Volunteering at Refettorio Felix
Refettorio Felix at St Cuthbert
Refettorio Felix is Massimo Bottura’s latest charitable and sustainable effort, part of the project launched at the Milano expo a couple of years ago called Refettorio through the non profit Food for Soul. Massimo combined the fight against food waste with feeding those in needs, with the help of a bunch of partners (including Lavazza and Grundig) and volunteers as well as local established charitable soup kitchens. After the italian city and Rio, the London branch was opened and launched about a month ago, with the first ‘push’ seeing each day a famous or celebrity chef and his team cooking up a 3 course meal with ingredients provided by local super markets which would have otherwise gone to waste (past sellby date, too bruised or out of shape etc). So all in all, two great causes in one effort.
Food for Soul is a non-profit organisation founded by chef Massimo Bottura that fights food waste in support of social inclusion and individual well-being.
Since I love anything food related and I very much enjoy volunteering in my spare time (spare not so much lately of course), I joined a large number of volunteers for a couple of lunch services, to help serve the food, clear the tables and so forth. The location of the London Refettorio is in Earl’s Court, an odd choice perhaps given it is one of the wealthiest areas in London. It’s an existing community centre, and its space has been radically transformed by the project’s supporters into a smart looking, bright dining room with rest areas with comfy sofas, designer light fitting and smart cutlery and crockery.
My time there
The first day I was there, the chef in session was Johnny Lake, head chef at the famous Fat Duck. I wasn’t familiar with Johnny himself but of course, the Fat Duck was one of my most memorable meals ever. On the day, Johnny and his team cooked up a great lunch, using whatever had been delivered that morning. A starter of bruschetta with ham and parmesan flakes, a main of roast turkey and pork with chunky vegetables and lentils and a dessert of chocolate sponge cake with grilled caramelised peaches.
I managed to arrive on time for the briefing and we set off to lay down the tables. Some guests had already arrived and were taking their places. Each day the Refettorio caters for around 80 people and cat fit roughly 100 including the sofa areas. People just turn up at the door and get seated, nobody is ‘vetted’ in any way and all are welcome. The volunteers come from the catering industry mostly: I met some great guys and girls including the really cool Paulo de Tarso, owner of Margot restaurant in Covent Garden, a chef from Skye Gingell’s Spring restaurant, a waitress from Monica Galetti’s Mere, a waitress from New York on her gap year, and so forth. The first day I absolutely loved: the enthusiasm of everyone involved, us volunters and the charity’s full time staff who are fantastic, it was great fun to be part of such team. It was a good opportunity to meet some of the guests who had some interesting stories to tell too.
The second day however, a few weeks later, left me a little perplexed. Sadly, for me at least from a purely selfish point of view, the guest chef had cancelled his shift due to a family emergency. I will never know who it was meant to be but of course, having made the effort and paid a baby sitter as well, it was a tad disappointing as part of the experience is also to get to know professionals in the kitchen as well as taste their food (volunteers are fed what is left over after the service is finished). Still, the full time staff managed to whip up a delicious and amazing meal nonetheless so hats off to them for still successfully feeding over 80 people!
Am I too cynical?
I still had fun, don’t get me wrong – in fact, this second experience made me realise what really works for me is the team effort and the team spirit, the idea that we’re all working together on a common ‘goal’ so to speak. The permanent members of staff are all super nice and very committed. Yet myself and the other volunteers had some difficult ‘customers’ on our tables and that really made me think.. are we helping the right people? Already on my first day I left doubting all the punters were really ‘in need’.
The second session was even more confusing. A young man, dressed in trendy clothes, arrived late, sat and demanded his starter, and when he was served soup (instead of the salad with mozzarella which had run out) he massively complained and sat grumpy the entire meal, not interacting with his fellow diners and leaving just after finishing the dessert, still complaining. I had a group of 5 Polish men at my table, one particularly young and smug. I asked if they had any allergies and already they were up their own backside, answering ‘yes to brandi, martini’. Yeah right, sunshine. They when started verbally abusing me when the mains they got had no vegetables (the kitchen had run out) saying it was my fault and I wasn’t doing my job properly and I should serve the dessert to them first. I was very tempted to answer back, but I didn’t yet this really put a different spin on the experience.
Thankfully, across the table from them two lovely people said they were so sorry these rude men were abusing me and the volunteers generally and both of them were so kind and appreciative of our efforts .. this really make it worhwile. I’d have loved to find out more about them, delve into their lives to understand more. Completely different from each other, one a young, pretty girl who is a classical singer from Slovakia out of job and on the dole, living in a hostel; she was so apologetic for using the lunch service, almost embarrased. I told her it was great she could come and enjoy the food and I hoped she found a job soon. She was amazed we volunteers were not being paid for being there! Next to her, an older gentleman from Ireland, who was incredibly nice and complimentary and told me he has been to Napoli, to Roma… and then that he lives on a park bench which left me upset.
Of course, the first desserts got to them, and the very last to the young polish arsehole.
So this was it. I left still buzzing from the team experience but with a little sour taste in my mouth: I might be too cynical, but have we really helped those who need it? Yes for the most part, but I cannot help but feel that there’s others out there who really deserve this time and effort instead of those who just expect a free meal and have no gratitude for being fed, watered and served. I’d like perhaps if more respect was asked for the staff and volunteers and those who abuse the facilities get some form of ban, event temporary. I don’t feel is fair towards us or towards the other more deserving diners.
In this, I personally felt Refettorio misses the mark. But in all honesty, I don’t know how it would be possible to make sure those who deserve to be there, can get in and viceversa.
Any other opinions? I’d love to hear from others who have been involved, in London or elsewhere.