Changing the world through food: Rafael Rincón is the culinary icon Latin America (and the world) needs

Giulia Sgarbi - 11/10/2022

As Rafael Rincón is announced as the winner of the Icon Award with Volvo ahead of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, 50 Best catches up with the Spanish-born, Chile-based social entrepreneur at the helm of a movement turning gastronomy into a force for positive change

For Rafael Rincón, gastronomy has huge untapped potential in the role it can play to change the world. Born into a family of restaurateurs in Madrid, he had hospitality in his DNA, but when he moved to Chile in 2005, discovering the world of social gastronomy changed his life forever.

It began in 2011, when Rincón co-founded Ñam, Chile’s first and largest culinary festival. For the Spanish entrepreneur, it was a call for gastronomy lovers to unite and show the world the value of Chilean and Ibero-American food heritage. The festival attracted famous chefs and speakers from all over Latin America, from Peru’s Pía León to Brazil’s Jefferson Rueda, and ran annually until 2019, with editions held not only in Santiago but also in Valparaíso, Valdivia and in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. A pandemic-induced pause followed, but Rincón vowed it would re-emerge. 

Rincón had noticed the incredible power of social gastronomy and, inspired by models such as Gustu in Bolivia and Gastromotiva in Brazil, he founded his own enterprise in Chile: Fundación Gastronomía Social. This multi-faceted non-profit has become a force to be reckoned with in the country, working hard not only to offer free meals to the hungry, but also to prove that gastronomy can do much more: it can be a place where the unemployed can get free culinary training and eventually a job; it can work with local entities to solve problems of social inclusion; it can make food healthier for people and, in essence, better for the planet.
Through the Comida Para Todos initiative, Rincón served meals to the hungry during the pandemic

The global pandemic in 2020 saw everything come to a standstill – but not Rincón. He set to work creating a charitable model to make good use of temporarily closed kitchens while also giving food to those who needed it. That model became Comida Para Todos, a network of restaurants and soup kitchens that raised funds, employed restaurants and fed those in need, with programmes that ran in Chile, Spain, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina.

Ñam will return in 2023, expanding with new initiatives and a digital platform that will allow food lovers to share and access culinary training while earning tokens that can be donated or converted either to support others on the platform or to get further education. As Rincón receives the Icon Award 2022 with Volvo, 50 Best salutes his efforts to turn gastronomy into an indomitable force for good: meet the winner in the video and with the Q&A below.

What inspired you to become a social 'gastropreneur'?

Ever since I was a child, for me gastronomy was not something fancy, but a way of understanding life. From eating or drinking you can create something good – good for your health, good for culture, good for communities, good for the planet. When I arrived in Chile, I saw that from the outside it may look almost like a European country within Latin America, but if you scratch beneath the surface, there is a lot of inequality.

What was the turning point to create your social gastronomy company?

In 2014, Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari invited me to the first graduation of the Gustu students. I saw an example of a wonderful fine dining restaurant with a spectacular ethic, and on top of that, they also trained people. I saw that there were organisations in the world creating gastronomic business models with a social starting point that were also profitable. That trip changed my life.

Then, in 2018, David Hertz from Gastromotiva invited me to Miami to join the international launch of the Social Gastronomy Movement. So I said well, that's it. I’m a businessman, I’m an entrepreneurial person and I come from a childhood where Slow Food was very present. I have seen that in a country as difficult as Bolivia, in a city as difficult as La Paz, there can be something exemplary for the world. And I have been invited to be part of the creation of an international committee of social gastronomy. So I just had to go ahead and do it.
The Icon Award winner believes that the world can be changed through food

How can restaurants help create a better world?

Anyone who owns a restaurant or any place that provides food has the responsibility, first of all, to understand that it has a mission to feed, and that the mission to feed is 100% a social mission.

There is the environmental part – a restaurant can be an ally or an enemy to climate change. There is the health part, because food is something you ingest, so it has an immediate effect on health. And there is the social part, which is not only your customers – who come in search of something to satisfy their hunger, but also to experience a moment of happiness – but also the community around your restaurant, your neighbours, your town, city or country, and the potential to create cultural wealth in collaboration with them.

A restaurant has the same responsibility as a doctor's practice. Like doctors and the Hippocratic oath, restaurants should swear to respect health, culture and the environment. If we all did that, gastronomy would have a positive impact, instead of a negative impact.

In practical ways, where could a restaurant start?

All restaurants in the world cook food for their staff. If every restaurant, instead of cooking for 20, cooked for 25, which in economics is a marginal cost, they would have a surplus of five meals that they could give to an NGO or a local entity supporting people who don't have enough to eat. If we did that, surely hunger would go down a little in urban areas.

What challenges does the gastronomic world need to tackle today?

The first challenge is how we generate spaces for cooperation, connection and association to be able to contribute to social equity, food security, the fight against obesity, food sovereignty and so on. Food insecurity today is a huge problem. These networks of cooperation can help gastronomy to be a decisive actor and to take action to combat food insecurity. In Chile, which is a rich country in Latin America, around 14% of the population is food insecure. In Brazil, that number is closer to 20%, which equals to 40 million people. Another challenge has to do with understanding and protecting the territories and the cultural food heritage of each place.

But the greatest challenge is to be brave, to take risks and to take the lead to generate these platforms that say: 'here is a problem, let's sit down all together – restaurants, local entities, NGOs – and ask: how do we solve it?''
Rincón with the Ñam team, Chile's largest culinary festival, established in 2011

Why do you say that in social gastronomy, there is no space for ego?

Economist and philosopher Otto Scharmer says that the time of the ‘ego’ is over and now the time of the ‘eco’ has begun. Ever since humanity has been forging the ego, especially in the last 200 years with elitism and individualism, it has provoked crises that might be irreversible. So the only way to transform this has to do with the ecosystem, or ‘thinking from the eco’.

When I say that at Ñam or Comida Para Todos or Fundación Gastronomía Social, ego has no place, it's real, because we act like that. Every social initiative that we do, we do it with at least two other organisations. We believe that the only way to turn the situation around is to think as an ecosystem, not in victimhood or individualism, but investing in active listening, in empathy, in putting yourself in the place of the other before making a decision, in asking questions, in having the capacity and the humility to prototype, to experiment and to let go of power.

What message would you like to send to the community?

Come together. Start cooperating. The planet is already telling us that we're either going to come together and cooperate or everything is going to hell. We must come together to combat food insecurity and hunger, to generate better spaces for training, to fight for social and professional equity, to promote the cultural food heritage of our territories and to battle obesity.

The upcoming edition of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be announced on Tuesday 15th November 2022. To be the first to hear about the latest news and announcements, follow us on Instagram, find us on Facebook, visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel.