In the rue de Lyon, the paid lunch meal finances the evening meal for the precarious. A unique, involved and tasteful universe.
We leave the Refettorio necessarily troubled. It’s not the deep snow that falls on an April night. It’s something else, the sobriety and elegance of the place, the cuisine, the people. As if the references had faded in favor of a radical concept, that of serving paid meals at midday that fund the exact same meals, only to be served for free a few hours later to those in uncertainty.
The evening of our visit to the rue de Lyon, there were about thirty for a soup kitchen with no degrading codes. No queues in the street, just men, women and children crossing the door of the new craft and trade building on rue de Lyon, holding in their hands a good meal donated by an association in Geneva.
That evening the guests come from the Carrefour-Rue, the Salvation Army or the family sleepover. They walk in like any restaurant, enjoying the decor, the artwork on the wall and the music.
In the queue at the reception, the waiters offer a homemade soft drink. Tables of six favor exchanges. Giovanni, a retiree from the neighborhood, has become a regular and always has someone in front of him to tell him about his native Campania. In the background is a large family that has arrived from Spain. The girls take selfies while the father listens to the early advice of a social worker who accompanies them.
Milan native, Walter el Nagar, self-taught chef who has worked in kitchens all over the world, stopped in Geneva. After a series of experiences sometimes conventional, sometimes less (notably distributing thousands of meals to precarious people during the pandemic), the quadra has developed this solidarity restaurant project by sticking to the locomotive launched by Massimo Bottura, three-star chef from Italy. Milan, Paris, London, Rio and now Geneva: the world already has about fifteen establishments under the auspices of the Food for Soul association.
Every city has its specific characteristics, its own social fabric. “In Geneva there is no soup kitchen in the evenings,” says Walter el Nagar. That is why he founded the Mater foundation to support this unique concept. In the afternoon, the three-course menu is served for 30 francs. He finances the same plates, in the evening, for which the guests do not leave a cent.
The only noticeable difference: the daytime servants are professionals (or in training), while those at night, apart from the cooks and the attendants, work on a voluntary basis. The latter now run into the hundreds and even have to wait to be able to serve an evening meal at the Refettorio.
No alcohol in the evening
If the establishment does not want to distinguish between two categories of customers, the program is necessarily framed more in the evening. The meal starts promptly at 6pm and latecomers will likely find that the doors are closed. To start the tasting, bread is kneaded nearby on which we pour a dash of rapeseed oil from the region. Choice of two menus, vegetarian or omnivorous. The plates then leave the open kitchen. The motto of the place is engraved at the bottom of the shell: Good food for everyone.
One of the thirty guests of the evening tries his luck with the waiter: “Hey man, don’t you have a glass of rosé?” No, the Refettorio does not serve alcohol in the evening. Giovanni, the Neapolitan retiree, shudders when he tastes the rapeseed oil. “It’s not Campania oil!” Collective bursts of laughter.
In the Refettorio dishes, a resolutely hyper-local approach and a notion of anti-waste is taken as far as possible. The evening of our visit, the vegetarian menu features oyster mushrooms with watercress emulsion and tagliatelle with radicchio sauce, coffee and hazelnuts. Omnivorous sot-l’y-laisse and celeriac as a starter, followed by beetroot ravioli filled with bass topped with wild garlic sauce. On the dessert side, the level doesn’t drop: poppy seed cake, fermented berries and red fruit sorbets for some; dried apples, apple mousse and goat cheese ice cream for the others.
“We didn’t wait for the money to open this place.”
Jimmy Thiébaud, Vice President and Fundraiser for the Mater Foundation
It’s not just the plates slamming. Sober but large and graceful, the room has its price. “Ten thousand francs in rent,” reveals Jimmy Thiébaud, vice director of the Mater Foundation. His own mission: to find money for a project whose operating costs amount to 1.3 million per year.
To open the Refettorio, many – architects, kitchen designers, artists… – rolled up their sleeves, showing generosity and availability. “We didn’t wait for the money to open this place,” explains the converted fundraiser. In the future, we will need to reduce our reliance on volunteering.”
For this, the refectory relies on one-off events, between invitations from prestigious chefs, sponsorship of tables and private evenings (one per month). “Donors are always welcome”, laughs Jimmy Thiébaud. The message has arrived.
Tables to occupy
It has now been three months since Walter el Nagar cut the ribbon of the Refettorio. “The plate is excellent!” he says, but he nevertheless wished for more smooth exchanges with the associations and real recognition of the city of Geneva. Because the Refettorio can accommodate and feed more people. The 80 available places are not filled every evening. And for Chef el Nagar, “every empty table is a missed opportunity”.
Luca Di Stefano has been a journalist for the Geneva section since 2013. He is a graduate of the Academy of Journalism and Media (AJM) and mainly deals with legal news.