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World-class chefs turn food waste into culinary masterpieces for those in need

Flickr/onay davus

I love good food! I also love cooking. Most people don't know that many, many years ago, I graduated from the Culinary Management Program at George Brown College. At that time, the campus was located on Augusta Street in the heart of Toronto's amazing Kensington Market. I went on to complete my apprenticeship and earned my red seal designation.

I often joke the reason I had five kids is because I never learned to cook small -- I cook big! My kids know that when we go on holiday, I will do whatever they want all day long, but once dinner time rolls around we have to have reservations at a restaurant that serves wonderful cuisine in a relaxing atmosphere sans televisions. It doesn't have to be expensive, it just has to be great.

So, when I was asked to review the National Film Board of Canada's movie, Theatre of Life, I jumped at the opportunity. And, what a privilege it turned out to be.

Theatre of Life is set in the Greco district of Milan, an extremely poor neighbourhood that counter balances the excess of Italy's 2015 Expo.

The Greco district is where Chef Massimo Bottura created Refettorio Amobosiano or Food for the Soul, a unique soup kitchen of sorts. Bottura took the daily food waste from the Expo pavilions and with the help of an army of over 60 world class international chefs, created culinary masterpieces that were served to an array of more than 90 homeless people, refugees, sex workers, drug addicts and common folk who had fallen on hard times.

But, Bottura does so much more for his diners. He brings together all the essential elements of an exquisite dining experience, namely food, art and music. Bottura really gets that life should be bread as well as roses.

Bottura's messages are simple: Bread is gold, and don't throw anything away. In a world where 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away annually, Theatre of Life raises awareness about the enormous environmental and human impacts of food waste.

Each chef entering Bottura's pristine kitchen is given an over-abundance of stale bread and ample fresh ingredients with which to create a five-star meal. Each and every chef rises to the occasion and meets the challenge head on including Canadian chefs Jeremy Charles of St. John’s, Newfoundland, and John Winter Russell from Montreal.

Food is the reason that explorers set off to discover trade routes. It's the mother of invention when displaced people have to adapt favourite recipes to regional ingredients. Food creates culture. So, it is appalling that so much nutritious food is wasted when so many are in need.

In Bottura's kitchen, the waste stops here because literally nothing is discarded. A neon sign outside the restaurant declares, "no more excuses." Bottura calls on each of us to acknowledge, and act on, the fact that there can be no more justification for people going hungry when so much food is being squandered.

A recurring song throughout the movie is Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone. The lyrics mirror the fact that the majority of the people eating at Refettorio Amobosiano are momentarily lost, without a direction or a real home.

The documentary, by Canadian director Peter Static, follows the lives of six of the guests who break bread together on a daily basis. Bottura's sanctuary provides comfortable surroundings and appealing food where improbable strangers became friends, and even family, over the course of five short months.

Refettorio Amobosiano was an admirable endeavor and it would have been a travesty for the people who came to rely upon it for sustenance and companionship to be deprived of this gathering space once the Expo ended. Instead the project continues to be run as a community kitchen for nearby homeless shelters, utilizing a daily supply of supermarket waste. The space also serves the local community as a cultural centre for lectures, events and education. In fact, a sister kitchen was established for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But, it cannot go unmentioned that the social justice issues creating the need for Refettorio Amobosiano have not been addressed and dealt with. That is the responsibility of higher world powers.

Theater of Life was named Best Canadian Feature at Toronto's Planet in Focus International Environmental Film and Video Festival and also garnered the Tokyo Gohan Award, given to the winner of the San Sebastian Film Festival's Culinary Zinema section. The 94-minute film was produced by Josette Gauthier (Triplex Films) and Annette Clarke (NFB), and is distributed by the NFB (Canada) and Seville International (international sales).

Theater of Life is coming to the following cities:

  • Toronto, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, December 3 to 5
  • Montreal, Cinéma du Parc, starting December 23
  • Montreal, Cinéma Beaubien, starting December 23 (French-language version, Le théâtre de la vie)
  • Edmonton, Metro Cinema, December 23, 26 to 28
  • Quebec City, Cinéma Cartier, starting December 23 (French-language version, Le théâtre de la vie)
  • Vancouver, Vancity Theatre, January 2017

Make the time to meet some truly wonderful common people as well as chefs with deeply rooted social consciences. Then, break bread with friends and family and share the story of Theatre of Life because it really is Food for the Soul.

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