for a pop up restaurant, or to do some special dinner or this or that, and no one was asking him what he thought or what his ideas were about this theme, he realized that he needed to do something and act on his own accord. And that’s when we started this project, and this little seed of an idea was planted.

(music break)  11:04

Alex Wise  11:50  This is Alex Wise and Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Lara Gilmore. She is a partner in life and business with Massimo Bottura, their restaurant’s, Osteria Francescana, among others, and she’s the co founder and president of Food for Soul. So what exactly is the idea behind the refettorio concept? Why don’t you break that down for our listeners,

Lara Gilmore  12:12  So instead of doing an intervention in 2015, in a, you know, Expo fair, awesome, I wanted to leave a signature, a mark behind that had a little bit more lasting presence. And so he wanted to open up a soup kitchen, a community kitchen, with the inevitable waste that was going to be produced because of a fare like Expo, and the waste that we have in all of our cities coming out of supermarket surplus. And he wanted to do this with the chefs that were passing through from Expo chefs from all over the world. And the place that he would do this was in a refettorio. A refettorio is where monks would gather at the end of the day to have their meal together, and they would commune and then we’ll commute over breaking bread. Refettorio is an idea of a place where you are safe, where you can share what you’ve learned over the day, or the difficulties you’ve had, and you share it at the table with other people. And that meal is not just nourishing, because you need your calories and your energy to be brought back. But it’s nourishing because you break bread together. And so we based this soup kitchen on an idea that a soup kitchen should be a place where people can come that safe and beautiful and inspiring, and have a meal together and be served a meal. They don’t have to stand in line. They don’t have to be at a self service. And that those meals could be created during Expo by visiting chefs who are cooking surplus food that would come in from expo or from supermarkets surplus everyday wouldn’t wouldn’t know what kind of food would have in or who the chef would be. But the idea was to create a three course meal for people in need. And we immediately started working with an Italian association called Caritas, Ambrosiano, the Caritas based in Milan, we found an incredible space that was a theater from the 1920s in a 15 adjacent to a 15 century church, in a neighborhood just outside the periphery of Milan, that was kind of surrounded by train tracks, and it seemed to represent, you know, lives passing and going. And it was a neighborhood that was a little bit neglected a lot of immigrants a lot of poverty. And in the beginning, this neighborhood did not want absolutely a soup kitchen there. But by the end of six months, when we had been running this program, it was the volunteers and it was the neighborhood and the community around this project that actually convinced us that this small refettorio had legs and could become a model for future projects to come. And that’s when we found it food for so

Alex Wise  14:59  And It seems like so much of the concept is rooted in dignity for the needy, something that often gets overlooked. When we think about lending helping hand to our brothers and sisters, the idea of being served as is key there, I think, up until food for soul was founded, what were the standard models for feeding the hungry in Italy,

Lara Gilmore  15:25  When Massimo came up with this idea, I was totally terrorized by the idea that we were going to go and start a project that we really knew nothing about. It was not our world, I felt like, you know, a soup kitchen was so far away from what we were doing at Osteria Francescana. And all we knew was Osteria Francescana. But then we realized that all we needed to do was apply our most important pillars that built Osteria Francescana over those 20 years. And then if we apply those, to a model of a soup kitchen, maybe that soup kitchen could be as beautiful and successful, and as happy, a place as Osteria Francescana. And so those three pillars really are the power of beauty, the value of hospitality, and the quality of ideas. And they sound very abstract. But we’ve always given ourselves over to how much power beauty has to communicate simple messages. It’s a landscape for ideas in Francescana, whether we have a painting on a wall or a photograph, it helps give clues to what we’re doing in our restaurant. And why couldn’t that power of beauty also be applied to a soup kitchen? What does hospitality mean? Hospitality is more than 50% of your of who you are as a restaurant, it’s 60%. You know, if you’re treated with respect in a restaurant and welcomed into a restaurant, and served in a way that makes you feel part of something, that’s a restaurant, you want to go back to even if your meal wasn’t so great. And so hospitality is welcoming into an Italian way of living an Italian way of greeting people and respecting them from wherever they come from. It’s not if your plate is served perfectly synchronized and everyone’s plate goes on the table at the same time. It’s about the smile on someone’s face. It’s about their body gestures, their attitude, how they tell stories, it’s so much more. And then the third thing is the quality of ideas, which is really the idea that Osteria Francescana became one of us because of chefs working together, and creating dishes and building on stories and centuries and centuries of culinary heritage and trying to pull that forward. And those same chefs could apply those ideas to food that was going to be wasted, you know, how can we salvage this food? How can we take ingredients that are about to be expired or ugly. So supermarkets are not going to have them on their shelves anymore, that are imperfect, but that are perfectly edible, and transform them into something unwanted and ugly, into something absolutely healthy and delicious. For someone who needs a meal, you know, and so, we put all those three things together. And we said, let’s try to build a soup kitchen as if we’re building a beautiful restaurant. When we finished the renovations with so much help from so many people, you know Polytechnic of Milan 13 designers who design the different tables, other designers who are involved in the renovation of the space, we called on artists to come in there. So there’s so much synergy going on. In addition to the over 100 chefs that came to cook with us that space was more beautiful than Osteria Francescana. And I would say to people, I want to move my restaurant here. But if it wasn’t more beautiful than Osteria Francescana, we would have been hypocritical in our claims of what we were trying to do. Italy has incredible services for people in need, whether it’s looking for housing, whether it’s helping immigrants find jobs, giving up meals, but no one had ever thought of doing it in that way. No one had ever thought of taking it to that next level. And we all felt like Expo was an opportunity to bring things to the next level and to create new models.

Alex Wise 19:09  So how big is the food scarcity issue in Italy, Lara?

Lara Gilmore  19:13  This project wasn’t specific to Italy. We created an Italy because Expo was in Italy. But we didn’t create it because we saw terrible food stats in Italy. Italy is a country that wastes food like many first world countries do. And most of that waste happens surprisingly, not in industry. Not on the farms. Not even in the supermarkets, but in our homes. That’s where most of the food waste is happening. But basically, you know, there are incredible numbers out there. A third of the food production is wasted around the world. For whatever reason. Sometimes it’s food loss. Sometimes it’s food that’s being not, you know, stored properly or taken off shelves and thrown out in certain countries around the world. It’s is easier to burn food, take it off the shelves and burn it. It’s cheaper and more cost effective than to actually bring it to a food bank or donated to a soup kitchen. But we are, you know, creating food for twice the amount of people that we need to and yet we have so many people who are still out there who are food insecure. But I think that the most important thing is we realize that food for sale was not only a platform and a refettorio to be able to give a meal to someone in need, but also a teaching platform for people to understand how to cook better at home and waste less food

(Music Break)  20:54

Alex Wise  21:30  This is Alex Wise onSea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Lara Gilmore. She is a partner in life and business with Massimo Bottura, their restaurants, Osteria Francescana, among others, and she’s the co founder and president of Food for Soul. So Lara, we really haven’t dived into the food waste element of food for soul how you are able to get food that otherwise would be wasted and turn it into delicious meals for the needy.

Lara Gilmore  21:59  Right. So, beginning with Expo, we formed partnerships with different supermarkets around the city of Milan, and different people who are selling food in Expo. And we never work with cooked food. We only work with raw ingredients. And basically we set up a network where they could bring their surplus food to our refettorio. And that is the model that we have recreated wherever we’ve gone. After opening in 2015. In Milan 2016 We had an invitation to come to Rio and open a project in Rio. And once again, we established direct lines with food providers, supermarkets, Bodega farmers markets, whoever wanted to donate food rather than burning it or throwing it away, could donate it to Food for Soul to our refettorio in Rio Refettorio and then another one 2017 Refettorio Felix in London, and then 2018 Refettorio Paris, in the Church of the Midland, and so forth and so on. And every single project is unique because of the unique community that surrounds it. And the need in that community. And every partner that we work with is a little bit different.

Alex Wise  23:12  Could you explain like a typical partnership and how that might work? It I imagine it varies quite a bit, but I’m interested in the nuts and bolts on how that can unfold.

Lara Gilmore  23:24  So the, you know, we’re based in Modena, Italy, and we can’t be everywhere around the world. So we set up a model and we set up a way to to build and construct and apply our methods and our values. And then we partner with local partners so that our partner in Rio de Janeiro is gastro motiva, and they are a beautiful reality who are offering culinary programs teaching programs to people who otherwise would not be able to frequent culinary school as a way of getting out of the favelas as a way of addressing a need in the industry. And they partnered with us so that our refettorio project in Rio is not just serving the community of Lapa where it is located with a capacity of serving 100 meals an evening, but during the day, there’s an culinary program, teaching people how to cook and moving them on into the restaurant industry. In London, we have a completely different partner. We’ve partnered with st cupboards, which has been offering for 25 years, I lunch service to rough sleepers and people who are homeless adults in London, and not only offering them a lunch service, but laundry services and shower and help with jobs, applications and things like that in counseling. You know, we have other partners inside the church of the motherland and that project was led by an artist named Jr. and also an incredible travel agency called voyage du monde who wanting to give back and wanting to give back to the city of Paris. And together, we work to create a project there. Today we are working on actively a project in San Francisco. I know you’re based in San Francisco. And San Francisco is an incredible example of working with a partner called farming, hope. And farming hope has been working for the past couple of years in the San Francisco Bay area, to educate people who are interested in in the culinary arts, who maybe aren’t attuned to this transitional moment in their lives, or looking for a job opportunity, looking for a way to survive in life. And so we’ve put together teaching culinary skills with creating meals for people in need. And right now, we’re still looking for a home in San Francisco. But in the meantime, I’ve been working out of an X restaurant called Cora, which was a Mexican restaurant. And we have been creating meals community meals that have been delivered and picked up and an incredible amount of meals since November 2020.

Alex Wise  26:04  And do you count on the partners generally to handle funding for the enormous outlay that it requires to feed all these people? Or is this one of the pieces that food for soul brings to the table as well?

Lara Gilmore  26:20  Well, we work hand in hand, we do a lot of fundraising and food for sell. And we have ever since the pandemic we created what we call a community fund and have been fundraising for the community fund which offers support for all of our refettorio around the world, specifically in this moment when they had to pivot from housing guests and inviting them into a dining space but to pivot into delivery and to end having people pick up their food. And so all the expenses that went into packaging food and creating safe environments to work during this time of COVID and to be able to work when people needed food the most. And then we have specific kind of fundraisers, and fundraising campaigns individually run by our organizational partners inside every Refettorio Rio.

Alex Wise  27:07  It seems like such a great idea, Lara, that shouldn’t just be limited to your organization’s limited bandwidth. Have you been able to convince any, or, have you seen any uptake of a similar model in other parts of the of Italy or around the world where the refettorio model is being played out for the needy?

Lara Gilmore  27:29  Well, I think we’ve had a big influence in the dialogue that goes around how we feed people. We don’t feed 1000s and 1000s of people a day. We feed about 100 people a day. And we try to feed them with a certain kind of attention to detail and to communication and hospitality and, and building trust. And I think that that’s really important.

Alex Wise  27:55  Lara Gilmore, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Lara Gilmore 28:00  Thank you, Alex. I love being on Sea Change Radio!

Narrator  28:04  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Italian Music Pop Band, Jerry Vale and Chris Cornell. Check out our website at Sea Change Radio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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