At Refettorio Paris unity is strength – literally

Resilience, responsiveness and solidarity - these are the values that Refettorio Paris is putting in place every day to face the ongoing health emergency. Thanks to the support of their amazing staff and volunteers, in the last few weeks the Refettorio has been able to adapt its strategy to the needs of its community.


Meals ready to be collected and delivered to the guests of the Refettorio. Credits: Giulia Barbini

Giulia – musician from Florence – and Flavia – chef from Argentina – met during the first service at Refettorio Paris two years ago and immediately became friends. Today, the two of them work side by side in one of the 34 restaurants that support Refettorio Paris in preparing meals to be distributed to those in need.

At the beginning of the emergency, the kitchen of the Madeleine (where the Refettorio is located) was allowed to remain open, and the Refettorio’s chefs Maxime and Solene – helped by a couple of volunteers – were able to cook around 150 meals a day to distribute to people in need.

But after a few days, knowing that more could be done for the community and thanks to French artist JR who helped coordinating the operations, the Refettorio changed its service, turning itself into a logistical platform. Just like in a warehouse, the surplus food delivered to the Madeleine is sorted, divided into packages and sent weekly to 34 restaurants around Paris that have been supporting the project, along with everything that is needed to package meals – such as boxes, cutlery, napkins and paper bags. Then it is up to the chef of each restaurant to make sure that the delivered surplus is enough to prepare take-away meals for a week – 50, 100 or even 150 meals a day. Every day, the meals are collected from each restaurant by different associations and distributed around the city. In total, thanks to this network of restaurants, the Refettorio has been able to distribute up to 5000 meals a day.

Goes without saying, all this would not be possible without the help of the many volunteers who donate their energy to support the initiative. At the beginning there was a great sense of fear related to hygiene and safety measures but, like all the other initiatives runned by the Refettorio, everything was managed excellently: The city council provided masks and gloves, and safety measures for staff and volunteers were ensured. The volunteers, who provide their availability through a Whatsapp group, are then contacted by JR’s team on a daily basis, they are given clear instructions regarding their involvement and assigned to the different restaurants around the city. They help both in the preparation of the meals and in the packaging phase, which is a long process with many rules to follow such as wrapping the bread in plastic wrap, seal everything in special bags, writing what is inside, etc.

Ferona, the restaurant where Flavia works as a chef, is one of the 34 restaurants who responded to the call launched by the Refettorio, offering their space for the preparation of the meals. “To be part of a group you don’t necessarily have to be under the same roof, you just need to share the same energy and the same vision of what food surplus has the potential to become, and use those towards a common goal, which is to prepare meals with love and care for those who need it the most,” says Flavia.

Here is what Flavia and Giulia told us about their experience:


What is the thing you like the most about volunteering at Refettorio Paris? 

Flavia: “It is being part of a group, of a large human chain. I have been working for the project since its opening, and I have since found many friends, such as Giulia. In a place like this we all become colleagues and everyone wants to give their contribution.”

Giulia: “It is being part of a project conceived in an intelligent way: the fact that food is wasted everyday and that, at the same time, there are people who don’t have enough to eat is an absurdity. This project brings these two aspects together, and it creates an environment full of hospitality, art, culture, creativity for the most vulnerable people.”

How do you see Paris after this emergency? How will the city change?

Giulia: “What I can say is that many things have happened in Paris over the last years, the city has been through a lot. However, our society has improved, also in terms of people showing solidarity. I’m not saying that our society is perfect now, because there are still huge problems and we can tell by the number of people who still come to the Refettorio and need our help, but in my opinion the city has changed for the better. My hope is that this period will bring further solidarity.”

Flavia: “First of all, I think that the whole world should stop for a moment to look around, understand what mistakes we have made as human beings, but also what our strengths are. Here in Paris, people have slowed down, now they think more about the future. During this crisis we learned to live day by day, to organize ourselves, to think more about the details, what we eat, the time we take for ourselves and that we dedicate to our loved ones.”

What measures can be taken in the kitchen (including at home) to cut down food waste and move towards a more conscious consumption?

Flavia: “These moments can drive real change, and as human beings we must learn to use every ingredient at their best and must understand that we shouldn’t just fill our stomach but also take care of our body and mind, thus learn to waste less. We have to learn how to make the best out of all possible cooking and preparation techniques, from fermentation to morning smoothies (an excellent  breakfast these days). That’s why a project like the Refettorio, which involves people from different fields who are able to make the best out of techniques and recipes, is extremely important.”

We have definitely been changing our habits, starting from our relationship with food – now we have more time to open the fridge and see what we already have instead of going out to buy more. What advice would you give so that this experience could be a learning opportunity for the future?

Flavia: “My advice would be to learn everything we can about the ingredients we use, what effects they have on our body, and learn different recipes to use the same ingredients in different ways. The act of eating is a very important one, and we should dedicate time to it – we should give ourselves, and those around us, the time to feed ourselves, find out as much as possible about each ingredient and buy consciously, learn to tell seasonal products from those that are not.”

Music has been playing an important role during the lockdown, in many countries it has been an element of cohesion, an instrument of unity, of solidarity – the same sense of solidarity that you can find within the Refettorio…

Giulia: “Music connects people like nothing else in the world. The guests – as well as the volunteers – have many nationalities, speak many different languages, not all of them speak French, and through music, just like with food, they are always able to understand each other. We never give art, music and painting the attention they deserve. They are always taken for granted, and in the last period people have become more aware of it. Imagine if we didn’t have art, if couldn’t listen to music, if we couldn’t read a book…there would be very little left we could do at home! 

Here’s an episode that I remember: Rachide is a guest at the Refettorio who occasionally also comes to volunteer, and he has a great passion for music. One night he stayed for dinner together with the other volunteers, and when we started talking he asked me a lot of questions about music. I was very surprised because he knew everything, all the artists I was talking about, and I was so touched that I gave him tickets to go see the rehearsals of a music concert.

Thanks to the Refettorio, even guests who can’t afford art, have the opportunity to enjoy it. it’s amazing. Yo Yo Ma, the greatest cellist in the world, came to the Refettorio once and the guests had the chance to listen to him…they loved him!”