The big top has been dismantled, most guests have trickled out of Copenhagen, the neon sign now resides in our vault, and it’s time to plan for MAD4 (which, by the way, will be co-curated by two-time MAD speaker Alex Atala). But before that, some more photos from the weekend, and a few thoughts on the dizzying array of topics covered in the talks during MAD3.
The theme of the symposium this year was guts, in all its forms, and our speakers approached the subject from every angle: the natural, the social, the environmental, the emotional, the culinary and the slightly insane (David Choe).
On the first day of MAD3, Scandinavian forager Roland Rittman, the man that “transformed Noma in its first desolate winter,” according to René Redzepi, kneeled before wood sorrel in front of the entire audience, urging all to go into nature and discover what the earth can give us. “We are gatherers by nature,” said Rittman. Danish thinker Tor Nørretranders later pointed to Rittman as the embodiment of his MAD3 thesis — that industrialized, processed food has become such a given that it no longer can truly excite us. We should have the guts to resist what’s easiest, according to Nørretranders, and ask ourselves and our chefs to cook real things that can deliver true surprise.
In a similar vein, chef Margot Henderson railed against sous vide cooking. “It’s not the same to confit a duck leg in duck fat and to then confit it in a plastic bag,” she said. Henderson presented her theory that there is such thing as masculine and feminine cooking, and that the former can favor gadgetry and excessive manipulation. “I worry for all the young men who want to be superstars and have a probe in their pocket and have forgotten what their grannies cooked,” Henderson observed. She described how the archetype of the hunter implies a war on nature, one reflected in kitchens that don’t strike a balance between the progressive and the instinctive and simple. “Food should not be treated as a problem to be solved,” she asserted. Henderson also noted that ranking systems, lists and guides unfairly favor some of these more masculine kitchens over the places that put out regional, simple, instinctive cooking.
There are few things gutsier than a 90-year-old woman standing before a crowd of some of the most noted contemporary chefs and telling them what they’re doing wrong. Mexican gastronomic authority Diana Kennedy, whom Lucky Peach editor and MAD co-curator Peter Meehan introduced as “one of the greatest cookbook writers of all time,” did just that. Echoing some of Henderson’s sentiments, Kennedy argued that sous vide cooking is harmful to the environment. “I’m a pain,” she said, “because I judge restaurants by their garbage pile.” Kennedy explained that there should be a Michael Moore of food to keep watch and put pressure on chefs to run sustainable operations. “The architects who don’t build sustainably should be banned,” she declared.
Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying and emissions analyst Peter Freed presented case studies of the carbon emissions of two restaurants (Frankies Spuntino in Brooklyn and Noma in Copenhagen), providing tangible evidence that restaurateurs can and should take more comprehensive looks at how their restaurants affect the environment. They noted that the food system accounts for 30% of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
Renowned glaciologist Jason Box approached the environmental question on the macro level. Box, who has spent over one year of his life camping on the Greenland ice sheet and contributed to the global warming report that earned Al Gore a Nobel Prize, described how human action — or negligence, or inaction — is negatively impacting our world. The most compelling proof comes from the ice sheet, which is three times the area of France. Box showed videos of unfathomably large glaciers, some the size of New York City boroughs, tumbling into the sea, and provided evidence of the unprecedented levels of melting currently underway in Greenland. Despite the bleak data, Box explained that small changes and awareness can re-stabilize the climate.You can follow Box’s work at Dark Snow Project, a first-of-its-kind crowd funded effort to study the Greenland ice sheet, online.
"I’m a student of gastronomy and of fermentation and of art and many other things," explained Los Angeles’ Roy Choi at the start of his presentation, “but I’m also from the hood.” Choi presented an impassioned argument for chefs to step up to the plate and try to effect social change, even if critics think they should stay in the kitchen. “When a chef talks, people listen,” he said. “You’re not going to find many cooks at a pre-shift meeting looking at their phones and telling the chef, ‘I’m busy right now, I’ll catch you later.” Choi specifically encouraged chefs to try to reach those who aren’t wealthy enough to eat at their restaurants. He substantiated his claim by telling his story: a few years ago, Choi and his friends took to the streets of L.A. with their now-legendary Kogi barbecue truck to feed the masses accessible food in areas where there are more liquor stores than green grocers.
Then there were the discussions of guts from the personal, emotional and creative perspectives.
David Chang likened guts to moral currency and a measurement. In order to make things happen, “you have to figure out how much guts you need for something, and how much you don’t have,” he said. He described the importance of getting to the point where you believe in something so much that failure becomes insignificant and you are completely comfortable with the prospect of being alone with your idea. It’s OK and sometimes necessary to be an outsider, according to the chef. He concluded his remarks, his plea to go all-in, by quoting the film Gattaca: “I never left anything for the swim back.”
Barbara Lynch, who now runs a $25 million business group that includes the most luxurious restaurant in her native Boston, spoke of having the guts — or “balls,” in her words — to teach herself how to cook from a book in order to take on her first cooking job on a cruise ship. She didn’t graduate high school, but did have the “quenelles of steel” to figure out business plans all on her own and overcome insecurities to create a “personal and authentic” style of cooking. “I can finally say I’m happy to be Barbara Lynch,” she said as she walked offstage.
Sometimes chefs face challenges where their guts can actually, really take them into situations of life and death. Consider Ahmed Jama, a native Somalian who left his successful London restaurant to open another one, The Village, in his war-torn homeland. “I came to Somalia to change the lives of the people who don’t have somewhere to work and people who have been locked indoors and don’t have anywhere to go and socialize,” Jama has said of his decision to open a restaurant in Mogadishu. “Basically, what I am looking for is to show them, ‘Yes, you can laugh when you finish work, university, office work, wherever you are, you have somewhere to go.’“ Jama’s challenges are almost impossible to register. Last year, a pair of suicide bombers entered his restaurant, setting off explosions that killed 14 people and wounded 20 more. He’s kept going.
Pascal Barbot, Christian Puglisi, and the legendary Alain Ducasse spoke of risk-taking in creativity.
Barbot may run the three Michelin star L’Astrance, but that doesn’t preclude him from embracing a philosophy of spontaneity in his kitchen. With just a few burners that belie his restaurant’s renown, Barbot pushes his team to make changes on the fly and alter recipes to fit the mood of the restaurant on a given night, as well as the preferences of specific tables. “It’s not comfortable, but it’s pleasant,” said Barbot, “to find immediate inspiration and break from the routine.” Puglisi told the story of finding a cheap space on what was one of the most violent and drug-infested streets of Copenhagen, Jægersborggade, and making it into a great restaurant — one that gradually helped transform the street into a destination for tourists and locals. And Ducasse, in conversation with Redzepi, Daniel Patterson, and co-curators Chang and Ying, spoke of the insignificance of fear and the need to just go for it. “I make many, many decisions, and accept that ten percent of them will be failures,” he said. “You just have to do it.”
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jonathan Gold problematized the question of authenticity in cooking, expounding an argument that could encourage chefs to create without being burdened by tradition or what some perceive as being “more real.” He gave as an example the Mexican cooking popular in certain areas of California, which evolved from Chicano culture. In Gold’s view, it’s not inauthentic, as some might argue. Instead, it’s something completely authentic to that place and that history.
Speakers like the author Jon Reiner reminded the audience that it actually takes guts to be vulnerable and realize your weaknesses in some cases. “When I went through the experience of not being able to eat for six months due to complications of my Crohn’s Disease, I wanted to tell people that I had finally seen the beauty of stoicism and discipline,” he said. “But instead I saw that I was weak and that I hated my situation.” Reiner, unable to handle sitting at the table with his family as they ate and he couldn’t, realized what he truly loved about food: the experience, the human and emotional component of sitting down at a table and sharing a meal with those he loves. While showing pictures of Katz’s Delicatessen and West Village institution the White Horse Tavern, Reiner explained that “I really came to understand that food was how I made sense of my life.”
This is but a taste of what happened over the two days of MAD3. In the following weeks and months, we’ll be posting videos and transcripts of speeches, essays from speakers and photos related to this year’s symposium. For the moment, though, best to borrow a phrase from Redzepi’s concluding remarks: “We hope you left a little more inspired than when you arrived.”