It takes guts to pitch a blood-red circus tent on the fringe of Copenhagen for the MAD Symposium and fill it with 600 food professionals — including cutting-edge chefs, food activists, farmers, foragers and butchers. But then, pioneering chef René Redzepi could never be accused of lacking guts. His radical restaurant, Noma, topped global charts for daring to break with French colonisation, and for establishing in its stead a self-reliance on Nordic ingredients and fresh cooking methods that triggered the so-called Nordic food revolution.
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In Danish, “mad” means food. For the third MAD Symposium, Redzepi was host to a colorful cast of culinary characters with guest curators David Chang of Momofuku and Chris Ying — editor of Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine — and with the help of Ali Kurshat Altinsoy and Peter Kreiner. Speakers came from as far away as Australia, Brazil and California to inspire, inform, provoke and entertain the mostly young, international audience.
“We want to create a forum for the kinds of actions and ideas in food that no one else dares to tell or do,” Redzepi says. “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.”
“Having guts is a moral currency encompassing courage, ambition, fearlessness and, sometimes, stupidity,” Chang said in his emotional introduction to the event. “In my case, it meant taking a leap of faith to start a restaurant — without leaving anything for the swim back home.” Chang is now one of the most successful chefs in the U.S.
The tone was set by the first speaker, Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, who stepped into the ring beside a just-slaughtered pig that had been strung up at centerstage, its head still dripping ruby blood. With the precision of a surgeon, Cecchini delicately sliced open the animal’s belly and pulled out its still-warm, glistening guts. “I’m proud to be from a family of village butchers,” he said as he worked. “We’re the ones who resolve the terrible dilemma of killing animals to feed our communities. In ancient times, it was priests who practised this art. We must be conscientious, responsible carnivores by giving our animals good, long lives and butchering them with respect. Mine is a hard trade, but it’s necessary.” He finished his presentation by giving a passionate recitation of Paola and Francesco’s song of love from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” He got a standing ovation.
The ever-inspiring Indian food activist Vandana Shiva gave many of the audience’s younger members their first taste of what it means to fight for sustainable agriculture. “In 1987, I had a gut sense I should start saving indigenous seeds in reaction to the spread of sterile, genetically modified seeds produced by the chemical giants who had given us war chemicals,” Dr. Shiva began. “They boasted that by the year 2000 they would control all our seeds and foods. I analyzed that something had to be done.”
Since then her organization, Navdanya, has set up more than 100 community seed banks across India to preserve native varieties and has fought seed patenting and what she calls “the mono-culture of the mind.” “The good, natural bacteria in our guts are being killed off by the saturation of pesticides, weed-killers and antibiotics in our food chain,” she continued. “Only indigenous agriculture can restore the biodiversity and balance we need to survive.”
Roy Choi, the Korean-American chef from Los Angeles, touched a raw nerve with his exciting account — part story, part rap — of fighting the city’s “staggering poverty and hunger crisis.” “L.A.’s rich areas have the country’s most diverse farmers markets, but in the poor areas there’s just nowhere to buy fresh produce and most of the food you can find is discarded, expired, inedible or junk,” he began as he showed photos of desolate convenience stores in South Los Angeles. When Choi started sending out his Kogi food trucks to sell fusion cuisine on random corners, he was surprised by the response. “We’d Twitter our location and within minutes, crowds of hungry people would be standing in line for our Korean-Mexican tacos. I really believe some value has to be placed back in the spiritual currency,” he said. “Do we have the guts to break this cycle of food poverty?”
Over two intense days, the MAD crowd heard from other inspirational chefs too. David Kinch, of Manresa in California, and his farmer, Cynthia Sandberg, showed how a creative chef can team up with a single-source vegetable provider to obtain grown-to-order produce. Pascal Barbot, of L’Astrance in Paris, gave a thrillingly high-energy talk about what it means to be a risk-taker in the kitchen by cooking “spontaneously,” adjusting and changing dishes in real time to suit his customers’ moods, needs and desires.
Christian Puglisi, of Relae in Copenhagen, graphically demonstrated how he established a successful all-organic restaurant with almost no funding, by moving into a cheap space in drug dealers’ territory and paring everything back to focus on the food. The street is now crime-free and thriving. Barbara Lynch, of Boston, told the picaresque story of how she became a chef, against all odds, trying to raise $2 million for a restaurant while living in a housing project, and learning to cook by reading cookbooks. “The only way is to be yourself, be honest and be fearless — you’ll need quenelles of steel!” she said, to delighted applause.
With more than 20 distinguished speakers on the rostrum, there isn’t enough space here to describe them all. But there is more information on the MAD site. And remember: To make a difference to your area’s food scene, all you need is guts.
Top photo: Exterior of the MAD Symposium site in Copenhagen. Credit: Carla Capalbo