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Meet Maxime Bonnabry Duval, Chef de cuisine at El Refettorio in Paris

Empowering communities to fight against food waste by using gastronomy to feed people in need and as a vector of cultural and social bonding

Photo by @JulienPerrichon

While studying Civil Engineering, Maxime soon felt that it wasn't where he belonged. Concerned about environmental issues and looking for a way to have a strong impact, he decided to take a turning point in his career. He then joined the Ferrandi culinary school in Paris. Very soon, a vocation was born beyond that of cooking, that of doing it with meaning. After leading a project around food waste during his studies, when Maxime graduated, he was immediately hired by Massimo Bottura and his team. He became Chef de cuisine of El Refettorio Paris when it opened in 2018.

Refettorio Paris is the fourth community kitchen that connects food, art and impact, founded by the organizations Food for Soul and Grundig Partnership. Food for Soul, a non-profit founded by chef Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore to empower communities to break the cycle of food waste through social inclusion. El Refettorio benefits from strong media coverage thanks to the patronage of renowned artists and chefs, and it involves a rotating cast of talented Chefs and many committed celebrities.

Maxime is benevolent and humble, despite his young experience, and he is the Chef who has most likely already cooked with the greatest number of Michelin starred Chefs in the world!

Clearly committed to environmental and social impact, Maxime is passionate about addressing the issue of food waste and the opportunity his work represents to create and care for communities.

Welcome Maxime to Chefs for Impact!

By Maxime Bonnabry Duval as told to Chefs for Impact

What is El Refettorio’s mission about?

“The first El Reffetorio, run by the best chefs, was a free restaurant for the homeless that was opened in Milan during the 2016 World Expo. Faced with the extent of the food waste seen during this event, Chef Massimo Bottura decided to look for solutions. The project to open restaurants for homeless people was then taken up by his association Food for Soul, and the model was then replicated in Rio, London, Paris and most recently, Merida.

El Refettorio Paris, located in the crypt of the madeleine church, is a gastronomic restaurant that welcomes 80 homeless people every night from Monday to Friday. It is an environmental, solidarity and cultural restaurant where food is a vector of social bonding. Every night, our guests are welcomed in a friendly environment. At the table, we serve them a fresh seasonal meal cooked from food donations we got from our partners. We change menus every day according to the arrivals.

Having dinner at El Refettorio is an extraordinary culinary and cultural experience. We are not a food bank like other organizations are. These non-profits respond to food emergencies; El Refettorio is a gastronomic restaurant for the homeless that nourishes the body and the soul. Reception and service are positions held by volunteers. They are very important as they reflect our values and pillars. We do not just give people food. We take time for them so that they feel valued and considered.”

What is the involvement of Chefs and celebrities in the project?

“Chefs come to us from all over the world to cook with us, offering their time and sharing their knowledge. That's how we found ourselves cooking with Dominique Crenn, Daniel Humm, and many more talented chefs! We are lucky to be in Paris, the epicenter of the country of Gastronomy. Chefs, artists, and celebrities stop by El Refettorio during their trip in the French Capital to contribute in their own way. That gives our guests the chance to taste the most starred Chefs' cuisines in the world!”

How is Art represented at the Refettorio?

“JR, who is very much involved in the project, brought a lot of the artistic component. We also regularly involve musicians, storytellers, singers etc. There is one thing that I will remember for the rest of my life: one evening, we were lucky enough to have an improvised a capella concert by U2. The audience, who would never have access to this kind of experience other than in our restaurant, was astonished, delighted, and very moved (and so were we!). At El Refettorio, the moments we live are unique.”

You're the Chef de cuisine of a high-impact organization. What led you to want to associate Food and Solidarity?

“First of all, El Refettorio is above all a team and ‘United we stand’. The employees and especially the volunteers keep this project alive by offering their time to defend our cause. I am amazed by their incredible commitment. They play a key role in the sustainability of the project.

One of the intrinsic values of El Refettorio is food-waste reduction and that's what brought me here. Early on, I became aware of the environmental issues that my generation would have to face. The sustainability of humanity, what the future would look like, and hunger and global warming were all issues that animated me as much as they anguished me. I started studying civil engineering, but I felt that it wasn't where I belong. Seeing through cooking gave me a stronger meaning to my job, so I joined the Ferrandi culinary school. With my classmates, I launched my first food truck to feed people in need, using products resulting from food waste. We wanted to prove to people that with funny-looking fruits and vegetables we can cook healthy, beautiful and tasty meals. Soon a vocation was born, beyond that of cooking, that of doing it with a purpose. Once I graduated, El Refettorio Paris opened its doors and I was given the opportunity to join as Chef de cuisine. In spite of my young experience, I accept the challenge and there has never been a regret since. It is a logical sequence of events that led me in a project that I am so passionate about.”

Photo by Gwennaelle Wit

In what way is gastronomy a powerful tool for social inclusion?

“Gastronomy is the art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food. At the Refettorio, we cook with all our love to offer a culinary, cultural, and social moment.

The main pillar of all Refettorios’ in the world is the notion of sharing and conviviality. In the restaurant, you will find large communal tables to facilitate exchanges. Guests get to know each other and volunteers become part of these groups of people. In that very moment, something happens and it is very touching.

We are fighting against social exclusion. We treat everyone equally in our house: clients, employees, volunteers, star chefs, artists, and celebrities.”

Due to the covid-19 crisis, did you have to close El Refettorio? How do you ensure you are still feeding the people in need?

“Exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures. Yes, we had to close. Like everyone else, we were caught short, in panic and uncertainty. For safety concerns for our team as well as our customers, we decided to close the restaurant. To be honest, I was not proud to have left the field. We couldn't let those people down who were counting on us.

We quickly decided to reopen and pivot temporarily onto a different model. We called our entire network of food partners, associations, Chefs, and restaurant owners and transformed El Refettorio into a Social Hub. We managed to collect food donations as well as mobilizing Chefs and their brigades to cook meals and identify the beneficiary non-profit organizations. There was a very strong outpouring of solidarity from everyone. Within a few hours, we transformed the restaurant into a loading dock and packing area and our employees and volunteers became logisticians and drivers. After a few weeks, the goal was reached: 5,000 meal baskets per day for a total of 100,000 meals delivered so far!! What we experienced during these unprecedented times was so exciting. We will emerge from this crisis stronger, looking back, seeing how much we have been able to contribute and, yes, maybe we can be proud of what we did.”

What do you think tomorrow's gastronomy is?

“There is now a whole generation of Chefs, especially the one that Chefs for Impact is addressing, who have finally understood. They have understood that gastronomy as it used to be, and it has no place in our world any longer. That Haute Cuisine where we wasted too much, we had forgotten the origin of the product we are cooking. We had forgotten why we were doing it and for whom we were doing it for. It was time to realize and remember that we, Chefs, are above all, artisans. ‘Gastronomy is an ephemeral Art which, when done with a good conscience, gives incomparable pleasure.’”

Maxime loves

His team! The employees and volunteers without whom all this would not be possible.

Maxime hates

The food-waste recipe books. A recipe by definition already generates waste because when you read it, you have to buy products you're missing and it's a vicious circle. Reducing food waste is a matter of being resourceful and cooking with what you have already.

Learn more about El Refettorio:

Learn more about Food for Soul:



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