The International organisation 50 Best, which ranks the 50 best restaurants in the world, has awarded her the title of Champion of Change. Italian chef Viviana Varese was shortlisted as one of the three chefs who have driven positive change within the restaurant world and beyond over the past 18 months. She was joined by US chef Kurt Evans, who received an award for using his talents to raise awareness of the need to end mass incarceration, and Indian chef Deepanker Khosla, who turned his Bangkok-based Haoma restaurant into a soup kitchen during the health emergency and secured jobs for his entire staff of immigrants.
Varese has long been committed to breaking down barriers for the LGBTQ+ community while also promoting social inclusion. Her Milan-based Viva Viviana Varese restaurant and the newly opened W Villadorata Country Restaurant in Sicily are geared towards staff inclusiveness regardless of gender, race, age and sexual orientation. Her latest project, however, will be funded by the award, with a donation from ’50 Best for Recovery’, an initiative launched last year to support the hospitality industry through fundraising.
The concept entails opening Viva il Gelato, a Milan-based ice-cream parlour staffed by women who were victims of domestic violence. “I was very excited when I heard that I had received a ‘Champions of Change’ award”, she explains. “Astonished is the correct word. I’ve done and do what I do because I think it’s the right thing to do”.
Certainly fair to say, yet hardly common, though it helped her draw the accolades of this prestigious award in recognition of inclusion and a rebirth towards a new professional life. “Right now, I try to embrace all the things I like to do, even if they don’t exactly fit in with my personal life. But I feel that this is the time to act”, she says. “Perhaps this willingness to venture forth into new things also stems from being comfortable with how my Milanese restaurant Viva is doing: the team is well established. When I’m finished there, I can devote myself to something else and relax, unplug. Everyone with this job knows that having even one day off means taking some time for yourself. I spend this time planning, because I love what I do anyway”.
And toying with this idea, you designed an inclusive neighbourhood ice-cream parlour, starting with a simple element.
I can handle even the most difficult basics with my pastry chefs in the restaurant, yet ‘making’ ice cream is a fairly easy task that can be learned with a little training but requires not as much practice as cooking. It remains food-related, but the project doesn’t need to reach the stars. Here, there is no need for advanced specialisation: it is a job for everyone, very easy to pass on even to inexperienced women. I also wanted a food-related shop that could easily support itself. The lockdown has taught us that this feature is crucial for a venue.
What are the next steps?
I am waiting to ground the project I have in mind by finding the right spot. And then we will start the interviews. I will get in touch with the Cadmi and UNHCR associations, who will make an initial shortlist of women out of whom I hope to find the right women for the job. I consider support from professionals to be essential, and from there we can start with the correct use of words, even before building relationships: because they should feel safe and protected, first and foremost. The language used in sensitive moments, such as the interview, is therefore the first form of protection. We will certainly try to help women from Afghanistan, who are among the ones most in need of help, and we will try to do something for them. I would also like to organise a charity dinner to raise funds for the women who have fled from that land. I have many friends who are actually working there on the ground, and I realise how much funding is needed.
They will have a normal profession, but in a welcoming atmosphere. A job which, I hope, will give them the opportunity to live a normal life
Who are your ideal candidates?
The opposite of what you usually read in the advertisements! We are looking for women who are over 35, and all the better if they are mothers with children. Children are my prototype customers. Children craving ice cream should be 50% of our customers: and who better than a mother to welcome a child? She certainly knows how to treat them the best!
What do you expect from the women you select for this project?
I hope to find women looking to experience this challenge as a redemption. This is, after all, a job: they will have a normal profession, but in a welcoming atmosphere. A job which, I hope, will give them the opportunity to live a normal life. I hope they are willing to get involved. While we all suffer, I hope that those who have experienced more than their fair share find joy again in a more welcoming atmosphere”.
This is something you’ve done in the past.
I worked with refugees before, through an internship with two boys who later found jobs. They were really young and I was lucky. The most difficult aspect was to help them gain confidence in others. They had suffered so much that it was really difficult to overcome mistrust.
We will try to help women from this ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, since they are among the ones most in need of help; and we will try to do something for them.
How much of yourself do you need to put into this profession?
We suffered a great deal during the lockdown months: I can’t wait to get back to being productive, and to find women who will join me. As I take on more things, I need more and more help from people who want to grow, plan and take on some of the responsibility. I miss finding young people who really want to do this job: I understand that everyone has suffered and is suffering, it’s a time of crisis and many of us no longer want to lead the same life as before. But for those of us who are used to living in the evening, we realise that it takes very little to get back into the whirlwind: the real reason is that you kind of like this life, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to stand it.
Do you have any qualms about this project?
My only fear now is another lockdown. The rest is an opportunity: I’m not afraid of anything.