Brazilian chef David Hertz is the co-founder of Gastromotiva, a nonprofit that addresses unemployment and social inequality by training underprivileged people as chefs and culinary entrepreneurs, and by cutting food waste and getting surplus food to people who need it most.
In 2019, his leadership of the Social Gastronomy Movement earned him the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize, given by the children of the philanthropist to honor a humanitarian under 50 whose world-changing work is informed by Jewish values.
With Covid-19 upending life everywhere his organization works, Hertz has had to pivot, providing a new model for addressing hunger and food waste, and giving laid-off restaurant workers and struggling farmers an income. He spoke to The Jewish Week from his home in Rio de Janeiro.
Let’s talk about your own background – where you grew up, when you trained as a chef, and what inspired you to develop food-related projects to help the vulnerable.
I grew up in the south of Brazil, in a city called Curitiba with 2,000 Jewish families. My father and grandmother always made sure I was part of the Jewish community and the Jewish school. As a teen I was in a Jewish youth movement and knew I was going to Israel for a year for Machon. I was trying to find out who I was and going to Israel was a liberation. Seeing all the young people going into the army and then travelling around the world before they started university — I was 18 and spent the next seven years backpacking. I lived in India. This is 1993, ’94. I was coming from Brazil, where violence is everywhere, and poverty can be hidden. There was something else in India – there was more value placed on human capital. I discovered food and became a vegetarian.
Back in Brazil, I was 26 and wanted to work with food. I became part of the first culinary training they had in the country, at a hotel school in Águas de São Pedro about 100 miles from São Paolo. When I graduated I became a chef in a restaurant and a teacher. When I was 30 I visited my first slum, and came with a lot of prejudices. I was there to share my knowledge, but learned from the youth I had come to train. I saw in Brazil we don’t value those kinds of work— drivers, helpers in the kitchen, waiters. It’s a very stratified society.
I knew then I wanted to help people to be free to be who they are and do whatever they wanted to do in their lives. I had to get the trust of chefs, because I am a white guy with a lot of privilege and I had to prove the idea that food can create the bridges that alleviate poverty.
In 2004 you launched Cozinheiro Cidadão, or “Citizen Cook,” to train people from disadvantaged neighborhoods. It grew into Gastromotiva, which in turn opened cooking schools in partnership with universities for underprivileged youth. What was the scope of the program before the pandemic, in Brazil and beyond?
Our flagship is training cooks, with an emphasis on fighting food waste by sourcing surplus food. The restaurant school operates in three cities in Brazil, in Mexico City and through a partnership with the UN’s World Food Program in El Salvador
We train food entrepreneurs from low-income communities and act as accelerators for their small businesses. We’ve graduated more than 6,000 people. Some start social work projects in their communities or become teachers in our or other social programs.
In 2016 in Rio, my close friend Massimo Bottura, the Italian chef, and I opened Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, where student cooks and guest chefs cook for the homeless and socially vulnerable people. It only works with surplus food from restaurants and hotels.
The pandemic has only made things worse by putting restaurant workers out of work and increasing the number of people who are not sure how to pay for their next meal. Tell me about Gastromotiva’s response.
How do families survive in these places with so much lack of infrastructure, and living in small apartments — not even apartments? The price of food grew a lot — more than 100 percent for some basic items.
The first thing we did was to turn the restaurant school into a food bank. Restaurants and hotels send us all the surplus they had in stock. In these eight months we were able to donate food through 40 churches and government institutions and produce more than 450,000 meals in Rio.
The second problem: All of our students and alumni went home and started to lose their jobs. Entrepreneurs, such as caterers and bakers, had no orders. One of our trainees said she wanted to cook for the kids who are not going to school. With her and a few other students, we started the first Solidarity Kitchens in students’ homes. They receive food donations and cook meals for those in need, and we try to support them financially with wages, and send them food and money to pay for gas and electricity. We opened in Brazil and Mexico and now have 52 kitchens.
Your synagogue wanted to open its own version of a Solidarity Kitchen. What does it take in terms of resources?
On Shavuot, I spoke at Comunidade Shalom, my synagogue in São Paulo, and the next day the rabbi and the community asked if they could replicate it in the synagogue. We said let’s do a partnership. They hired one of our former students. It’s not in a vulnerable community but they cook the meals and, through partnerships with local priests, distribute food in downtown São Paulo. We’re partnering with more organizations that will take this methodology to their communities.
Any interest from the United States?
In Minneapolis there is an organization, Appetite for Change, which is serving the Black community hit hard by Covid-19. It’s an independent organization, but we are all part of the Social Gastronomy Movement. I dedicated the last three years to organizing this network.
If a synagogue or other organization here wanted to adapt your model, what can you offer?
We are digitizing all our methodologies. Solidarity Kitchens is very new. We are testing in Brazil and Mexico and hope by June or July to have a model that can be replicated everywhere.
I work everywhere to advocate for the power of food as a tool for social change. I go to Davos every year [for the World Economic Forum]. The Shabbat dinner in Davos is one of the best events.
In October, in a virtual ceremony, you received the 2019 Charles Bronfman Prize, which is awarded to Jewish social entrepreneurs. What did it mean to you to be honored for your work in a Jewish context?
There are many levels. On a personal level, it’s a recognition that I never expected. I guess I had to go away from Judaism to become a Jew more strongly. It healed a lot of emotions having to do with family and with my community. As for Gastromotiva, it is a recognition of the power of the idea.
I was also fascinated to meet Charles Bronfman and read his book. I found someone who has a free spirit like me and did so much and he gave me a lot of hope. I hope I leave as much as he is leaving and do as much as he is doing.
What’s life like for you during the pandemic?
I live in Rio, where I moved during the Olympics. I live in Ipanema, three blocks from the beach, and I recently bought my first apartment. For the past 15 years I was always travelling, spending more time out of Brazil than in Brazil. I never felt connected to one place. This time I’m very connected. I started cooking again every day and learned how to become more efficient at work.
I guess I had to go away from Judaism to become a Jew more strongly.
I guess the feeling of privilege — of having a home and a plate of food — has another meaning now. In Ipanema, when we were locked down, there was no one in the streets except food delivery people and the homeless.
Gastromotiva isn’t inherently political, but are you?
I’m very irritated with this country because the work we do is never enough and the government is not working for the people. I never imagined that we would get to this place – the political crisis, the economic crisis, the environmental crisis. I’m closing this year in another spectrum as a citizen and a leader. I can’t avoid not talking about some issues anymore.