Life’s secret ingredient

Rodrigo Ottoni, kitchen volunteer at Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, told us about his greatest passion: cooking. “There are no words to describe it”, he says. Here’s the secret to escaping the routine of everyday life: do what you love, do it for yourself, and do it for others.

Ottoni 1

Credits: Refettorio Gastromotiva

How long have you been volunteering in the kitchen of Refettorio Gastromotiva? How did this experience start?

In June 2018, I left the Brazilian Navy to look for something that was more related to cooking, which was always my biggest passion. One day, my cousin – who is a social worker – sent me a DM on Instagram and asked me how I would feel about volunteering and whether it could be more aligned with what I love to do. That’s when I was first introduced to the Refettorio. I signed up as a volunteer and for their entrepreneurship course. At first, they called me only to attend, but right after the course, Jander – the Assistant Coordinator – asked me to help in the kitchen. And I never left.

What is the best part about volunteering?

Volunteering with what I love to do – which is cooking…there are no words to describe it! Before, I had no idea that social gastronomy could transform people’s lives. But after I started volunteering at the Refettorio, I saw it very closely. When I use my energy to cook the food that is served to the guests, it becomes a very fair exchange. The Refettorio has allowed me to do what I love, and in return I donate my time and skills. As I said: I can’t describe it.

Let’s take a very common ingredient in your country, like bananas for example, which you must receive a lot of at the Refettorio. Have you ever thought you could use them in so many different ways?

Before working at the Refettorio, I had never really thought about the different ways I could use ingredients to avoid wasting them. Now, it feeds my creativity to be able to look at food and bring the best out of it, in order to make sure that nothing goes to waste. 

How important is the human factor in a job like this? How’s your relationship with the rest of the team and with the other volunteers?

Sometimes we come across students and volunteers who have never seen a certain ingredient; that’s when I realize that I can teach them something special. I can tell them about its origin, how it is done and how it is eaten. The Gastromotiva team is very friendly. On top of everything they do, each one of them will always go a little beyond. The chefs I cook with, hold a special place in my heart: Suzana, Sardinha and Gil. The staff and volunteers who I interact with have always a smile for me and I can really feel that they care. It nourishes me and makes me feel like I belong there. 

After the Olympic Games in 2016, with the opening of Refettorio Gastromotiva, did you see any changes in the Lapa neighborhood and in the local community?

Before the opening of the Refettorio and before the Olympic Games, there was definitely a gentrification process happening in the neighborhood. But that ‘white-cube-by-day’ and  ‘lightened-cube-by-night’ that is the Refettorio gave more security, more movement, more light to everyone who passes by or lives here. The Refettorio managed to do a more social gentrification in a way, without forcing out the people who give life to the neighborhood. Instead it welcomed them in.

Do you have an experience with a guest that you would like to share?

We have a little girl – about 10 years old – who sits with her mother every day at dinner. Her name is Victoria. Every day after dinner, she asks Suzana (the chef) for a little more dessert. One day, Suzana was doing a different shift, so I was preparing dinner for the guests and I decided to make a very simple starter, but one made with love. It was wet rice cooked in meat stock – that’s all, very simple. I would have never guessed that she would come back and ask for more, and I was thrilled that such a simple dish could make a girl who loves desserts, so happy!