Theatre of Life: Massimo Bottura’s plan for wasted food

The documentary Theatre of Life is a lovely film about a lovely initiative, started by a lovely man. (Yes, most sentences are impoverished by adjectives, and the worst sentences contain three repetitions of the same adjective. Not off to a good start then.)

It’s a film about what started as chef Massimo Botturo’s idea to deal with all the wasted food at the 2015 Milan Expo (that tagline of which was rather ironically “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”). It was (and remains) a fantastic initiative – everyone’s favourite Danish chef René Redzepi after all told Massimo that he’s now “in it for life!” (ie. Robert De Niro, below) – which basically involves getting star chef buddies from around the globe (hello Ferran Adrià, Joan Rocca, Mario Batali, Alex Atala, Daniel Humm, et al.) to fashion amazing food out of stuff like stale bread and veggies no one (who’s paying) wants to eat.

Massimo and Bob planning their next strike

So we see an assortment of people who normally call train station benches their bed come to the Refettorio for a meal prepared by one of aformentioned chefs, which for anyone who’s watched Chef’s Table and gives a shit about who’s doing what what in the food world, is frankly an exercise in jealousy (not to mention, ‘ooh, look what you can do with stale bread and old carrots’).

(My apologies. I don’t mean to be flippant about homeless people in Milan, or future plans with Robert De Niro.)

But there is – designed or not – a palpable disconnect between chefs who are regularly hailed as some of the best in the world, and this particular set of diners. One exchange brings it to light:

(While plating warm fennel cream, and tapping bottom of the plate to even out the dollop, like “proper”)

Chef: “You make a ball of panzanella… this is like a fennel oil… a little bit of orange….I don’t know how to approach… I don’t know…how to talk, or to say something… because … I cannot ask ‘How is your life going?’ or ‘what are you doing?’ or ‘How was yesterday?’… I don’t know, I think it’s not delicate, but you need to be careful what you want to express”

Diner: “We need to eat. But the chefs, they speak about the tables, about the Expo, about everything. But our problems? Nobody speaks about that. For this, I prefer to go out from there… I feel like an object, not a person. The real problems are here. How to go to sleep. How to eat. After Expo, I don’t know what will happen here.”

Massimo: “Since the 13th century, when this idea of the family was born, sitting around the table for Italians is like sharing a piece of bread, sharing something… sitting around a table for an Italian is sharing, dreaming, fighting, making peace, breaking bread, making tortellini, cooking one line called spaghetti. It’s about… you know…  a sense of a family.”

Massimo’s sensibility here is wonderful, and the film does actually do it justice, with scenes of people enjoying food which the rest of us would pay good money for, but there is still something bizarre about seeing chefs who are used to feeding the 1% doing charity work, and their obvious discomfort with some aspect of that.

I’m not here to diss the incentive, but rather to ask the question of why – or whether? – addressing hunger and waste is up to the top chefs of the world? Why, I might ask for the first time ever, wasn’t Jamie O. invited to the party? He’s been doing his fair bit for a while now, after all…

I’m all for all relevant parties getting involved in good stuff to make the world more bearable, including for homeless people in Milan and elsewhere, and chefs are excellent ambassadors of that sort of thing, because they do have access to a lot of good stuff which would otherwise be thrown out (and they’re also *generally* really nice people).

But I worry that philanthropic pursuits like Massimo’s will be translated into an idea that it’s a chef’s job to fix the world, because he – or she! – traffics in the comfort of eating. Massimo’s (and Jamie’s) contribution is laudable, but they should not be necessary.