The migrants’ chef

A day with Daniele from Progetto Arca, a professional who makes 5K meals per day for refugees and the homeless

To the right, Daniele Repizzi from Fondazione Prog

To the right, Daniele Repizzi from Fondazione Progetto Arca, a charity founded in 1994 in Milan. In 2016 they offered a roof to 86,000 migrants and homeless people and served over 2 million meals

When Daniele was a bone-breaking half back in second or third division, he knew he would soon have to retire. He had talent, of course, but his diploma from catering school Vespucci, which he got at 18, offered more guarantees.

He dreamt of travelling well beyond the fields of the Milanese hinterland. And so he did, finding his way for a few years in crowded kitchen brigades in Spain and Portugal. Once back in Milan, he directed Cactus Juice in Via Mecenate, with a self-service lunch offer for large numbers and Tex-Mex specialities in the evening.

He was a chef like many others, until 6 years ago when a meeting made him a little more special: at Fondazione Progetto Arca they asked him to direct the kitchen of their canteens scattered around Milan and beyond. Not business clients but homeless people, unemployed who live in the streets, civilians escaping countries at war. People who have a right to a bed, a hot meal and clean clothes like any other - thinks Alberto Sinigallia, founder of the charity.

Given the conflict in Syria, the exodus of migrants grows every year, raising the number of clients at Arca’s canteens. While in 2012 they welcomed and looked after 13,000 people, in 2016 they were almost 83,000. «In the space of 5 years», Repizzi sums up, «we’ve moved from 400 to 5,000 meals each day. Over 2 million per year».

Queuing for lunch in the colourful canteen at Arca in Via Mambretti

Queuing for lunch in the colourful canteen at Arca in Via Mambretti

They give these to some 2,000 migrants sent to Milan from the prefectures of Lampedusa and Sicily, some 800 more in transit to the North, and 200 homeless people. A total of 3,000 though the number varies greatly. «Just think that we had 1,800 only yesterday», points out the chef.

The canteens are scattered all around town: in Via Mambretti, Andolfato, Balduccio da Pisa, Agordat, Fantoli, Macchi, Stella, in the shelter hub in Via Sammartini. And outside Milan too, in ex hotel Vela in Varese and in Ferrhotel in Lecco. A growing population, mostly Muslims. There are many people from Senegal, Nigeria, Eritrea, Somalia and Pakistan next to whom we were lucky to have lunch on a sunny day in September, in the shelter in Via Mambretti.

Since these are places of transit, at first the pedagogists at Arca wondered what kind of food they were meant to serve. Better dishes from their country of origin or from their destination? These doubts were soon necessarily put aside. «Many migrants», says Repizzi, «arrive in precarious conditions given what they suffered during the journey: broken ribs, fractures, hepatitis C, pregnant women in precarious conditions, children who were badly weaned. In many cases we have no choice: diabetics or people with hypertensions need a diet low in sodium. People with mouth infection or problems with their digestive system can only drink liquids».

More often, one must alleviate their hunger: «As soon as they arrive, many would eat half a kilo of sugar out of instinct, because it’s a luxury where they come from. Others, for the same reason, would eat meat every day and this is not good. Maggi cubes are so delicious they’d crumble and sprinkle them on anything». Indeed dishes are abundant and asking for a second helping is almost automatic. They queue, patiently, and then choose their seat out of ethnic affinity.

Time zones in the shelter Hub at Arca, in Via Sammartini

Time zones in the shelter Hub at Arca, in Via Sammartini

Daniele wakes up at dawn: after sleeping 4 hours he goes to Viale Agordat, in Cimiano, and prepares the daily menu based on supplies and clients issues. The cooking area is rather technological and of high value, with Rational ovens worth 40,000 euros. The staff prepares, chills, packs bowls for 10 people. They send the cold food in the morning and then warm it up on location, making sure to follow the cold and hot chains. Meals have a food cost of 1 euro, which reaches 2.20 when including human resources: «We spend 1.5 million euros per year. We buy 60% of the food, the rest comes from Banco Alimentare». Fondazione Arca lives on corporate and private funds: donations, bequests, presents.

All sorts of languages are spoken in the kitchen, just like at the front office: many used to be guests of the same shelters. They earn their piece of bread by cooking and feeding the latest arrivals. With all the dynamics of any kitchen, hell or dreamlike: «We’re 25», says the chef, «and a large part of my job is to prevent them from teasing each other. Sometimes they quarrel, sometimes they act as if they don’t understand, or they don’t want to peel carrots. I try to teach them team work, to become specialised workers, just like I’ve always done, in every restaurant».

Kinship and solidarity prevail, the consequence of a shared tragic destiny. The menus always include two choices. «Like with platos combinados in Spain», explains the chef, «pasta or rice as first course, two second courses and fruit and yogurt. As for pasta, they’re happy only with spaghetti, because that’s the only kind they know. We often use legumes, vegetal proteins».

The fact most of them are Muslim influences rhythm and menu: «During Ramadan, which has always been in the summer, they all eat and drink a lot before sunrise. Then they start again after sunset: dates, fruit juice and milk to reactivate their metabolism. During the day, if they have to drink a drop of water with a pill, they’ll refuse». The menu often includes zighini, curry, couscous.

Daniele Repizzi with his right arm, Donatella Daffra

Daniele Repizzi with his right arm, Donatella Daffra

On Saturday 30th September and Sunday 1st October Arca is organising La Zuppa della Bontà

On Saturday 30th September and Sunday 1st October Arca is organising La Zuppa della Bontà

A scattered restaurant, inspected by health authorities more often than a fine dining restaurant or a school canteen: «We invest many resources in making spaces sanitary and in waste disposal, a daily reason of fight with the neighbours».

Meanwhile, guests enjoy lunch and laugh in front of an iPhone. People who lost a relative below deck, or were shot in the legs. «They’re my clients», Daniele lightens up, «and I work every days so they can enjoy themselves».


Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world