The opening scene of the first episode of Netflix's cult foodie docuseries "Chef's Table" starts with the 2012 earthquake that shattered the Italian town Modena. Local chef Massimo Bottura stepped in to rescue some 360,000 wheels of damaged Parmigiano-Reggiano. He came up with a recipe for risotto cacio e pepe and got people around the world to cook it. All the cheese wheels were sold, and no jobs were lost. That was "a recipe as a social gesture," said Bottura in the show.
The creative and social work of the Osteria Francescana owner focuses on the culture of zero waste. Famously, when a pastry chef mishandled a dessert, it became one of the restaurant's signature dishes, Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart, part of the vision and humor that has seen it be named World's Best Restaurant twice. In 2015, he and wife Lara Gilmore started Food for Soul, a project focused on cutting food waste and feeding the poor.
Now Bottura, who's also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is focused on food waste in people's homes. This week he unveiled the "Why Waste?" project, a video series featuring tips and recipes from his team of chefs to inspire home cooks to make the best of leftovers and prevent waste. He hopes to inspire a shift in how we think about food.
This is a critical moment: Almost 1 billion tons of ready-for-sale food gets wasted every year, most of it at home, according to UNEP. Rotting scraps contribute as much as 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the world might be wasting about 40% of all food produced, according to a report this week from World Wildlife Fund and U.K. retailer Tesco.
"We want to communicate that wasting food is not acceptable in 2021," Bottura says from Modena via an interview. "The chefs have to step out from the kitchen, talk to the young generations, and be ethical mentors."
This chef has done more than talk about the problem. Food for Soul has opened more than a dozen Refettorios-sleek soup kitchens that fight food waste by turning surplus supermarket ingredients into meals for those with insecure access to food. A half-million meals were served at the Refettorios last year, he says. There are more than a dozen around the world, from London to Manhattan's Harlem to Rio de Janeiro.
"In 2021, the chef is more than the sum of his recipes," says Bottura. "It's the way he acts. He's the example for the new generation, especially at our level."
Standouts of the "Why Waste?" series include Takahiko Kondo, a sous chef at Osteria Francescana, turning a Parmegiano Reggiano crust into crackers by using a microwave, and Jessica Rosval of Casa Maria Luigia in Modena making beef fat trimmings into a substitute for oil and butter.
I took him at his word. Because it's summer, I replaced the carrots and broccoli called for in the original recipe below with zucchini, spinach, and broad beans from my seasonal veg box, accounting for the same weight – 5-1/2 ounces. While the bechamel sauce is easily made, next time I might try using crème fraîche thinned with a little milk to save a step.
The result is the ultimate comfort food: chewy pasta rounds punctuated with hearty bites of meat and bright-tasting vegetables, all lightly bound with the sauce. It's baked in a store-bought pie crust that makes it even more delightful, an unexpected filling within a crust.
Bottura challenged his chefs to come up with innovative leftover recipes, but he's also challenging the world. It's something to consider the next time you open your fridge, thinking there's nothing there.