It’s Monday morning at the Refettorio Ambrosiano and the whole place is buzzing with excitement. Three years ago, an abandoned theatre in the outskirts of Milan, was transformed into a brand-new community kitchen. Open to the whole neighbourhood and designed to be a safe space for people in need and marginalised members of the community, the Refettorio is today a unique example of hospitality and renaissance.
While staff and volunteers are busy with last-minute preparations, participants start coming in. The event, organised by the Caritas Ambrosiana to celebrate the third anniversary since the opening, isn’t only a moment of celebration, but a reminder that through sustainability, culture, and dignity we can make our communities more resilient and our food system more inclusive.
The first to arrive is Davide Rampello, the person behind the artistic transformation of the Refettorio. He is followed by Luciano Gualzetti, director of Caritas Ambrosiana, and chef Massimo Bottura. As people find their seats, the three hug and shake hands, the atmosphere is cheerful and everyone is in the mood for celebrations.
“Everything’s changed in three years,” says Massimo, the excitement in his voice. “Today people don’t refer to food surplus as waste anymore, they talk about ingredients. This is a revolution that started in Milan, with the Refettorio. Today this place is even more beautiful than when we opened it, thanks to the great care and dedication of those who work here every day.”
“Today people don’t refer to food surplus as waste anymore, they talk about ingredients. This is a revolution that started in Milan, with the Refettorio. Today this place is even more beautiful than when we opened it, thanks to the great care and dedication of those who work here every day.”
Over the years, the Refettorio has welcomed 800 people – helping 200 rough sleepers to find stable accommodations, and 400 migrants to navigate the Italian bureaucracy and sort out their visas. “Most of them have now found jobs and are able to sustain themselves.” – explains Luciano.
But the Refettorio Ambrosiano is so much more than just a community kitchen, it’s a social hub for everyone – a place where culture, art and solidarity meet. Since 2015, the association Per il Refettorio has organised over 170 events, workshops and conferences helping to empower the local community while raising awareness on the issues of food waste and social isolation.
For Eugenia, one of the elderlies from the neighbourhood who participates in the afternoon workshops organised by the Refettorio every Friday, this place is almost a second home: “After my husband died, I couldn’t find the strength to leave the house. The Refettorio gave me a new reason to live. Now, every night, I know that there’s someone waiting for me, so I get dressed and I go out.”
The Refettorio Ambrosiano is always full, always open to welcome vulnerable or isolated members of the community and offer them a nutritious meal in the company of others. Through food, and particularly through the transformation of surplus ingredients into delicious dishes, the Refettorio has been – and continues to be – pivotal in changing perspectives on food waste and social vulnerability.
As the event approaches its end, participants are offered a light lunch cooked by Ilenia di Pietro, chef of the Refettorio, and her team. The dishes are cooked with surplus ingredients and served to the participants by a team of restless volunteers.
“Every night, we need to come up with a menu using whatever ingredients we have,” explains Ilenia when asked about the difficulties of cooking with surplus food. “It’s a challenge every time, but the satisfaction of gifting a moment of peace and care to someone who’s having a difficult time, is absolutely priceless”.