By JOHN MOYLE
The collective “they” say there is no such thing as a free lunch but one small restaurant in Surry Hills is proving that old trope untrue.
Since February 2022, Crown Street’s Refettorio has been serving around 250 meals a week to locals and other comers, completely free of charge, and doesn’t look like stopping.
Refettorio’s location in Surry Hills places the restaurant in the heart of one of Sydney’s best restaurant areas.
It is also in the immediate vicinity of a large social housing estate where many marginalised residents are food-deprived and in need of assistance, or may just like to have their lives uplifted for an hour or so by a great food experience.
The OzHarvest initiative is Australia’s first Refettorio, a global social impact project that began with world-famous chef Massimo Bottura and his not-for-profit organisation Food For Soul.
A meeting in 2016 with OzHarvest founder and CEO Ronni Kahn resulted in an instant bond and set in motion the creation of Refettorio in Sydney.
“When I met Ronni, I knew that OzHarvest was the perfect partner for the first Refettorio in Australia,” Massimo Bottura, founder of Food for Soul, said.
Ronni Kahn heads an organisation that rescues and distributes food designated as waste, said “It has always been my dream to open a venue where vulnerable people can enjoy good food in exquisite surroundings and be treated with dignity and respect.”
Over the two years it took Refettorio to come to fruition, Kahn set about bringing together some of Oz Harvest’s most dedicated supporters including National Food Rescue partner Woolworths and supplier Mainbrace, Frost Catering and the global property developer Goodman.
A philanthropic supporter even donated the 100-year-old building on Crown Street.
“All the fixtures and fittings, the kitchen, the bricks, the floor, the furniture, the lights and artworks, the plates, the coffee machine and the list goes on,” Kahn said.
The result is at once a well-designed split-level space with a unique and earthy style and indistinguishable from any upmarket restaurant in one of Sydney’s great eating precincts.
Each week in, its partners and volunteers rescue over 250 tonnes of food from landfills and it is from this source that the ingredients for Refettorio’s three-course vegetarian meals are found.
Refettorio head chef Jez Wicks works from the tiny galley kitchen with Lauren Evers to produce around 50 three-course meals each lunchtime, four days a week, often featuring a single main ingredient served in three variations for a starter, main and dessert.
Wicks came to OzHarvest two years ago after many years of working with zero-waste pop-ups in Melbourne and Sydney.
“Usually I am able to see what food has been rescued by our OzHarvest drivers on the Wednesday before,” Wicks, head chef, Refetorrio, said.
“I go through what we have, and create a menu that afternoon, then do a prep on the Monday.”
On the day that the Sentinel visited the three-course meal was based on rescued beetroot, starting with a dip, a main of vegetables with spiced bhajis and a stunning dessert featuring rescued plums splashed with syrup to die for.
Refettorio would be nothing without its dedicated volunteer staff, with the team attracted by working with those less fortunate and being actively involved in food rescue and repurposing.
*Melissa has been a long-term volunteer with Vinnie’s door knocks, Anglicare hampers packaging and Civic2Surf, and for the past one and a half years has been working with OzHarvest, volunteering once or twice a week as her work schedule allows.
“I am a food waste warrior, but also have a passion for helping those less fortunate than myself,” Melissa, a volunteer, said.
“The Ref is such a welcoming space and it is a privilege to volunteer and provide a fine-dining experience for those in need of a warm and nourishing meal.”
Many of Refettorio’s regulars live on the nearby Northcott Estate, a large public housing area of some 1,300 people located around the top of Surry Hill’s Devonshire Street, and where many of its residents are already familiar with OzHarvest’s regular food drops of cooked meals and food staples.
Northcote resident Ellie P is a Refettorio regular and finds that the quality of the meals is a welcome break from what she can often afford to make at home, served in an atmosphere that is welcoming and respectful.
“The staff remember who you are, and it feels like a real extension the community,” Ellie P said.
For those who would like to share OzHarvest’s zero-waste philosophy and make people aware of the impacts of food waste on climate change but can’t make lunch, a nighttime Neighbourhood dinner service is a way for paying customers to support the operations.
For each ticket sold for a Neighbourhood dinner, the Refettorio team are able to feed at least four people during its lunchtime service.
In deference to the many guests facing substance issues, alcohol is not served during the lunch or Neighbourhood dinners, being replaced instead with alcohol-free alternatives and homemade fruit shrubs.
Refettorio also functions as a community hub by providing a meeting space and education programs for locals and having a social worker on-site to provide support for guests.
Since its opening in February, Refettorio has quietly gone about its main mission of providing quality and comforting meals served with dignity and compassion to those who are in need. That alone, apart from the quality of its meals, makes Refettorio a valued member of the community, saving food from waste and feeding the less fortunate with class.
From February 24th the Refettorio will be open for a free meal service at lunchtime on Tuesday-Fridays, midday till 2.30 p.m. OzHarvest Refettorio is located at 481 Crown St, Surry Hills NSW 2010.
*Melissa requested her full name not be used in this story.
John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.
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