It was half past 10 at St Cuthbert’s Hall, now home to Refettorio Felix. The chefs working intently in the kitchen (from Alain Ducasse’s three-Michelin-star restaurants in London and Paris, and Massimo Bottura’s three-star Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy) carefully patted chicken stuffing into roasted aubergine slices and sorted lettuce leaves with scientific precision.
But the customers, gathering in the newly painted eau-de-nil dining hall, were not the type to frequent Michelin-starred restaurants. St Cuthbert’s Centre, which for 25 years has been providing them with hot meals, clothing, medical support and mental health services, describes its clients as “marginalised, vulnerable people”, more than half of them homeless.
Refettorio Felix, which launched in Earl’s Court last Monday at the start of London Food Month, is part of Bottura’s Food for Soul project, aimed at raising awareness of food wastage and hunger. It’s the third “soup kitchen” restaurant, after Refettorio Ambrosiano launched at Expo 2015 in Milan and Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, which opened during the 2016 Olympics.
Back in the kitchen, my job was stripping the leeks of their outer leaves to reveal their bright centres, ready for the chefs.
The ingredients for the Refettorio are provided by the Felix Project, which redistributes food which would otherwise be destined for the dump, much of it still in fine condition. The booty included a sack of crisp-leaved watercress, whose thick stems excited permanent chef Nassim Khalifa most. She snapped off a piece, fat as a marker pen, and gave it to me to try. It was crisp, juicy and peppery. “Good, eh?” she exclaimed. “I can use it like celery.”
This is the kind of improvisation that has seen Khalifa, a tiny Gujarati woman, through nine years of cooking at St Cuthbert’s Centre. With just one helper, she provides a choice of dishes to a clientele many of whom have bad teeth, poor digestion and very firm ideas of what they want to eat. “Mostly comfort food,” she explains. “No al dente vegetables; they want pies, lasagne, fish and chips – and they love my curries.” There’s a heavily subsidised charge of £2.50 for a three-course meal, though, as Stephen Milton, the centre’s manager, explained, “no one goes away hungry if they can’t afford to pay”.
During London Food Month, however, the dining room, renamed Refettorio Felix, will be offering a free, no-choice menu cooked by a rota of top chefs including Angela Hartnett, Sat Bains and Michel Roux Jr.
At bang on 11am, Alain Ducasse arrived, immediately tasting the purée due to be served up with the stuffed aubergine. He murmured to the chef, Romain Meder, who snatched up a cheap plastic pepper grinder. It broke in his hands, showering whole peppercorns into the pan.
As Meder delicately scooped out the peppercorns, Massimo Bottura came bounding past in trainers and black jeans, stopping to chat with customers as their food was brought to them by volunteers.
The customers paused from reading the newspapers or doing the crossword to settle in to lunch. Guy, who was once a chef at the Marriot in Grovesnor Square, declared his courgette veloute with cherry and radish chutney “stunning”.
Ginger, a long-haired Scot who was homeless for 10 years and now manages on £75 a week disability benefit, was less sure. “Big plates, small portions,” he declared, eyeing his two slices of aubergine. When I pointed out that I’d seen lots of empty plates going back to the kitchen, he replied: “That’s because they were almost empty when they came out. I’ll need to go somewhere else for a proper meal.” Others agreed that Bottura’s pasta and pesto, served the day before, had been more substantial.
I asked Ducasse if the small bowl of soup, stuffed aubergine and berries with a milk foam and chilli sorbet was filling enough. “If you have all three courses, it is fine,” he insisted. Even if it is the only meal you’ll get all day? He paused, then conceded: “Perhaps not.”
Both in the kitchen and the dining room there may be some adapting to do, but even when the high-end chefs leave at the end of the month, Refettorio Felix will stay, and Khalifa will have the new kitchen complete with €12,000 (£10,400) ice-cream maker, installed by the Food for Soul project, in which to work.
Aubergine with chicken stuffing
- 2 medium aubergines, sliced into rounds
- 2cm thick
- Olive oil
- 300g chicken meat, finely chopped (leg, thigh, or breast – or scraps)
- 1 egg
- ½ teacupful fresh breadcrumbs
- ½ teacupful cooked rice
- 4 tbsp grated Parmesan
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
- Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Scoop out the middle of the aubergine slices to make an indentation in each (keep the trimmings). Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange on a baking tray and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until tender.
- Mix the chicken, egg, breadcrumbs, rice, Parmesan and parsley. Fill the aubergine slices with the mixture, smoothing the mounds. Return to the oven and bake for 30 minutes, until cooked through and lightly browned. Check part way through and cover with foil if they are getting too brown.
- Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a small pan and cook onion until tender. Chop the aubergine trimmings and add them to the pan with the garlic. Cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes, and simmer gently for 20 minutes, to make a sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
- Serve the stuffed aubergine slices with the sauce, plus a green salad.