Purple Magazine
— Purple #31 The Paris issue

refettorio paris/jr

 jr

interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM

refettorio paris, located in
the crypt of the madeleine
church, is a free restaurant
for the homeless run
by the best chefs

OLIVIER ZAHM — Who are the superstar chefs cooking for this free restaurant? And how are you able to involve them in the project?
JR — Every day, we have a different chef. We’ve had Alain Ducasse, Yannick Alléno, Daniel Humm, Tatiana Levha, Jean-Francois Piège, Michel Troisgros — all the chefs you can name came to cook. And every night, 15 volunteers come. We train them, then they welcome people as if they were at a three-star restaurant: “Hello, do you need to put anything in the coat check? Follow me to your table. Do you have any food restrictions?” So, it’s a whole different concept. You eat on real plates, in a beautifully designed place, and drink from real glasses…

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a crypt?
JR — We’re on street level, but the church is above. So, it’s a crypt, but not in the basement.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Of the Église de la Madeleine…
JR — Yes. We rent it from them, but we are completely autonomous. It’s our place, and we do what we want. We have between 100 and 140 people who come here to eat each night, who are homeless or refugees.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are the first to arrive the first served?
JR — No, we didn’t want to have a line outside and say to people, “Oh, sorry, we’re busy tonight.” So, we gave people cards, and we go through a lot of associations, and they distribute the cards.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s very organized…
JR — Yes, and this way, if people don’t come, we can call the association: “This guy had a card. Why didn’t he come this time?” We want to follow up a bit with them and know if something happens to them. This way, we can track the people, so it’s not impersonal — we want to know the people who come here. It’s really a whole different thing: we don’t try to have the biggest number of people, and we try to serve them really well, so they feel very special. It’s about the soul — feeding your soul. You don’t die of hunger in Paris — you can go and eat anywhere and find food, there are soup kitchens. But a place where you sit and feel like you’re important: that’s what we feel when we go to a starred restaurant, and that’s what we try to reproduce here.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s a free experience…
JR — Yes, everything is free. We’re completely nonprofit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And how do you involve the chefs? Is that easy?
JR — I opened the place with Massimo Bottura. He won the World’s Best Restaurant award twice, so he knows all the biggest chefs. He called all the chefs at the beginning. They all came, and then other chefs want to be a part of it. Michel and Sébastien Bras, Michel Troisgros — all of them came! Afterward, they asked, “When can we do it next?” They loved it! Because it’s amazing for them. It’s really a place where they feel…

OLIVIER ZAHM — An act of love…
JR — Yes, they really try to do the nicest presentation, to make it the craziest, and come with their own styles! And it’s beautiful to see — because they arrive, and then after I make them go through the room. Most of the people don’t know who they are, but they clap to say, “Thank you for considering me!” And that’s really the difference.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, how do you find the food?
JR — We collect it at the Banque Alimentaire, which is a place that gathers food that supermarkets can’t sell anymore. There are tons and tons of food — we only use a little. We try to get the best products, bring it here, and the chefs are, like, “Okay, what do we do with this?” But that’s the game — they’re not in their restaurant. Here they can improvise, and they can be creative! So, that’s the concept. And then all the plates have to be the most beautiful presentation ever. We never serve just food on the plate — it’s always about the presentation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you find a chef for every night?
JR — Yeah, or we have our own chef, Maxime [Bonnabry-Duval]. If you go to our Instagram, you can watch all the stories, the photos taken here. When U2 came and played two songs for the people here, most of them didn’t even know who they were! They just came and played, for the people! You’ll see all the chefs — we try to represent them here.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This is very exciting. Do you consider it a political act? The refugee issue has resulted in the most horrible politics in Europe. In France, we don’t welcome so many people from Africa. And Italy became almost fascist.
JR — Everyone deals with it in their own way. My way to respond to it was to create a place like this. With the restaurant, I connect with the people. I get to spend time and talk with them. It’s really about the moment you spend with the people. So, it’s a cultural project!

OLIVIER ZAHM — And very French, in a way…
JR — Very French. How can we not, in the country of gastronomy, welcome people with a great meal, at least? That’s the minimum! Then, afterward we can talk about how to help them, with a physical place. I don’t know if it’s going to change the world, but there are people who come here, volunteers, and it changes their perspective on things. My work has always been about changing people’s perceptions. And changing a perspective of the world is a way of changing the world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you asked the Italian chef Massimo Bottura to start this project with you?
JR — No, he’d already started doing this in different cities in Italy, and I helped him in Brazil, but I was just doing the decoration of the place. And then I thought: “This is amazing! Why don’t we do it in France?” He said, “Why don’t you do it in France?” But I’m not a chef. I don’t know how to! He said: “You don’t need to know how to cook! You just need to start the place.” So, I found the place, and with a couple of friends we started raising money. Whoever donated did it anonymously — that way, they’re not using it for any promotional purpose. That’s very important. I wanted to do it the same way. This isn’t a work of art of mine…

OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t consider it a work of art? Even if it has a lot of components of that?
JR — It’s art in the way we do things. It’s about doing things differently…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Food and art have always been connected.
JR — Of course, from the plate, from the way you talk to people. For me, it’s all part of the same piece.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A lot of artists designed and created restaurants.
JR — Yes, that’s true. You’re right, and I hope it’ll continue because I underestimated the power of food, and the power of dignity through food.

END

JR STANDS BENEATH HIS PASTED IMAGE OF CHEF MASSIMO BOTTURA’S HANDS AT LE REFETTORIO

[Table of contents]

Purple #31 The Paris issue

Table of contents

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