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Chef's table: Refettorio Gastromotiva, Rio de Janeiro, by Metro Arquitetos Associados

Fighting food waste, malnutrition and social exclusion, the Refettorio Gastromotiva brings hope to Rio’s most marginalised

During the day, Refettorio Gastromotiva appears at odds with its surroundings. Between two of Rio’s most historic neighbourhoods, Glória and Lapa, the Refettorio is five minutes’ walk from the nucleus of Rio’s nightlife under the iconic whitewashed 18th-century aqueduct, and mere seconds from the multi-coloured, tiled Selarón staircase. It contrasts starkly with the neighbouring buildings, with its boxy shape and semi-opaque walls forming a blunt divergence from the crumbling colonial townhouses in pastel tones that sit opposite.

However, by night a soft yellow glow emanates from Refettorio Gastromotiva, appeasing the dark, sharp corners of that stretch of road. The Refettorio’s mission is precisely to bring light to underserved social issues, drawing attention and providing solutions. First conceptualised in 2015 as the brainchild of Italian chef Massimo Bottura and David Hertz, a Brazilian chef and social entrepreneur, Refettorio Gastromotiva took aim at homelessness, youth unemployment, social exclusion and food waste in a single stroke. 

Refettorio gastromotiva angelodalbo 0999

Refettorio gastromotiva angelodalbo 0999

Source: Angelo Dal Bo

At night the buzz of the Refetterio Gastromotiva is palpable from the street

‘The idea was to have a translucent facade that would light up at night, like a lantern,’ says Gustavo Cedroni, the building’s architect and co-founder of architecture firm Metro. Cedroni already knew Hertz’s work with Gastromotiva, and so agreed to work with Hertz and Bottura on designing and building the Refettorio. In a slightly forgotten corner of the city, he explained, lay the potential to change the space’s meaning through a building that reflected the sentiments behind the social project it housed: a Modernist building, by breaking with what came before, speaks to searching for innovative solutions. 

The Refettorio feeds the homeless, but it is a vastly different experience from a soup kitchen. Every night, its visiting crowds are served healthy, well-presented dishes made from food that would have been thrown out despite being in good condition. Moreover, the waiters are volunteers and the chefs are young adults from marginalised, low-income communities in Rio, who are completing training to become qualified chefs at Gastromotiva.

Refettorio gastromotiva angelodalbo 6227

Refettorio gastromotiva angelodalbo 6227

Source: Angelo Dal Bo

‘Refettorio comes from the Latin reficere, which is resgate (rescue),’ explains Mariana Vilhena, Gastromotiva’s communications coordinator. ‘So here we speak about rescuing food, but also of rescuing human dignity, which is the main aim of our dinners here. Soup kitchens exist, but we believe that food can be more than just nutrition.’

In addition to their feats in the culinary world, both Hertz and Bottura are famous for their social work. Hertz has worked extensively with gastronomy as a tool for social inclusion, while Bottura – whose three-Michelin-star restaurant Osteria Francescana ranked first among the world’s best 50 restaurants in 2016 and 2018 – founded non-profit Food For Soul to fight food wastage. After being introduced by a mutual friend, the two combined their interests with Refettorio Gastromotiva, where Bottura’s personal motto – that solutions must be both ethical and aesthetic – is a palpable influence.

In post-Olympics Rio, pre-existing social problems have been aggravated. Funding has evaporated along with international interest as the global gaze moves elsewhere, leaving venues from the 2016 Olympics to rot. Social projects, such as a football pitch in Penha favela made possible via corporate sponsorship, have fallen into disrepair. In comparison with 2014, Rio’s homeless population had tripled by 2017 and continues to worsen. 

Metrogastromotiva 367 copy

Metrogastromotiva 367 copy

Source: Ilana Bessler

The kitchen is the focal point of the enterprise, producing nutritional and well-presented dishes from food donations and promoting the social inclusion of patrons

‘Rio is beautiful, but it’s hostile’, says Vilhena. ‘Especially for those who live in its margins.’

Meanwhile, the city’s continued financial difficulties plus torpid national economic growth have seen unemployment increase. Ordinarily, chef training costs well beyond what working-class families on basic income might be able to afford. The bulk of Gastromotiva’s work, during its 12 years of existence, has been to provide free training and qualification for aspiring chefs from poorer backgrounds through university partnerships and corporate sponsorship. Inside the Refettorio, their position takes up the open-plan space’s centre in a state-of-the-art open kitchen.

Behind the kitchen and across from its marble showroom worktop is a wooden auditorium structure, for students to watch technical demonstrations or observe guest chefs. The kitchen’s central placement is symbolic of its role in connecting students and professionals to the people they serve, and to create an idea among its visitors of how restaurant kitchens work. ‘It’s in the middle because it connects everything. It’s like a heart, everything pulses around this kitchen,’ says Vilhena. 

Refettorio gastromotiva angelodalbo 2182

Refettorio gastromotiva angelodalbo 2182

Source: Angelo Dal Bo

With the menu determined by the food donations received each week, students are also forced to think outside the box about what they can serve. In the middle of the day, some of the 500 kilograms of tomatoes the Refettorio received this week sit in a big, sealed vat, slowly turning into sauce. Bertalha, a spinach variation, has been incorporated into a pasta dough; wilted yellowing exteriors have been peeled off crate loads of cabbage to reveal gleaming, deep purple leaves; the mountain of bananas has been turned into ice cream. Once they’re done, any waste is composted.

‘The students have contact with a lot of very different professionals, in terms of personalities, cooking styles, ways of plating – so they’re always accessing new and different things,’ says Manuela Alves, a 34-year-old pastry chef who volunteered in early August. In traditional restaurants, chefs work with the same people, techniques and dishes every day, making the Refettorio a true field for learning. ‘It was special to be able to pass on a little of my knowledge, as well as to feed people,’ she says.

The training clearly pays off for the junior chefs, who have gone on to work in some of Rio’s fanciest food establishments such as colonial-era patisserie, Confeitaria Colombo. But it also has a direct impact on the lives of those who arrive to eat: many have been able to build community through the space, decided to get back in touch with their families, and find the confidence to start seeking employment again. Some have even wanted to enter Refettorio’s programme as trainee chefs.

Metro drawings 1

Metro drawings Refettorio Gastromotiva

Click to download

Metro drawings 2

Metro drawings 2

For Alves, the need for such programmes is urgent. ‘Rio is passing through a very difficult moment, but the homeless population even more so. So for them to have somewhere to have a meal, be treated in a way that is dignified, that’s really important,’ she says.

Although Gastromotiva works in three different Brazilian states, as well as in El Salvador and South Africa, the Refettorio is unique. It believes that the pilot is adaptable to any location, but funding has always remained the most uncertain challenge its staff face. As the launch date grew closer, Hertz had despaired: after more than 70 rejections of corporate support, he couldn’t see how they could bring their dream to life.

Instead, Bottura made the first investment in the Refettorio through Food For Soul. Partnerships shortly followed with Coca-Cola, Cargill and Carrefour, all of which remain key corporate partners today. ‘The corporations are what maintain us, what allow us to stay here in this space and this operation, because they understand the power of this social gastronomy that we do,’ says Vilhena. The only help the Refettorio received from the municipal government was a 10-year lease for the land it is built on.

Sketches

Sketches

Metrogastromotiva 212 copy

Metrogastromotiva 212 copy

Source: Ilana Bessler

By the time Gastromotiva was finally able to start the Refettorio’s construction process, they had an empty, run-down lot and just 54 days to go until the opening. On the launch night, the Refettorio still didn’t have a working stove, instead borrowing a camping stove from one of its neighbouring buildings. But Bottura and Hertz didn’t let that detract from their ideal of a space where society’s most ignored could feel at home. They were determined to put in the effort to ensure that their plans for the space evolved, rather than being compromised by time constraints, incorporating already-present features like bare brick walls into the design. ‘Outside here, [the homeless] often feel like rats. It’s 60 minutes of their day in which they can feel human,’ says Vilhena. 

Today, the interior walls remain the bare brick seen in countless upscale European bistros and American coffee chains. They provide a backdrop for donated oeuvres from some of Brazil’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, including Vik Muniz, the Campana Brothers and Maneco Quinderé. A choir is among the musical acts that sometimes perform during dinner, bringing an element of entertainment to the diners. Refettorio Gastromotiva hopes soon to open to the public for lunch, providing another funding source.

Metrogastromotiva 288 copy

Metrogastromotiva 288 copy

Source: Ilana Bessler

While using basic materials, the whole aesthetic had to be an intentional divergence from what Rio’s homeless would see in their daily life, according to architect Cedroni. For this reason, the space’s careful curation – its kitchen-heart in the centre, its night-time glow from the outside, its colourful artwork, the volunteer waiters and visiting chefs – are all fundamental to creating its atmosphere. ‘It had to be something magical,’ he says. ‘It’s a special event for those who come here.’

Architect: Metro Arquitetos Associados

Project team: Gustavo Cedroni, Martin Corullon, Helena Cavalheiro, Marina Ioshii, Amanda Amicis, Gabriela Santana, João Quinas, Luís Tavares, Manuela Porto, Rafael de Sousa, Renata Mori

Structural engineer: Ricardo Bozza – Inner

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today

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