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RIO DE JANEIRO — On a warm night in a fraying neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, far from the lights of the Olympic stadiums, Inez Ignez cautiously works her way around the chefs, mopping the floor of this pioneering soup kitchen.
In a few minutes, the first guests — mostly homeless and poor — will trickle in through the front doors of the Refettorio Gastromotiva to enjoy a three-course gourmet meal, drawing on surplus food from suppliers to the Olympic Village and other events across the city.
“It’s not just about a good meal, it’s about good ideas,” said co-founder Massimo Bottura, who also runs the famed Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. “In a place full of beauty, full of art, very clean in which they serve you plates with great décor, but simple … the people, they feel different.”
Bottura helped create Refettorio Gastromotiva after he was contacted by fellow internationally renowned chef David Hertz, who has dedicated a decade to social change through food service. In 2006, Hertz founded Gastromotiva — a nonprofit dedicated to reaching youth from low-income families — hoping to create a social movement and fill a labor gap in Brazil’s restaurant community.
Ahead of the Olympics, Hertz got together with Bottura to establish the upscale soup kitchen, a project they hope to continue after the Games are over.
Ignez once was one of the dozens of guests who walk through the doors every night to sit at communal tables built by top Brazil designers and below a huge mural of a dripping chocolate Last Supper created by Sao Paulo artist Vik Muniz.
She recalls her first meal: “I was amazed by everything, so many good things and so many different things.”
Like others from this neighborhood who come for a meal, she has not had it easy. Faced with prejudice and lack of opportunities, the 32-year-old transgender woman once made a living as a prostitute. Now, she is a member of the cleaning staff and an integral part of the family.
All the meals served at Refettorio Gastromotiva are made from donated food.
“We need to fight the waste,” Bottura said. “Numbers are numbers. Eight hundred million people are starving, 1.4 million are overweight, 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year, so it's absurd.”
Refettorio Gastromotivo is as much about promoting and restoring the dignity of people as it is about offering a top-class meal every evening to about 100 guests.
“We have to break all of our biases, we can all make a change,” Hertz said. “Massimo is not special, I’m not special; we just do what we believe.”
Every night a new menu is whipped up by a guest chef with the help of Gastromotiva trainees, a team of students enrolled in a vocational training program offered by Hertz’s nonprofit.
On a recent night, the menu had a Mexican flair, featuring bread with bean paste, followed by beet salad with tomatoes and parmesan, gnocchi con carne and a papaya-strawberry sorbet.
After the Olympics and Paralympics leave town, the plan is for the Refettorio to become a normal restaurant at lunch and a soup kitchen in the evenings. The price of one lunch will cover the cost of a dinner for Rio’s less fortunate.
But despite the outpouring of goodwill during the Games, the organizers are still battling a shortfall of around $400,000 to fund the experiment.
Hertz remains hopeful: “I believe what we can change in the world is changing the mindset of people,” he said.