Two Years of Impact at Refettorio Geneva

Reflecting on Impact, Sustainability, and the Future with Chef Walter El Nagar, Chef of Refettorio Geneva and Founder of Mater Fondazione

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As the project marks its second anniversary, we sit down with Chef Walter El Nagar, the visionary behind the culinary excellence and sustainability initiatives at Refettorio Geneva.

Since opening its doors in 2022, the Refettorio has embarked on an extraordinary journey, placing innovation, research, and a dedication to quality and sustainability at the heart of its mission, proudly certified with a remarkable 100% food waste certification.

Beyond the kitchen, Refettorio Geneva has become a haven for struggling families, fragile individuals, and various others in need. Serving over 8500 hospitality meals and distributing 2000+ meals in the community in 2023 alone, it has emerged as a beacon in the fight for the Right to Food and inclusive arts.

From addressing food insecurity to fostering education and community engagement, Chef Walter shares insights into the impactful journey of Refettorio Geneva. As we celebrate this milestone, we delve into the heart of the project, exploring its innovative approaches to reducing food waste, its commitment to holistic nourishment, and the exciting future initiatives that aim to amplify its mission.

 

How has Refettorio Geneva, over its two years of operation, contributed to the local community and what impact has it had on addressing food insecurity?

The most significant milestone for us at Mater has been the establishment of Refettorio Geneva, which stands out as the only venue in Geneva providing dinner during weekdays. Addressing a critical need in our community, Refettorio represents our most substantial achievement to date. This year, we’ve observed a remarkable surge in our service capabilities, a testament to both our expanding influence and the community’s growing reliance on our services. We’ve successfully increased our service outreach by 50% compared to last year, now serving 55 people each night, up from 35. This expansion highlights our dedication to addressing the escalating needs of our community amidst challenging economic and societal times.

Refettorio Geneva has become a sanctuary for the most vulnerable groups, including families, single mothers grappling with various hardships, and a considerable influx of Ukrainian war refugees. It’s not just about providing meals; it’s also about offering a space for comfort and support.

Our service capacity’s 50% growth this year was made feasible by strengthening partnerships with local community organizations and through initiatives like our Refettorio Committee. Our increasing operational expertise and skills, sharpened through everyday operations, have been instrumental in facilitating this growth.


Refettorio Geneva is known for its commitment to reducing food waste. Can you share some innovative approaches or initiatives undertaken by the kitchen to minimize waste and repurpose surplus ingredients?

At Refettorio Geneva, our strategy in tackling food waste goes beyond conventional approaches, venturing into innovative culinary techniques. In 2023, we embraced advanced upcycling practices, significantly cutting down our food waste while enhancing the quality and taste of our dishes.

Our kitchen uses various methods to repurpose food waste and surplus, including freeze-drying, drying, lacto-fermentation, pickling, enzymatic fermentation, and brewing. These techniques enable us to convert potential waste into valuable culinary ingredients. We source the ingredients for our upcycling from several places: scraps from our kitchen, whole foods donated by partners, and leftovers from events. This strategy not only reduces waste but also ensures full utilization of every ingredient we receive.

Our efforts in 2023 led to a notable decrease of 4.5 kg in daily food waste. We limited compostable waste to uneaten food from guests and a few scraps that couldn’t be processed. A key achievement of our upcycling is the creation of a variety of food seasonings, allowing us to eliminate table salt usage entirely. This cycle enhances our meal flavors and fosters sustainable cooking practices.
The success of our upcycling has resulted in a surplus of seasoning by-products. Leveraging this, we started selling these unique seasonings to our guests. This initiative not only further reduces waste but also lets our patrons share in Refettorio Geneva’s commitment to sustainability.


In addition to providing meals, how does Refettorio Geneva incorporate educational and community-building elements to create a holistic impact on its guests?

In April 2023, Refettorio Geneva took a significant step beyond its core mission of providing meals by organizing a “Demopratic Forum.” This event exemplified our commitment to incorporating educational and community-building elements into our services, thereby creating a more holistic impact on our guests.

The Demopratic Forum was designed as a platform for open dialogue and education, fostering a sense of community and shared learning among those who attended. This event not only brought together guests from diverse backgrounds but also involved local leaders, experts, and activists in discussions about crucial social issues, sustainability, and community welfare. The Forum served as an interactive space where guests could voice their opinions, learn from others, and engage in meaningful conversations, thus enhancing their understanding of vital societal topics.

By hosting this event, Refettorio Geneva demonstrated its dedication to not just addressing immediate needs like hunger but also empowering its guests through knowledge and community engagement. The Demopratic Forum stands as a testament to our belief that nourishment goes beyond food, encompassing intellectual stimulation, emotional support, and the strengthening of community bonds.

 

As a pioneer in the culinary field with a strong focus on sustainability, what do you believe is the next frontier for projects like Refettorio Geneva in terms of addressing global challenges and inspiring positive change?

As a leader in sustainable culinary initiatives, Refettorio Geneva’s next step is to evolve into a center for radical advocacy, aiming to contribute to systemic change. This means expanding our role from addressing immediate needs to actively influencing the policies and systems that underlie these challenges.
Our goal is to become a catalyst for change, advocating for sustainable practices in food systems, environmental policies, and social welfare. By working alongside policymakers, environmental groups, and community leaders, Refettorio Geneva can help tackle issues like food waste and hunger at their source.
Refettorio Geneva’s future lies in using its influence to drive substantial and lasting change in sustainability and social responsibility on a global scale.


Considering the journey of Refettorio Geneva so far, how do you foresee its future impact on the local community, and what developments or initiatives are you excited to explore in the coming years to enhance its mission and reach?

Reflecting on Refettorio Geneva’s journey so far, the future impact on the local community is envisioned to be even more profound and expansive. One of our key aspirations is to significantly increase the number of people we serve. Recognizing a critical gap in Geneva – the scarcity of food availability for those in need during weekends – we are keenly focused on extending our services to cover these days as well.
This expansion to weekend operations is not just about serving more meals; it’s about providing consistent support and nourishment to those who find themselves most vulnerable during these times. By being open on weekends, Refettorio Geneva can become a more comprehensive haven for the community, ensuring that no individual or family is left without a reliable source of healthy food throughout the week.

Looking ahead, we are excited to explore this initiative as a priority. Our goal is to mobilize resources, strengthen partnerships, and adjust operations to make this vision a reality. This development aligns closely with our mission to combat food insecurity and underscores our commitment to addressing pressing needs within the Geneva community.