Nourish the Neediest
I think about food all the time. My mother’s great pearl of wisdom to me was, “never finish a meal without knowing what your next one will be.” Planning meals and talking about food are her love language. She grew up in New Orleans, where food was second in abundance only to music. And her mother was a terrific cook.
So one of my great joys of living in Southern California is the food. We live in the food capital of the world, the so-in-the-moment convergence of high and low cuisine, of thrilling mashups by young chefs from Asia, Latin America, Europe and the U.S. who can render a new movement from a modest food truck, a stall, or a strip center in Westminster. Much of this illumination and amplification we owe to the Los Angeles Times’ brilliant and peripatetic food critic, Jonathan Gold. And to TV shows depicting chefs as the artists they are. And to Anthony Bourdain for opening borders and salivary glands with his eponymous food empire and culinary anthropology. But mostly it’s this incredible polyglot of a region, where a Pakistani immigrant may end up on the broiler line with a Frenchman, a Laotian, a Salvadoran and a Texan. And then break off to start a hybrid concept. It’s an exciting embryo of experimentation, and we are the lucky, lucky petri dish.
Much of what is au courant is in youthful downtown LA. Groovy new spots are opening daily, in the mostly drab but quickly gentrifying corridor of what is broadly called the Arts District. It’s the warehouse area east of Broadway to the L.A. River, where it feels like a young Soho. No less a cutting edge eatery than Zinc Café opened here (oh yeah, Laguna Beach is in the house).
But one thing that always makes the trip to these temples of gastronomy a bit stomach turning is traversing the heartbreaking sight of skid row, where up to 45,000 homeless people sleep every night. L.A. has the highest rate of homelessness in America (1 in every 285 people). It’s hard to imagine a contrast more jarring and guilt-inducing than seeing this, and then savoring the most decadent and exotic cuisine in a gorgeous room with beautiful people. Instead of my spoiled ass worrying about whether my next meal will be tacos, sushi or pasta, they wonder if there will even be a next meal.
So imagine my surprise and delight when a group of some of the world’s most renown chefs gathered in downtown L.A. on Friday, May 5, to discuss the very real problem of food waste, part of the Times’ new month of May celebration of food called LA Food Bowl.
Did you know one third of all food produced is discarded, by farms, markets, and restaurants? All because it doesn’t meet the exacting visual standards of our pampered society. There are more than 1 million people in greater Los Angeles who are hungry. And yet we have no system for collecting, distributing, and preparing this food for those who need it most.
What was heartening about this bunch – who by now are mostly rich and famous – is that they truly have a conscience about food waste because they experience it first-hand. One of them, Italian Chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy (recently named the best restaurant in the world), could easily be parlaying his success into an empire of clones in Vegas, Shanghai, and Dubai, but instead he is doing his part to solve this horrific hunger problem with a program called Food for Soul. It started when he was invited to participate in Milan’s 2015 World’s Fair. But instead of an exhibition, he pursued an experiment to reconstitute all of the food waste generated by the fair into a soup kitchen, more glamorously referred to in Italian as a Refettorio. He recruited chefs from all over the world to come and reconstitute waste into surplus. And in the process nourish the neediest.
This was no one-time, pop-up Refettorio to generate publicity for the chef. It’s still happening, and to date 16,500 meals have been served, 610 chefs have cooked (including Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adria, and Rene Redzepi), and 25 tons of food have been saved from landfills. And its spread to Modena, Bologna, and now London.
Which brings me to our homeless residents. While I know there are many people here with roofs over their heads who wish they didn’t have to see any homeless in their otherwise revelry of daily bliss, we must certainty take some responsibility to care for those who are most in need, or at least provide them with moments of humanity.
Wouldn’t it be the perfect circle of community if we became the first outpost of Food for Soul in the U.S.? We’ve got the farmers and grocery markets, the restaurants, the gardens, and the fruit trees. We have the philanthropy and the chefs and the volunteers to take all that food waste and make alchemy. It’s not about solving the problem of homelessness. It’s about giving them the dignity, the nutrition, the care, and the community that happens when people break bread together. Now that’s something to chew on.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]