It’s something that you find out when you travel, when you are curious, when you try out new experiences. Integration and inclusion start in the kitchen, even before you make eye contact. Matteo Matteini, a 54-year-old manager originally from Rimini, is an expert in development and social economy and founder of a series of social impact startups, such as Amore & Sapore (Love and Taste) which operates in the Milan area. It’s a pop-up restaurant focusing on collaborative food culture, thanks to an active network of non-professional cooks from different countries all over the world.

The idea of talking about a country from the point of view of its cuisine isn’t new.

“That’s true. Amore & Sapore is based on a simple idea: we create a meeting place where we can showcase a series of skills, in this case of talented women originally from countries outside Europe.

We are not talking about the latest ethnic restaurant in Milan. At the centre of the project is the desire to help migrants to develop their potential and support the regeneration of open, inclusive and integrated communities.

How did this all start?

“On reflection, I could say that it was for egotistical reasons. As well as working as a project manager on two work placement projects for migrants and asylum seekers for the Comune of Milan, I am involved with Vitality, a non-profit organization which we set up with two other partners in 2012 to demonstrate what I have always believed: that diversity is good for communities and helps societies grow. I grew up surrounded by relatives and friends of very different origins and cultures and I know very well how enriching this can be.”

Tell me about your family.

“My maternal grandmother is from Congo, my maternal grandfather is Jewish: he was born on the island of Rhodes. My paternal grandparents are Italian. I have African, Afro-European, Italian and Afro-American cousins. If we count second and third generations, my nearest relatives are in Italy, France, Belgium and the UK. This aspect of my life has meant that for me it has been very easy to deal with issues of cultural diversity. I well remember how my French and Belgian cousins pointed out that ‘visible diversity’ was normal in their countries, and rare in Italy.”

What did they mean?

My mother was the first black person in the town where I was born, Rimini. At first people were very curious about her, then there was a warm, friendly relationship, then as immigration increased there was a sort of diffidence. The same people, the same communities changed their behaviour towards the same person. For a long time I thought I was being hypersensitive, but little by little we arrived at the way things are now, schizophrenic with a vein of latent xenophobia.

In the meantime though, you set up a non profit organization,Vitality.

“Vitality was set up in 2012, based on an idea I had with the two other founder members, my sister Isabella Matteini and Adam Clark. Those were very different times from now, the debate on immigration was less insidious. We thought it would be interesting to see how people who had been attracted by our country could bring resources to revitalise their communities. We started to meet lots of people, and set up listening and work creation centres, but also events, training courses, research and analysis. The idea was increasingly to build shared spaces rather than just providing services.”

In what way?

“In that setting we met a lot of foreign women, who often found it more difficult than men to reconcile their domestic lives with a job. Many of them were expert cooks and told us about ingredients we had never heard of, explaining methods and techniques that had sometimes been used in their countries since time immemorial.

And if there is one thing that Milan had been waiting for, that is warmly welcomed, it is the idea of trying out something new and different to eat.

“The location is a pop-up restaurant in Dergano, Milan. Every evening event is based on a particular country or culture. There are two chef coaches, Adam Clark and Tecla Ballardini, who look after our cooks and plan the dinner with them. It is always combined with something cultural: music, martial arts, dance or cinema. Obviously not all our cooks are from the country in question, but they follow the instructions and methods explained by the person who is from there, and it is really enriching for them too.”

How many people are we talking about?

“These are evening events for a maximum of 50 people, and the total cost is 30 euros per person. The guests book online and I have to say it is already a success. About a quarter of the clients come back again to further events, they look forward to finding out which country will be next.”

Any special dishes you’d like to mention?

“There are dishes that few people in Milan had tried before, such as Pastel Sawur from Indonesia: little fried ravioli stuffed with vegetables. Or chicken in Mole sauce from Mexico, with chocolate, spices, almonds and chilli. We introduced Mafé from Senegal, a dish made with veal in tomato sauce, peanuts and chilli. And sweet Brigadeiros from Brazil made of chocolate, coconut and condensed milk.”

After you’ve cleared away, what is left?

“The fact that we’ve arranged for people with different histories and origins to meet without having to focus on situations of disadvantage or hardship, enabling us to show what they’re worth, also from an economic point of view. We’re not do-gooders, nor fund-raisers, we are aiming to do something useful. We offer catering as well for public and private events. And you can even book a personal ethnic chef for an evening at home. In the future we’d like to set up a food store.”

Translated by Anne Parry