The Favela Chef Turning Food Waste Into Organic Dishes

Regina Tchelly De Araujo Freitas is an enterprising young Brazilian who is making her mark on the Brazilian culinary scene with a project called Favela Organica.

The initiative is creating small organic food gardens in a number of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, including Santa Marta, Morro da Babilônia and the Complexo do Alemão, together home to over 200,000 inhabitants. These shanty towns were “pacified” during an operation ordered by the Lula government to free them from their typical violence and hardship. As well as producing healthy, local, organic food for the communities (who tend the gardens themselves), Favela Organica also promotes a style of cooking that uses the products, including food scraps, to try to influence local people’s eating habits.

The project, which encourages people to plan their purchases and consumption, promotes reflection on the food waste that characterizes even the poorest kitchens. Regina’s style, far from being a media-friendly gimmick, is instead a consequence of her background and story, and of the need to put food on the table each day. When food is scarce, creativity is the best response, and her talent lies in knowing how to create incredible dishes using minimal resources.

Brazil, like the rest of the world, is seeing an unprecedented, unstoppable proliferation of “gastronomic events,” with television shows, talent shows, cooking competitions and the transformation of chefs into showbusiness stars. Regina is interpreting this wave in her own personal way, with excellent results that have attracted widespread attention from the Brazilian press.

Everywhere in the world, and especially in South America, talking about gastronomy too often means limiting oneself to a hedonistic perspective and not dealing with the contradictions the current food system is generating in every corner of the planet. We only have to think of the fact that the world is home not only to 840 million malnourished people, with 30 million dying every year because of hunger, but also 1.5 billion who are obese. This is a shameful truth, made even more shameful by the fact that gastronomy is going through an unparalleled golden age.

Now aged 32, originally from the northeast, the poorest part of Brazil, at 17 Regina moved to Rio to work for the city’s well-off families. She spent 12 years working for Brazil’s bourgeoisie, refining her knowledge and culinary skills. In 2010 she embraced the organic movement, and started to create the first food gardens in her favela, Morro da Babilônia, and to work directly in the different farmers’ markets started in Rio de Janeiro. She began putting on innovative cooking demonstrations, presenting unusual recipes with zero waste. Word spread and her name became increasingly well known. Then came the next leap: With the support of Slow Food Brazil she starting holding cooking courses in her small home, teaching young people how to use everything during cooking, including things normally regarded as waste, like vegetable peelings, seeds and cooking water.

On the one hand she is sending a strong symbolic message about limiting or eliminating food waste, while on the other, these practices are an implicit guarantee of the wholesomeness of the ingredients, which can only be used like this if they are organic.

For New Year’s Eve, Regina organized a party for the homeless in Copacabana. As celebrations raged around the city, the sharing of sweets and music was another sign of the joy and passion she brings to her work and her sunny, radiant nature. Her work is becoming increasingly important in terms of the impact it has on poor urban communities, and in June this year her school will move into a new location, in front of the chapel of Sant Marta, in the favela of the same name facing Botafogo and close to the Leme and Copacabana beaches. Since the start of this great adventure, Favela Organica has grown significantly, and is now also active outside Rio de Janeiro, in Pernambuco, Paraiba, Minas Gerais, Cearà and São Paolo. The Brazilian press continues to celebrate the project.

Women have long known how to make the most of ingredients and minimize waste in the kitchen, but what is innovative here is that during the explosion of a gastronomy of excess, Regina is working hard to bring the discourse back to the right path. Brazil is still home to many citizens who might have been liberated from hunger but are still at risk of malnutrition and do not always have access to an adequate, high-quality diet.

Her interpretation of being a cook and a gastronome brings together the pleasure of food and a civic engagement, involving the well-being of her own community, and is part of a wider movement developing throughout Brazil, with people and associations like Gastromotiva (, which trains young chefs and supports social gastronomy projects around the country.

Latin America is going through a great gastronomic renaissance, and Brazil is without doubt at the forefront of this process. The existence of Regina, Gastromotiva and the Terra Madre Brazil network brings hope that all the attention that will be focused on this country in the coming years, with the World Cup this summer and the Olympics in 2016, will also offer opportunities to those who are normally excluded from the benefits of these major events.

Regina is a great discovery, and I think we will be hearing much more about her in the future!



Carlo Petrini
La Repubblica, January 28, 2014
Translation: Carla Ranicki

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