Food for Life: Refettorio Felix

| Dec 5, 2018

Words by: Eden Keane | Photos by: Simon Owen / Wonderhatch

Refettorio Felix is a zero-waste community kitchen for vulnerable people in London. Its harmonious approach to design, community and food quietly yet radically challenges conventional notions of what a social enterprise can be. In the spirit of gathering round a table to share stories and pass plates, here food is offered as a gesture of belonging.

In 2017, superstar chef Massimo Bottura established Refettorio Felix, the fourth Refettorio (or Refectory) instalment under his non-profit organisation, Food for Soul. The ambition is to transform neglected spaces around the world into thriving social hubs that feed people in need, while addressing the growing issue of food waste while it’s at it. The London outpost partners with The Felix Project, which redistributes non-sellable, high quality food produce between retailers and charities. Bottura explains what makes the Refettorios special: “Our projects are infused with art, design and beauty to engage our guests in a holistic approach to nourishment: to feed the body and the soul. It is a cultural project for those in need and the wider community.”

Bottura’s ethos of nourishing body and soul is evident as soon as you enter Refettorio Felix. Housed in historic St. Cuthbert’s community centre in Earl’s Court, the space was lovingly given a pro-bono redesign by Ilse Crawford. The interiors possess the hallmarks of a grand family home: muted natural colours, rich wood panelling, statement furniture and plant life that connects dining hall, drop-in and seating area, and kitchen. Crawford’s ethos that “design is a skill to enhance our humanity” translates seamlessly. The space delights through harmonious design details that are sadly usually absent in social projects.

Thoughtfully designed interiors can positively affect our wellbeing and it’s something regular guests have noticed too. Refettorio Felix’s development manager Zoe McIntyre explains: “Having access to an inspiring, uplifting space shouldn’t be for the elite few. We invite in the most vulnerable in our community: homeless, rough sleepers, the elderly and isolated, and those with mental health and substance misuse issues. The communal tables, reading and soft seating areas facilitate social interaction, inviting exchange and conversation. Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen how this environment has affected the behaviour of our guests: they put on a clean shirt, treat others with respect and have gained confidence.”

As food deliveries are always something of a surprise, chefs flex their creative muscles to transform surplus into restaurant quality meals, five days a week. Head chef Clio Melvin explains this is all part of the appeal of working here: “The ethos of Refettorio Felix is to demonstrate how to use food to its full potential. Every day, I experiment with inventive ways to cook the ingredients that are donated. Our kitchen allows culinary creativity to thrive. We invite different chefs to work with surplus ingredients, which demands that they forget recipes and act spontaneously to create a meal. The menu changes with each service as we strive to use every last ounce of our ingredients. If they can’t be used immediately then our next task is finding ways of preservation: pickling radishes, bread-crumbing loaves, infusing ice-creams to conserve what we can for another day and another purpose.”

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We’ve seen how this environment has affected the behaviour of our guests: they put on a clean shirt, treat others with respect and have gained confidence

Created with Sketch.

With each serving, Refettorio Felix demonstrates that by eating together we begin to build more empathetic and tolerant communities. This effect seems to benefit both the guests and the people who work here. Hattie, a regular volunteer agrees: “Working here has undoubtedly changed my perspective. Guests come from all walks of life: one gentleman is a former fashion designer, another speaks four languages, several are aspiring chefs who’ve just enrolled on the new culinary course. There’s such a warm feeling of community and the food is delicious. It’s become one of the highlights of my week.”

The Refettorio presents such a fluid relationship between beauty, food and community that it’s easy to forget just how radical Bottura’s Refettorios have been in challenging conventional notions of what a ‘soup kitchen’ should be. Zoe goes further: “When we first refurbished the space, there were tears [from regulars]! Guests look forward to chatting with our volunteers as well as the visiting guest chefs who cook for them once a month. One guest keeps all of the signatures of the 40 guest chefs on a piece of paper in his wallet, bringing it out as a showpiece! I often overhear a discussion about a favourite dish or catch someone taking a picture of their lunch. It wasn’t always like this: when we first started, it was with some persuasion that guests who were used to a more ‘fast-food-based diet’ came around to eating the cornucopia of vegetables we cook. The edible flowers still inspire some quizzical looks, admittedly!”

On evenings and weekends, the space is available to rent for everything from supper clubs to workshops, with all funds raised going back to support the daytime project. New initiatives in 2019 include a new culinary course to get people back into work and the launch of an evening service for families. Refettorio Felix is powered purely by the generosity of others so donations are greatly appreciated via Just Giving. Find out more at refettoriofelix.com

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Join the Community

You can volunteer front of house or in the kitchen. Keen and aspiring gardeners also welcome to help with the allotment. Evening dining service for families open in 2019, with a culinary training course starts in February, teaching kitchen skills to those out of work.

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