Montreal’s Top Chefs Join Forces to Fight Food Waste and Feed the Homeless With the City’s Leftovers

The initiative, which was founded by husband-and-wife restauranteurs Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore in 2016, sources surplus food from local restaurants, supermarkets, farmers, and suppliers to prepare meals for the homeless and hungry.
December 21, 2019, 4:00 PM UTC
A chef prepares more than 95 plates at Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Food for Soul / Angelo Dal Bo

You can’t throw a stone from St. George’s Anglican Church in downtown Montreal without hitting one of the city’s landmarks. The Bell Centre (home ice for the Montreal Canadiens), the Queen Elizabeth and Marriott Chateau Champlain hotels, and the Sun Life Building are among the heritage attractions that tower around the neo-Gothic, gray-stone building. Neighbors like these make the parish a prime location for Canada’s first Refettorio.

Slated to open next fall, Montreal’s Refettorio joins an ensemble of dining halls around the world that feed the hungry with unsold food from supermarkets, restaurants, and producers. The concept was developed by Italian chef Massimo Bottura, of Osteria Francescana renown, and his partner Lara Gilmore, for the 2015 Milan Expo. The following year, backed by their new nonprofit, Food for Soul, the duo brought the Refettorio and 50 world-class chefs to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in an effort to transform Village leftovers into gourmet cuisine for those in need.

Chefs-in-training prepare ingredients as a part of La Tablée des Chefs Kitchen Brigades youth education program.
La Tablées des Chefs

While initially tied to events, these Refettorios evolved into full-time community kitchens, spurring another two to open in London’s St. Cuthbert’s Centre and the crypt of L’église de la Madeleine in Paris. Three more are set to open in New York, San Francisco, and Mérida, Mexico. Plans for Montreal were as eventful as they were spontaneous. In May 2016, Bottura had come to promote the Theater of Life documentary about Refettorio Ambrosiano in Milan, and wanted to organize a mini-Refettorio and charity dinner alongside the screening. He quickly learned that when it comes to rallying chefs and salvaging food in Quebec, there’s one name you need to know: Jean-François Archambault. 

Since 2002, Archambault’s organization La Tablée des Chefs has recovered more than 900 tons of surplus food and rerouted the equivalent of 3 million portions to people facing food insecurity. When he heard Bottura’s request, he sprang into action. “It was like Christmas, a top chef in the world coming to town,” he says. In a short time he set up a kitchen, sourced excess produce from IGA supermarkets, and recruited Mexico’s Enrique Olvera to join acclaimed local chefs in donning aprons that read “no more excuses.”

The meal, which was served to members of the Old Mission Brewery’s homeless community, was so successful that when Bottura was later asked at the event’s talk about establishing a permanent Refettorio in Montreal, he simply put the question to Archambault. “I looked at him, and I said: ‘Of course, let’s do it,’” Archambault recalls. Bottura gave him a chef’s vest with the inscription “Cooking is an act of love,” and later a copy of his cookbook Bread Is Gold, with a dedication to Montreal’s then new mayor, Valérie Plante. To deliver the book and get the green light, Archambault waited in line for three hours at City Hall’s Christmas open house.

St. George’s Anglican Church will be the venue for Montreal’s Refettorio, scheduled to open in the fall of 2020. Protected by its heritage status, the neo-Gothic building has stood tall amid downtown high-rise development.
Katie Sehl/FORTUNE

John Winter Russell, esteemed chef behind the garden-culled menu at Candide, will oversee the kitchen as work at St. George’s Anglican Church gets started. He’s one of a select few who have two Refettorios under their belt. Three days before opening Candide, he flew to Milan to take part in his first, alongside the likes of Alain Ducasse, René Redzépi, and Nadia Santini. Winter Russell says Montreal’s lineup will be just as impressive, with Patrice Demers, Marc-André Jetté, Stefano Faita, Simon Mathys and Marie-Fleur St-Pierre among those who have signed on. Joe Beef’s David McMillan and Fred Morin have also expressed interest, as well as Dyan Solomon from Olive & Gourmando.

“I guarantee you we could probably have a different guest chef every day of the year just with chefs in Montreal,” he says. Foster-care youth from La Tablée des Chefs’ educational brigade will also be able to earn internships sweating shoulder to shoulder with Montreal’s best. The kitchen, which will be open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, will require 10 cooks and about 20 volunteers to serve as many as 300 meals a day in the dining hall. “It’s not just getting food into people’s mouths,” Winter Russell explains. “What the Refettorio does is it starts a process to try and get someone who doesn’t think of themselves as much of a human being to believe in themselves.”

The Reverend Canon Doctor Neil Mancor of St. George’s Anglican Church (left) and Jean-François Archambault, founder of La Tablée des Chefs, meet to discuss Montreal’s Refettorio planned for fall 2020.
Katie Sehl/FORTUNE

Tentative blueprints will see the hall renovated into a community hub, with a takeout counter, piano, stage, and mural commissioned by MU—the art group responsible for already iconic 21-story tribute to Leonard Cohen on Crescent Street. The parish, which had been struggling to run a drop-in eatery of its own, has heartily welcomed the transformation. It was Winter Russell—whose restaurant is nested in a former church presbytery—who first put Archambault in touch with Natalie Voland, president of Quo Vadis, a leading real estate developer in Quebec that specializes in the rehabilitation and preservation of heritage sites.

“When you stand in front of this church and turn around, you see Montreal’s heritage,” says Archambault. He knows the area intimately. Around the corner at the Stikeman Elliott law firm, meeting remainders are collected and dropped off at the Women’s Y, supplying 5,000 meals a year. Unfinished fare from the Bell Centre’s 124 private boxes are recovered and delivered to the Welcome Hall Mission. With a Refettorio in the city, Archambault now has a place to direct raw goods, allowing La Tablée’s redistribution of prepared food to continue to grow across the province and country.

By 2025, city officials plan to introduce a bylaw that will prohibit sellers from throwing out unsold food. Before then, Archambault says, a stronger cold-chain infrastructure will need to be put in place to ensure food makes it to the hungry in time. According to a study commissioned by food rescue organization Second Harvest, 58% of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted, 32% of which could be saved to support communities in need.

“The Refettorio is going to be one of many solutions that are going to shine and bring this solution to life,” Archambault says. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be really worth it.”

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