Before we even get to the countless pastas, salads and sauces getting served here every day, the Italian influence at Refettorio Felix is no minor link up. Many of our volunteers, Italian or otherwise, hear about our charity through our connection to Chef Massimo Bottura – perhaps Italy’s most celebrated chef and founder of Food For Soul, the non-profit which has now set up 13 refettorios around the world, like our own, all with the aim to use food as a vehicle for social change within local communities.
This week, we welcomed the Italian embassy to the Centre as part of an extensive series of international events for the annual Week of Italian Cuisine in the World. Over the course of two days, Chef Danilo Cortellini, head chef at the embassy in London, and team led our guests through a meandering journey across regional Italian cuisine. Introducing some intriguing and unfamiliar recipes to the Centre, and even featuring a visit from Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta himself, this was a truly delicious and memorable experience all round!
We caught up with Chef Danilo, who many of you may recognise from Masterchef or BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen, to learn a little more about him…
Can you tell us a little bit about your background cooking at the Italian embassy in London?
I started working at the embassy some 10 years ago and have worked under three ambassadors over that period – I became part of the furniture at some point because of how familiar a face I was there! It was a huge change from the fast pace of the restaurant environment, but with each ambassador, I gained so many opportunities for personal development – writing a book about my experience there, hosting events and so on.
During the first lockdown, we were also producing meals for vulnerable people in London straight from the embassy kitchen, distributing around 2000 meals at one point! That whole experience emphasised the need to continue such efforts, leading us, for example, to Refettorio Felix this week to cook for your guests.
How does your work at the embassy connect to your broader attitude towards food?
The embassy’s mission is all about building relationships and trying to reach out to the community. RF is doing a mammoth task here everyday – for us to support just a couple of days, getting people to taste some wonderful Italian products makes us really very happy! As cheesy a stereotype as it sounds, all of us cooking today grew up around the kitchen. In my family, everything happened around the kitchen table – the good, the bad, the ugly. It wasn’t just food for the belly, it was food for the soul – in fact, someone used the name already!
Do you have any words of encouragement for chefs who might be considering volunteering their time for food charities like Refettorio Felix?
Do it – it’s so rewarding! I was personally so inspired by my friend and colleague here today, Francesco. He was looking for a career change after working for so long in the restaurant industry and experiencing burnout. He’d fallen out of love with cooking and ended up working with a charity called FoodCycle as their project leader in White City. Coincidentally, I’d also worked with FoodCycle in the past, but hearing how this new venture for Francesco was revitalising his love for food encouraged me to increase my involvement.
The main motivation for chefs is to create something tasty, something comforting for someone else, and you get pleasure from seeing people enjoy your food. You want to share with someone else. In a restaurant city like London, you can get detached from those aspects, those reasons why you started cooking. The appreciation you receive, like today, is really amazing, truly amazing.
Week of Italian Cuisine in the World is about celebrating a food culture that is globally beloved – is there an aspect of Italian food that you want to pay special respects to?
There are so many regional cuisines that haven’t yet burst to worldwide fame. Recently, it’s getting more difficult to find “Italian” restaurants in London, but you’ll find more and more regional restaurants emerging – Tuscan restaurants, Neapolitan restaurants, Calabrian restaurants – which is great! If I had to highlight one particular region, it would of course have to be my hometown, Abruzzo!
At this point in our conversation, one of many of our guests keen to share their appreciation for the food chimes in – ‘Gentlemen! Your food was delicious and it was a pleasure to eat – thank you very much! My tastebuds were everywhere!’
Thank you so much to Danilo, Fede and both Francescos who served such beautiful food and with such gracious hospitality – the smiles and laughter from the kitchen were truly infectious and a true embodiment of Cooking as an Act of Love!
A massive shoutout goes to all the food suppliers whose donations made these special meals possible – if you’d like to create authentic Italian (or other!) dishes at home, check out these brands!