Master Chef Turns Leftovers Into Fine Dining For Brazil's Hungry : The Torch World-renowned chef Massimo Bottura is putting his culinary skills to use with a world-class soup kitchen in Rio de Janeiro.

Master Chef Turns Leftovers Into Fine Dining For Brazil's Hungry

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An internationally famous chef is tackling food waste by cooking for people on the margins of society in the host city of the Summer Games. Some of the donated food comes from the Olympic venues themselves. It's a fully volunteer effort. And in order to do this story, NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro agreed to pitch in.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: This is amazing. This is beautiful.

You walk into Massimo Bottura's latest culinary temple, and it wouldn't be amiss in his home city of Modena where his three-star Michelin restaurant is.

MASSIMO BOTTURA: It is a cultural project. It is not a charity project involving architects, artists, designer - to create a space full of beauty and culture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Designers like Brazil's famed Campana brothers made the tables and chairs. Sao Paulo artist Vik Muniz, whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, created a huge mural of a dripping chocolate last summer. It's a light and airy space that delights the senses in every way. And that's deliberate, Bottura says.

BOTTURA: One of the most important thing of this project is we give dignity, rebuild dignity, give the second chance in life of people. It's not just about good food.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But, of course, food is part of it, specifically the kind of food the project is using.

BOTTURA: So we're going to get overripe banana or an ugly mango or milk that was almost expired, and we show everyone what we can do with that - something amazing, something bright, something full of hope.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everyone he says is helping out.

BOTTURA: All the restaurants in Rio de Janeiro are donating food. Yesterday, a big truck came from the Olympics full of food. We didn't know what to do. We unloaded some of that and then we sent the rest to other, you know, communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The project is called the RefettoRio Gastromotiva, and it's an adaptation of something Bottura did in Milan during the World Expo where he took over an abandoned theater and transformed it into this unique kind of soup kitchen. Here in Rio, the space they chose was also derelict. It's in the neighborhood of Lapa, far away from the Olympic venues.

BOTTURA: We are not in the Olympic village - in a periphery. No spotlight is there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Every night, the project serves only 70 people. It's a small group that provides a special experience, as if you are, indeed, in a fine dining establishment. The point is for the people who come here to be treated like kings and queens, Bottura says. Rio is a city in which at least 25 percent of the population live in favelas or impoverished communities. Bottura works with local charities to determine who gets a seat on a given night. On the evening I'm there, Venezuelan chef Carlos Garcia is making the three-course dinner, and I helped serve it. In order to get access, I was told I had to take part and volunteer for the night, so I happily agreed. But there was one more demand.

So I'm going to turn off my recorder right now because I am volunteering. And they are not allowing pictures or recordings of the people who come to eat here so that their identities are protected, and so that this feels like a safe space.

I donned my apron, and the guests filed in. One was a child with his mother. Many were elderly. Some visibly had mental health issues. These were people on the margins of society here. At first, you could tell they didn't know quite what to make of the experience. But as the first course came out - a soup of beans and blanched vegetables - they began to smile and relax.

Seated at long refractory-style tables, they interacted, and they joked. And at the end of the meal, they broke out into applause. Bottura says he hopes the project gets replicated in many other parts of the world.

BOTTURA: Everything is possible. If you can dream, you can make it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says that is his Olympic hope. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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