RIO DE JANEIRO – Twelve hours ago, Fagner Dos Santos ate his last meal: two hardened bread buns and coffee. For much of the past decade, the 33-year-old has been battling drug addiction while living on the streets of Rio. When he eats at all, it’s usually at a grungy soup kitchen or after picking through the trash.
Now he and some 70 other homeless men are feasting on a three-course meal courtesy of one of the world’s top chefs. On the menu: Ossobuco with buttery baroa potatoes topped off with a gelato dessert.
“Who would’ve thought food made for the cream of society would be served to a group of homeless men?” dos Santos said, gazing at the open, art-filled dining room and waiters in prim orange aprons that for a short while transported him away from his tough life.
The gastronomic destination is the brainchild of Italian master chef Massimo Bottura. Using leftover ingredients from Olympic caterers and other local partners, Bottura created a gourmet soup kitchen, RefettoRio Gastromotiva , that for a week now has been serving up meals to Rio’s homeless population. The name is a play on the Latin word reficere, meaning “to restore,” and a nod to the communal dining rooms known as refectories that are a mainstay of monasteries.
With questions swirling over the $12 billion price tag of South America’s first Olympics, Bottura wanted to make a statement about the games’ sustainability by taking on one symbol of Olympic waste: the more than 230 tons of food supplied daily to prepare 60,000 meals for athletes, coach and staff.
“This is a cultural project, not a charity,” said Bottura, who runs the Michelin three-star Osteria Francescana in Modena. “We want to rebuild the dignity of the people.”
Bottura said he was inspired by Pope Francis’ advocacy for the poor and modeled his project on a similar one he organized last year in an abandoned theatre during the Milan world’s fair. His aim is to educate people about food waste in order to help feed the 800 million in the world who are hungry.
It’s a message that resonates in Rio.
Over the past year, as Brazil plunged into its deepest recession in decades, the city’s homeless population has struggled. In June, facing a financial calamity, Rio’s state government had to close or cutback service at 16 meal centres. The splurge on the Olympics has only heightened a sense of abandonment among the homeless, with many reporting being repeatedly removed by police from the city’s recently cleaned-up Lapa district, where Bottura’s restaurant is located.
In contrast to the government-run centres, where meals are served on prison-like food trays with throw-away cups, the Refettorio is an epicurean’s delight, complete with designer wood tables, oversized photos of the staff by French artist JR and a long mural of the Last Supper dripping in chocolate by Vik Muniz, one of Brazil’s top-selling artists.
At night the space, built of corrugated plastic on a run-down lot donated by the city, looks like a lit-up box.
For the Olympics launch, Bottura assembled a tour de force of local and international celebrity chefs. Once the games are over, the project will morph into a lunchtime restaurant, proceeds of which will fund evening meals for the homeless.
Beneficiaries are selected by groups like one that runs a shelter for transvestites who work as prostitutes on Lapa’s libertine streets. Working the kitchen are graduates of local partner Gastromotiva, a non-profit cooking school that has turned hundreds of Brazilians from the country’s neglected favelas into cooks.
For many of the diners at RefettoRio, the food is unlike anything they’ve tasted before. But it’s the royal treatment they relish most.
“Just sitting here, treated with respect on an equal footing, makes me think I have a chance,” said Valdimir Faria, an educated man who found himself alone on Rio’s streets, in a downward alcoholic spiral, after his marriage and life in a city hours away fell apart.
As dinner service got underway Sunday, a disheveled man identifying himself only as Nilson removed a few radish slices from his eggplant panzanella salad and deposited them in a plastic bucket holding a squeegee kit.
“I thought it was paper,” he laughed, while trading a boisterous “grazie, grazie” with Bottura.
Sunday’s meal was prepared by chef Rafael Costa e Silva, who normally dishes up fixed-price meals for $150 a head at his swank Lasai bistro in Rio. While he makes a living catering to the rich, he said he’ll never forget the experience of serving the poor.
As dinner wound down, Costa e Silva emerged from the kitchen to thank his guests. It was Father’s Day in Brazil, and so for many of the men gathered who talked about life’s wrong turns and their estrangement from family, emotions ran high.
“What you’ve enjoyed is a simple meal but one made with lots of love and care,” Costa e Silva said before the dining hall broke into applause. He wiped a tear from his cheek and continued.
“We wanted you to feel spoiled – for at least one night.”