“It’s a simple recipe,” says the chef Davide to my wife Lara, who is typing it out. “You just have to watch the oven carefully when you’re baking the sugar dust, or it can end up everywhere.” Lara looks alarmed and turns to my assistant Enrico for help. He joins the conversation with another detail, this time about the breadcrumbs: “Remember that they need to be toasted in an iron skillet until they are dark brown. Golden isn’t enough.” As Lara types away and Enrico adds more details, I slip off into a memory, prolonged and vivid.
I am wandering the tunnels of a train station, looking for a homeless shelter called Il Rifugio. “Is Davide Rampello here?” I ask at the entrance, searching for a man with glasses and shock-white hair. Rampello is the director of the Zero Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Universal Exposition, charged with illustrating the Expo’s ambitious theme:Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. When I first met Rampello, at Osteria Francescana in early December, I had asked him, “What would you say to recreating Leonardo’s “Last Supper” by cooking with the waste from the pavilions, in a church basement, with the world’s best chefs behind the stoves?” “I think it would be a miracle,” he replied without pause. “It would be the twenty-first-century version of Miracle in Milan.” He was referring to the 1951 Italian film “Miracolo a Milano,” directed by Vittorio De Sica.This neorealist film tells the story of an orphan named Totó who is found in a cabbage patch, then is swept up from anonymity and poverty by a shining angel. The fairy tale represents every desperate man’s dream of a better life. By the end of the week, Rampello was telling me over the phone, “The Vatican is interested. They want to meet you at the train station in Milan.”
And now here I was. There were no windows and no daylight in that cavernous shelter space below the tracks, yet a miracle had already happened there once. Mother Teresa had visited the shelter in the late seventies, and her blessing seemed to have worked: for decades, the place has sheltered many of Milan’s abandoned and obsolete. Rampello and I stepped into the fading light of the December afternoon and started walking north. There was another place to visit.
Rewind to March 2013. We are in Washington, D.C. to prepare a dinner at the Italian ambassador’s home for the occasion of the Year of Italian Culture in America. Taka, Davide, Sebastian, and I were having lunch at the World Bank with Sebastian’s sister who worked for Lucia Grenna, a fellow Italian and the director of Connect for Climate. The cafeteria boasted food from every continent. Embarrassed by the variety of choices, I actually didn’t know what to eat. As I walked in circles to buy some time, I started thinking about all the potential recipes made from the leftovers that would end up in a garbage bin at the end of the day. I opted for a bowl of Thai Tom Kha soup and joined the table. From the window we could see a storm approaching, and under the falling snow, a seed of an idea was planted.
I am an Italian chef. The most valuable lessons of the Italian kitchen are to make the most of nothing and to never throw anything away. No crumbs or bones ever get thrown in the bin. A ragù is nothing other than a sauce made with scraps of meat or fish or vegetables. At the end of every service in the restaurant, there is always leftover bread, and it is painful to see it go to waste. We can only freeze or give so much of it away. Most of it gets turned into breadcrumbs.
Waste has always been part of our collective consciousness at Osteria Francescana. For many years, we had only one door to enter and exit the restaurant. Food supplies and garbage were coming in and going out through the same door as our guests. At the 2001 Venice Biennale, I spotted amongst the flashing video installations and large paintings a simple, cogent installation of a rubbish bag, cast in bronze and painted black to resemble the original. The trompe l’oeil artwork by British artist Gavin Turk addressed our daily dilemma with humor and irony. It took me years to get my hands on one, but eventually, a Bin Bag welcomed guests at our entrance door. To me, the classic black rubbish bag is as much a Pop icon as Warhol’s Campbell Soup can .Even waste can be art if looked at in the right way—or as the artist so clearly stated, “We are defined by what we throw away.”
Rampello and I headed away from the train station and walked the graffitied streets over bridges, under train tracks, and into the Greco neighborhood. In this forgotten quarter of Milan, daily struggle is set to a soundtrack of passing trains. Then and there I began to understand that the culture of food waste is much like the culture of the fringe neighborhoods of any city: what is unwanted is pushed further away from the center of life. Nestled among the warehouses, a fifteenth-century church, and nondescript apartment buildings, we found ourselves in front of Teatro Greco, an abandoned theater from the 1930s.
There waiting for us was Giuliano Savina, a church administrator responsible for numerous social services in the area. Unlocking the doors to the theater, he said, “What could be more appropriate than a theater for this project? What does a theater put on stage, after all, if not the drama of life? Drama includes everything: life, birth, death, joy, and great moments of darkness.”
His enthusiasm was contagious. The empty theater, with its dusty red upholstered chairs, was waiting for a miracle. Could it be transformed into a refectory? A refectory is a communal dining room, often found in monasteries or institutions, where monks traditionally gather for their meals. The word “refectory” also means to find refuge, to embrace life. It would be named the Refettorio Ambrosiana after the patron saint of Milan, Sant’Ambrosio. I imagined the most spectacular refectory ever seen, filled with art and light, cooking, and the theater of life. Later that day, Angelo Scola, the Cardinal of Milan, spoke with us about his vision for the refectory:
If ‘feeding the planet’ means working so that each of us can have our daily bread, we must also remember that our human need to feed ourselves has values that go beyond providing energy to the body. Cooking is part of the human family. To share food together is one of the highest moments of a life lived among others. It is not enough to serve a hot meal in a refectory but we need to serve beauty to feed life.
That was exactly it. As the director of the Triennale of Design in Milan, Rampello knew whom to call. The architects and students from the Politecnico of Milano agreed to organize the renovation from theater to dining space, complete with professional kitchen. Furniture manufacturer Riva committed to producing twelve monastic oak tables designed by twelve of Italy’s most renowned contemporary furniture designers, including Fabio Novembre, Gaestano Pesce, Alessandro Mendini, Piero Lissoni, and Patricia Urquiola. Several Italian artists were invited to lend beauty to the project, and the space acquired a painted door, a frescoed ceiling, a photograph, and a sculpture. And perhaps most importantly, the space received the permanent donation of a stone oven. Neighboring women and immigrants will be taught to bake bread, giving them a skill to help them in their daily lives.
My direct role in the project was the easiest of all: invite my friends to cook. Each year, a different chef will take residence in the space every day throughout the whole month of May. Every chef will have the chance to share his or her unique vision with the neighborhood children at lunch, then with the adults at dinner. Too often the gastronomic conferences we all attend speak to the converted. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to cook for people who have no idea who we are?
In October 2013, my mother, Luisa, was rushed to the hospital. She wasn’t breathing well. The heart valve that had replaced her own fifteen years earlier had expired. As Luisa’s birthday approached, her condition worsened. I was anxious about leaving for a scheduled trip to Mexico. I whispered in her ear, “There will be risotto with truffles for your birthday, Mamma. I’ll be back at the end of the week.”By miracle or will, she made it to her 89th birthday, celebrated with risotto and truffles, and gained enough strength to leave the hospital. She would be home for Christmas.
I had not cooked at my mother’s house in over a decade. While I was digging in the cupboards for a pan, I came upon the green–rimmed bowl from my childhood. Every morning there was coffee and milk on the kitchen table. and my brothers and I fought over scraps of bread and leftover cake. I always insisted that yesterday’s bread be grated into my bowl, and my mother always did so. I would add sugar and stir until it was thick. Whenever the conversation turned to the numerous bowls of bread, milk, and sugar I consumed, my mother always laughed out loud. “Massimo would pour in so much sugar that his spoon would stand up straight! Look at him now. He’s a cook!”
My mother passed away a few weeks later in the ambulance, on her way to the hospital. She was lucid and complaining because she didn’t want to go back there. She dreaded the food.
Bread is Gold
The Italian economic crisis is physical and visceral. Storefronts once selling clothing or housewares are now boarded up, while Compro Oro (Buy Gold) pawnshops invade the landscape. Gold has always been a sign of wealth, especially for the poor. It is the first thing you buy when you have a dime, and the first thing you sell when you have no more. Why do gold teeth and chains make us feel more worthy? Sylvie Fleurie is a contemporary artist who expresses her critical view of society through common objects made out of uncommon materials. I bought one of these recently: a gold-plated wastebin. When I unpacked the 40cm-high bin, it seemed to glow from within, warm and radiant like the sun. Admiring the piece, seeing the ordinary suddenly become extraordinary, I understood the mesmerizing power of gold.
I hadn’t forgotten those bowls of bread, milk, and sugar I ate as a kid. I just hadn’t thought about them until my mother passed away. Could my childhood ritual be transformed into an edible expression of love and generosity? Back in the kitchen we began rewriting the recipe. We toasted breadcrumbs, added milk and sugar, and worked it into a creamy substance. Then we added another layer of texture with caramelized day-old bread and a salty bread ice cream. We baked sugar into dust, then added gold powder, creating a translucent gold-tinted sugar shell shaped like a crumbled piece of paper removed from a wastepaper bin. When touched, it cracks into a thousand pieces, the golden mirage giving way to a formless soup of childhood memories. The toasted, salty, and caramel flavors are familiar and pleasurable, even childish. We called the recipe Il pane è oro.
Giuseppe Sala, Director of Expo 2015, estimates that 400 tons of food and beverages will come into the city during the fair on key days. In a press conference in April he declared, “Despite all efforts, it is very probable that there will be waste. How do we redistribute what is left over?” I thought about the mountains of day-old bread, the potato peels, and the chicken bones that will fill plastic garbage bags at Expo, and how significant a gesture it would be to recycle, transform, and give life back to the waste. Inside the Refettorio Ambrosiana there will be fresh bread in the oven, day-old bread and a dessert on the table, reminding us of the values of all these things.
Bread is one of the most basic, ancient foods we have—or rather, that we make. It is not foraged or found or hunted or gathered. Grains are grown, harvested, and ground, then turned into dough, leavened or not, and baked into something edible. The development of bread has evolved hand in hand with mankind. As diverse and versatile as human languages, bread is a universally recognized object, yet it exists in shapes and sizes specific to every culture on the earth.
But is bread an object or an abstract concept? When we close our eyes, each of us sees something different. In our minds, no two loaves will ever be the same. In a country like Italy, if there isn’t bread on the table, it isn’t a meal. Bread is family.
You can purchase a copy of Dispatches via the MAD Store.