The opening scene of the first episode of Netflix’s cult foodie docuseries Chef’s Table starts with the 2012 earthquake that shattered the Italian town Modena. Local chef Massimo Bottura stepped in to rescue some 360,000 wheels of damaged Parmigiano Reggiano. He came up with a recipe for risotto cacio e peppe and got people around the world to cook it. All the cheese wheels were sold, and no jobs were lost. That was “a recipe as a social gesture,” said Bottura in the show.
The creative and social work of the Osteria Francescana owner focuses on the culture of zero waste. Famously, when a pastry chef mishandled a dessert, it became one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, Oops I Dropped the Lemon Tart, part of the vision and humor that has seen it be named World’s Best Restaurant twice. In 2015, he and wife Lara Gilmore started Food for Soul, a project focused on cutting food waste and feeding the poor.
Now Bottura, who’s also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is focused on food waste in people’s homes. This week he unveiled the Why Waste? project, a video series featuring tips and recipes to inspire home cooks to make the best of leftovers and prevent waste. He hopes to inspire a shift in how we think about food.
(As a high-profile chef looking to change the world, his timing is good. Earlier this week, Jeff Bezos announced he was awarding $100 million to World Central Kitchen cofounder José Andrés.)
This is a critical moment: Almost 1 billion tons of ready-for-sale food gets wasted every year, most of it at home, according to UNEP. Rotting scraps contribute as much as 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the world might be wasting about 40% of all food produced, according to a report this week from World Wildlife Fund and U.K. retailer Tesco.
“We want to communicate that wasting food is not acceptable in 2021,” Bottura says from Modena via an interview. “The chefs have to step out from the kitchen, talk to the young generations, and be ethical mentors.”
This chef has done more than talk about the problem. Food for Soul has opened more than a dozen Refettorios—sleek soup kitchens that fight food waste by turning surplus supermarket ingredients into meals for those with insecure access to food. A half-million meals were served at the Refettorios last year, he says. There are more than a dozen around the world, from London to Manhattan’s Harlem to Rio de Janeiro.
“In 2021, the chef is more than the sum of his recipes,” says Bottura. “It’s the way he acts. He’s the example for the new generation, especially at our level.”
Standouts of the Why Waste? series include Takahiko Kondo, a sous chef at Osteria Francescana, turning a Parmegiano Reggiano crust into crackers by using a microwave, and Jessica Rosval of Casa Maria Luigia in Modena making beef fat trimmings into a substitute for oil and butter.
The most striking recipe is a pasta pie from Francesco Vincenzi, head chef of Franceschetta 58 in Modena. He transforms the leftover macaroni, vegetables, and meat invariably found in home refrigerators into a monumental main course, with a cheesy sauce that binds it together. The beauty of the dish is its flexibility: It can be made with just about anything you have on hand. There are no rules here, promises Vincenzi in the video. Any type of leftovers will work.
I took him at his word. Because it’s summer, I replaced the carrots and broccoli called for in the original recipe below with zucchini, spinach, and broad beans from my seasonal veg box, accounting for the same weight—150 grams (5 ½ oz). While the bechamel sauce is easily made, next time I might try using crème fraîche thinned with a little milk to save a step.
The result is the ultimate comfort food, with chewy pasta rounds punctuated with hearty bites of meat and bright-tasting vegetables, all lightly bound with the sauce. It’s baked in a store-bought pie crust that makes it even more delightful, an unexpected filling within a crust.
Bottura challenged his chefs to come up with innovative leftover recipes, but he’s also challenging the world. It's something to consider the next time you open your fridge, thinking there’s nothing there.
The following recipe is adapted from Francesco Vincenzi and Massimo Bottura’s Why Waste? initiative.
Second-Life Pasta Pie
400 grams (14 oz.) cooked macaroni or any leftover pasta
10 grams (2 tsp) unsalted butter, plus more for the tin
10 grams (4 tsp) all purpose flour
100 ml (3.5 oz.) milk
Pinch of grated nutmeg
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste
100 grams (3.5 oz.) cooked ground beef, or other leftover meat such as chicken or cut up brisket
150 grams (5.5 oz.) mix of cooked broccoli, carrots, and peas
Store-bought shortcrust pastry or pie dough
Beaten egg, for brushing
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F).
Make the sauce: In a small pan, melt the butter and slowly stir in the flour to make a roux. Slowly whisk in the milk. You will start to see the mixture thicken. Add a pinch of salt, a pinch of nutmeg, and grated Parmigiano to flavor your béchamel.
Fill the pie: Mix your leftover pasta, meat, and vegetables with the béchamel in a bowl. Add grated Parmigiano to taste. Line a buttered high-sided baking dish, about 20 cm (8 in), with pastry (saving some for a pastry lid) and spoon the mixture in. Cover the top with your pastry lid and trim the sides. Brush with egg wash and punch holes with a fork to let out the steam while it bakes.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the top is golden. Let rest for 10 minutes, then slice and serve.