Behind the doors of Refettorio Geneva

Refettorio Geneva opens its doors to the community that needs it most with space and programming that demonstrates its commitment to celebrating the vibrant union of cultures, science, finance, and the arts within the city. Walter El Nagar, chef, and founder of Mater Foundation, the operational partner of the Refettorio, will walk us through this beautiful journey.

WhatsApp Image 2021-12-24 at 11.09.27 (1)

Located in the new Quartet building in the Charmilles neighborhood of Geneva, the Refettorio has an open architecture floor plan placing the kitchen at its center where the team’s culinary creativity will be on full display. A contemporary design offers a simply elegant and welcoming environment filled by day with natural light emanating from the surrounding glass windows that transition into a soft glow featuring Artemide lighting design in the evening.  The interior beverage, kitchen, and innovation lab are framed in a natural wood design lined with artfully placed cubicles to display specialty plate ware, glassware, cookbooks, a four-hand pasta table, and delights made by the culinary team’s preservation and fermentation program. At the head of the lab and event space is the delicate neon sign created by Mai-Thu, a multidisciplinary Swiss artist of Franco-Vietnamese origin known for installations that blend her passion for literature, feministic politics.  The front and back of the house preparation areas are covered in onyx and pearl tiles, the dining room floor and walls in poured concrete grey adorned by plantlife, and the backdrop for Michelangelo Pistoletto’s table of Third Paradise, a collaboration with Cittadelarte.  At the entrance, is the artistic centerpiece of the Refettorio on loan by Contemporary Artist John Armleder, a dazzling piece of color, texture, and dimension.  The artwork sits center stage on a geometric blue wallpaper with shades of silver and black, also contributed by Mai-Thu. 



With more to come about Refettorio Geneva’s design features, we dig deeper into the origin of this special project, Chef Walter Nager’s ambitions, and the impact goals he has for those most vulnerable in Geneva. A passion project initially offered as a gesture on Saturdays to those in need inside his restaurant space became the ambition and energy behind Refettorio Geneva. In a city known around the world for prosperity, wealth and peace sit uncomfortable and growing numbers of an expanded population experiencing food insecurity, homelessness, and poverty. While Geneva has a number of community health and human service programs, none has been addressing food assistance in a holistic and dignified cultural space for those isolated, marginalized, and on the periphery. More are becoming attuned to this but Nager is one of the first to turn his culinary talent and focus on filling the hunger gap with hospitality and leaning fully into the Refettorio concept as a perfect foundation to provide nourishing meals with dignity. In just 18 months, the audacious task was completed and the Refettorio Geneva project was born to hub these essential needs and play host to a network of creative thinkers to expand opportunities of social, economic, and environmental equity. The expansive space allows for an evolution of program services with easy adaptability to meet the growing diverse needs of the population.  This includes the opening of its social kitchen serving part-time as Restaurant Solidaire with 100% contribution supporting the evening service for beneficiaries.  

Welcome to Refettorio Geneva, we can’t wait to see how you grow.


1. How was Refettorio Geneva born? What is the difference between the Refettorio and other associations or soup kitchens in Switzerland that distribute meals to people in need?

Refettorio Geneva was born under the impulse of enlarging my previous restaurant “le Cinquieme Jour”, which was an avant-garde restaurant that every Saturday transformed into a social table. The original idea was to transform it into a nonprofit, from which Mater foundation sprung, and to increase the size: from 12 seats to 80. Then the pandemic exploded and by a lucky encounter, I met one of the people behind Refettorio Paris… and so we thought: hey why not? Why don’t we put the whole thing under the Refettorio umbrella? And here we are.
The main difference is that I design it, and will run it, as a proper restaurant with hospitality first,meaning high culinary standards, professionalism, creativity, and productiveness. The rest of the panorama is quite sad, dirty, and very outdated, employing basically 0% of professionals in the food service.


2. Can you tell us something about the artistic collaborations behind this project? How does Refettorio highlight the ‘Power of Beauty’, one of Food for Soul’s Guiding Principles?

The central part of the art program is the tables set, or “Opera Demopratica Ginevra” which we realized in collaboration with Fondazione Pistoletto, to implement the demopraxys method, around food, social inclusion, and gastronomy.
Armleder and Mai-Tu donated two magnificent pieces and will get involved in a local artist collective to further expand what we can do into and outside the space.


3. The Refettorio model is based on the power of collaboration with other actors such as organizations, businesses, universities, volunteers, etc. Will it be the same for the Refettorio Geneva? How can these relationships help Refettorio’s work and mission?

Most definitely, I will be crazy to be here in Geneva and don’t fully dive into the richness of the international organizations’ ecosystem. In addition, incredibly enough we are not the only social restaurant in town, there is a whole group already existing and/or about to be born: Bateau Geneve, Bridhouse, Cuisine Lab, and The Wind Mill. We will try to form a tight alliance for the mutual benefit of the businesses and the beneficiaries. Our main partner for the volunteer pooling is still, and always will be, Serve the City.


4. How do you think Refettorio Geneva could help Food for Soul promote its mission and become a model to change the way people think about the food system?

If we succeed in becoming economically independent, covering the operational budget with mostly the revenue stream created during normal business hours, it will be a huge success and we hope to share this knowledge and experience with the FFS and with other organizations. This with the higher goal of “stepping up the game” of social inclusion, from the charity sector, donations depended, to a new hybrid form based on professional services and social responsibility. We have been approached by some incredible economists, praising our effort and cheering for the success of this endeavor, hopefully, we will not fail.  


5. What is the role of a chef who cooks in Refettorio’s kitchen? How can new techniques and habits contribute to creating a more sustainable ecosystem and helping our planet?

The role of the chefs at Refettorio Geneva is to be better chefs, better persons, and serious professionals, with a higher sense of responsibility toward the society we live in. This is also a general wish we make for the whole restaurant sector. It is time to be serious and committed, it is now or never.