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Noma Chef Rene Redzepi's MAD Food Symposium, Copenhagen, Denmark

Rene Redzepi of Noma
Rene Redzepi of Noma
Geeta Bansal

It is an unusual gathering of movers and shakers of the culinary world addressing an international audience of those who work in the blue collar industry as well as producers, writers, scientists, historians, or simply those obsessed with food. This fourth annual symposium was co-curated by Brazilian chef Alex Atala, and some of the speakers and presenters were from our part of the world as well, like Roi Choi of Kogi BBQ food truck fame who, along with Daniel Patterson of Coi, now his partner in a new food venture, cooked up lunch for the crowds on the second day. They took the opportunity to announce their new collaborative venture Loco'l, which is projected to open 20 locations over time in California. Patterson stated that chefs have more to offer than simply preparing great food and Choi spoke about the burgers on their menu and how they cut the meat with grain making them cost effective and healthier options. During the two day event on August 24th and 25th also up on stage were Jeremiah Towers of Chez Panisse and Star fame, history professor Paul Freedman from Yale, chef Chris Cosentino with a very touching tale of his reality TV experience and the colorful urban gardener Ron Finley from South Central LA.

In contrast to last year’s opening act with Tuscan butcher Dario Ceccini gutting a pig live on stage, this year the opening act was Japanese chef Tatsuru Rai of the 12 seat Sobatei Rakuichi in Niseko, Japan. As the spell bound audience watched in complete silence he prepared soba noodles from scratch and the whole performance including the plating and offering the food to the lucky front row of the audience by his wife Midori was similar to a beautiful ballet with the music of silence. It was the perfect opening for this year’s discussion of “What is Cooking?” This set the tone for the relay of speakers who expertly carried the other aspects of this discussion forward over the two days of the event under cloudy skies in a circus big top. What is remarkable about the event is that it is a nonprofit entity not powered by sponsors and without an advertising marquee in sight. There were some spells of heavy rain and blustery winds on Refshaeolan Island, the event site that is accessed by water taxi boats and by land with an occasional rainbow over the horizon, but that did not dampen the spirits of the crowds.

Alex Atala of Brazil brought up the changing face of the industry in the last 30 years with young cooks not following the model of excess but expressing themselves while being mindful of their environment. Julian Baggini, UK based philosopher and author had a different perspective on the topic of cooking and explored the path between the completely obvious and absurdly redundant views of the subject. He quoted Brillat Savarin who said "Animals feed and Humans eat." According to him how we eat and cook tells us a lot about how we live with others in the world we share. Historian Paul Freedman took the audience on a journey through cuisine and times when celebrity chefs like Apicus existed and gourmands like Nero created food trends. During this journey through time one important observation was that all through history, crab was a troublesome product to carve, something that has never changed. From the creation of the restaurant concept attributed to Careme, the period of the elaborate French and Russian service the cooks approach has changed in the present with the necessity to put sustainability before tradition.

In an interlude French Chef Pierre Koffman, based in the UK, who received 3 Michelin stars at La Tante Claire, came on stage to demonstrate his technique for prepping pig trotters with Chef Chris Cosentino who had trained under him for a brief period of time by his side. Koffman called on Redzepi to come onstage for an impromptu trotter cleaning contest with Cosentino and Redzepi did very well to say the least. There were other very interesting topics raised and various avenues explored. Isabel Soares of Portugal, who founded a cooperative named Fruta Feia (ugly fruit), spoke about the necessity to combat food waste based on appearance. An idea we can emulate in our country where though some of this produce shows up in farmers markets and organic outlets there is a large quantity going to waste. Ron Finley, the guerrilla gardener from Los Angeles, brought up the topic of using vacant, utilized spaces in urban areas to grow food and in the process change eating habits of the residents if low income enclaves by veering them away from fast food. He was one of the audience favorites with his badass attitude and invective accented comments. Finley is attempting to change the blighted landscape to one where people drive through rather than drive by (as in drive by shootings).

Representing the French cuisine were Alain Senderens, famous for having given back his Michelin stars and who had also mentored culinary genius Alain Passard. Senderens spoke about appropriate wine pairings and he participated in what turned out to be a question and answer session with Rene Redzepi seated on the floor in the front row, generating an entertaining repartee with Senderens. It is this intimate nature of this fairly small event that makes it so interesting and a forum for learning. Breton chef Olivier Roellinger who also gave back his Michelin stars spoke about how to feed and not just dine. His life story with an episode of violence that led to his being bed ridden to his exploration and use of spices that became controversial with the French old guard and the Michelin left the audience spellbound. Darina and Rachel Allen proponents of the Slow Food movement in Ireland captivated the audience especially with Darina Allen speaking nonstop without apparently drawing a breath through her entire presentation about Ballymaloe in County Cork, their cooking school and farm. Tatiana Levha the 30 year old protégée of Pascal Barbot and Alain Passard spoke about her experience in opening her bistro Le Sevan in Paris that probably was topical for young cooks in the audience who aspired to have their own restaurants.

Italian Paola Antonelli, curator of design and architecture at MOMA in New York spoke about the interaction between design, art and food with some eye catching visuals. Almost a third of speakers being women in marked contrast to other international events the audience heard from food writer Anya Von Bremen of her food journey to the US from the former USSR, author and TV personality Madhur Jaffrey recounted nostalgic tales of her childhood in India. Front of the house legend Italian Silvano Giraldin of La Gavroche, the first London restaurant to obtain three Michelin stars spoke about the art of the table. While discussing the invisible art of service and the discretion of the waiter he said service is what you notice when it is missing. Andrea Petroni of Gelinaz fame introduced his friend Chef Fulvio Pierangelini who spoke in Italian with the soundtrack of the Rolling Stones in the background, while being translated by Paola Antonelli. An interesting comment that he made was that in talking about yourself there is an imbedded risk of self-celebration.

He had the audience in an uproar with his statement that "food blogs are to gastronomy the equivalent of what pedophiles are to love." Please don't write to me about this as I am only conveying his sentiments made during his speech about his life in exile. Norwegian chef Eyvind Hellstrom who formerly ran the celebrated La Bagatelle and has constantly attempted to encourage the general public to investigate new cuisines and ingredients stemming from his early career when all they had to work with were frozen and canned goods. He showed a short film about a man who lived on Nutella, the hazelnut spread till his medical examination showed his physical age was 71 opposed to 31, his real age, because of his eating habits. The Nutella stock probably spiraled down after losing this customer who switched to a healthier diet.

Albert Adria closed the event with his conversation about Being Afraid. Adria said you are never too old to be afraid and that actually fear is a creative engine of sorts. He said when you overcome fear you accomplish your dreams, horror has a face and you must make a friend of horror which he referred to as count Dracula. Adria announced the closing of 41 Experience and his new contemporary Mexican ventures Nino Viejo and Hoja Santa that opened this week. While discussing his trepidation about his new ventures and opening himself to criticism about his version of Mexican cuisine. He brought the point home by announcing one more restaurant named Enigma to open in early 2015. It was not surprising to hear him speak so candidly as he is a very straightforward man as his honesty in his work always comes through in his work whether at El Bulli, Tickets, Inopia, 41 Experience, Pakta, or Bodega.

In addition to a beautiful breakfast spread every morning, there were beers available that were produced in collaboration with Mikkeller, the most popular one of the four being a Pineapple Apple pilsner, a selection of coffees, and memorable meals such as a lunch cookled by the Gastromotiva from Brazil. This organization offers disadvantaged youth free courses in the craft and business of cooking to empower them to become grass root entrepreneurs. Lunch on the second day was courtesy of Roi Choi from Los Angeles, and featured quesadillas and tacos as well as a preview of the Loco'l burgers with Daniel Patterson on the grill and David Chang of Momofoku fame helping out all the other volunteers and Noma staff. The spirit of camaraderie and the opportunity to connect informally with some of the biggest names in cuisine create a memorable experience which I would not miss for anything.

The after party under a bridge on a cold and rainy night was a vegetarian feast courtesy of Frederick Bill Brahme of Copenhagen's Atelier September and Rosforth & Rosforth. The main entree was a delicious giant roasted beet, accented with lavender, basil, and umebushi. The warmth of friendships and the spirit of camaraderie cut through the cold and left the few hundred people present with many ideas and thoughts to reflect on and incorporate into their own work. Here's to MAD5 and another valuable experience and probably many more surprises in store for the next gathering.

Keep it going Rene!

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