Established in 2009, Albergo Etico is the brainchild of chef Antonio De Benedetto.
De Benedetto took on Nicolò, a boy with Down Syndrome who was studying at the Scuola di Formazione Colline Astigiane and needed to complete a traineeship in order to get his diploma.
What should have only been a few weeks of training to help Nicolò become qualified evolved into a movement which is spreading across the entire globe, from Rome to Argentina and our very own Blue Mountains, and has even inspired a film, which is currently being shot.
Entitled My Big Fat Italian Kitchen, the documentary stars De Benedetto and his apprentices, Mirko Piras and Jessica Berta.
The film is directed by Melburnian and veteran documentary filmmaker Trevor Graham, who ties together food and social issues in other works, such as Make Hummus Not War (2012), which is set in Israel and Palestine.
“Everybody loves food and it can be used as a way to help people reflect on deeper issues,” Graham says.
“In this case, it’s equal opportunity for people with disabilities, who can gain independence through working.”
Graham was inspired to feature Albergo Etico in a film after hearing about it from friends in Sydney, who have a daughter with Down Syndrome and were deeply touched when they visited the hotel in Asti.
As his previous films show, Graham has always covered stories of an international nature.
When asked where his interest for filming abroad stems from, the director responds all too naturally:
“I’m from Melbourne! I grew up like this, with lots of friends from different backgrounds - Jewish, Italian, German.”
“Melbourne has always been a very multicultural city and I think it’s normal that my films tell international stories. I think that all Australian cinema should look beyond our borders,” he adds.
My Big Fat Italian Kitchen is filmed in Italy, in both Albergo Etico and the houses of the young apprentices and their families, who welcomed the experience with open arms and were more than happy to tell their stories.
The young apprentices aren't just trained to become cooks or waiters, but they also become experts and custodians of the local cuisine.
Most importantly, they learn skills which can be useful beyond the workplace, in everyday life.
In fact, the three-year training/work program offered at Albergo Etico is called “Accademia dell’Indipendenza” (Academy of Independence).
The program is a gradual process, through which trainees learn to carry out all the activities of a hotel and a restaurant to replicate them in a family context.
There are no teachers or assistants, just colleagues, with the most experienced showing new arrivals the ropes.
In some ways, De Benedetto’s decision to take on trainees affected by Down Syndrome shouldn't be seen as an act of “charity”, as those who are chosen to take part in the course are done so on merit.
Despite some initial scepticism, the program’s first trainee, Nicolò, proved himself to be the smartest and the most willing to learn, capable of completing any assigned task with the utmost precision.
Today, Nicolò has the keys of the restaurant, has made many friends and lives by himself.
And, what’s more important, he has a regular employment contract and he carries out tutoring activities for other trainees.
The project has been presented at the European Parliament, Quirinal Palace, the Vatican and, this year, the United Nations in Geneva, as part of World Down Syndrome Day.
The hotel has received a great deal of attention in the Nordic countries, especially in Norway, where the trainees participated in a psychologists’ conference and were treated like “rock stars”, according to Graham.
The response was interesting, considering the number of people with disabilities in Scandinavia is dropping every year due to compulsory pre-natal tests.
De Benedetto wanted to take his project to the Nordic countries because he was aware of the pressure placed on parents to end pregnancy if any genetic disorders are discovered.
Though a pro-choice supporter, De Benedetto also wants to send another message: Albergo Etico represents the beauty and richness of a diverse society made up of people with different abilities and disabilities.
“No one’s perfect,” Graham concludes, referring to a phrase that De Benedetto often repeats.
“What does it even mean to be ‘normal’?”
To contribute to the film’s production with a tax-deductible donation, contact Trevor Graham by email at email@example.com or by phone on 0425 255 064.