Three days before opening his Montreal restaurant Candide, chef Jonathan Winter Russell headed to Italy on an assignment to which he couldn't say no.
He was asked to feed refugees, recovering drug addicts, former sex workers, and whoever else needed a warm meal with food waste from Milan's 2015 universal exposition, whose theme was "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life."
Winter Russell and fellow countryman Jeremy Charles were invited to rep Canada and cook at Refettorio Ambrosiano, an abandoned theatre from the 1930s converted into a soup kitchen conceived by Osteria Francescana chef Massimo Bottura and Don Giuliano, the parish priest of Greco, one of Milan's poorest neighbourhoods.
Luckily, Canada's National Film Board (NFB) caught wind of the soup kitchen and tagged along to film the characters inside and outside of the kitchen for a documentary called Theater of Life, written and directed by Peter Svatek.
We caught up with Winter Russell at Candide as he whipped up a winter broccoli dish and talked about the takeaway lessons from working on such an ambitious project.
"If anyone tells you, 'Do you want to cook food for people who don't normally get to eat a whole lot of food?' Just right there, you say, 'Yes,'" Winter Russell says.
"Like, that's basically your job—your job is to cook food for people. And if they give you the opportunity to cook for a bunch of people who you don't normally cook for, I think, one, you take that opportunity. Second, you hope to get involved in a project that is going to develop and evolve and make some other people's lives better."
Needless to say, the disenfranchised of Greco were in very good hands throughout the Expo, with a revolving door of chefs that also included Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adrià, and René Redzepi. Every day, invited chefs were asked to come up with a three-course menu using only waste and leftovers from the Expo's Supermarket of the Future.
That meant not getting too fussy about expiry dates, and, naturally, lots of bread. "The idea that something that is 'day-old' or unusable for some people becomes something that you can feed people with. There was always 'day-old' bread; we were told to show up with the idea that you needed to use 'day-old' bread because there was so much of it."
As a result, Winter Russell decided to pulverise the "rock hard" bread into breadcrumbs and, with equal parts flour, turned it into a 'day-old' bread cake topped with bruised golden plums and a gelato made with almond packets from an expired chicken teriyaki container. Winter Russell was also quite pleased to be working with a "$16,000 gelato machine" that had been donated to Refettorio Ambrosiano.
For the main, Jeremy Charles, chef-owner of Newfoundland's legendary Raymonds, made a ground meat ragu served on a bed of polenta, something that made him a little uneasy because of how familiar it was to Italians.
"Here I am, in Italy, trying to make a ragu," Charles recounts. "It felt kind of sacrilege. I thought, Jesus Christ, I'll do my best!"
Still, it was the logical dish on that given day. "There was some ground pork and ground beef and lots of vegetables and cans of tomatoes and beautiful polenta in the walk-in. With 80 people to feed, it was kind of a natural thing to make. I love to make ragus, they're very comforting to eat. And it turned out quite lovely, I think.
"I wasn't going there to make any kind of avant-garde food. I was just there to feed people and comfort them with a hot meal in their stomach," Charles says. "I wasn't there to make a statement. I was there to treat people with the ingredients we had."
But Theater of Life isn't really about food. As its title suggests, it's about life—specifically, the lives of those eating at Refettorio Ambrosiano. Throughout the film, the impressive cast of chefs are treated very much like supporting characters to the refugees and homeless people for whom their menus were a matter of survival. It's a refreshing break from the slow-motion canonisation of chefs so often at the heart of food docs.
Chefs were also encouraged to interact and connect with those they were feeding, something that helped Winter Russell understand the broader vision of the Refettorio.
"It was a cultural project, it was that people felt good inside. That it wasn't just to feed them, that it was to make them feel like people, to make them feel like they were worth something. It wasn't so much about logistical nourishing and calories; you can feed people on doughnuts and hamburgers, but it's not going to make them feel any better about themselves.
"You can have the best plate of food in the world, but if you eat it in a gutter it's not going to be as potentially mind-altering or culturally altering as when you eat it surrounded by wonderful people in a warm, safe environment."
Volunteering at Refettorio Ambrosiano also had a lasting effect on Charles. "It was very inspiring to see somebody like Massimo focus on a project like that and draw attention to food waste and what can do with it, instead of just putting it in the bin.
"It comes down to education and making people responsible for their food waste, whether it's catering or a wedding or whatever. Make sure you have systems in place that make you liable and make sure the food will be put to good use.
"There's lots of people to be fed—in every city."