René Redzepi had an idea three years ago: He wanted to create a food symposium inspired by the famous Roskilde Festival, which is North Europe’s biggest music festival with a strong identity and sense of community.
After three years of running the MAD symposium — “mad” means food in Danish — I think Redzepi got what he wished for. It was two days of food and love in a rock ‘n’ roll setting under the theme “guts.”
On a Sunday morning, I drove out to an old military area. The area is undeveloped and has this urban charm: Old warehouses mixed with areas of wild meadows leading up to the waterfront with a view to central Copenhagen. It’s quite spectacular.
On an open field, the MAD team had put up a circus tent. In this setting and under the open sky, about 500 people from around the world were gathered — all connected somehow to the food industry. It was a beautiful summer morning. In the middle of an urban meadow, Redzepi greeted the entire group of guests one by one, followed by Danish breakfast and coffee made by some of the world’s top baristas. It was walk the talk from the very beginning. Here was the best coffee I have ever had at any symposium or conference along with a great Danish breakfast of rye bread, cheese, yogurt and, of course, a Danish. It was a convincing start.
MAD Symposium is a celebration of food
The symposium was two days of talks, food, movies — a celebration of the world of food. After breakfast you entered the circus tent, which was dark and had Metallica aggressively coming out of the loudspeakers (not surprising when David Chiang is co-curating). A giant black spotted pig hung from the ceiling, and there was a big wooden butcher’s bench. You kind of knew what was going to happen, but then not at all.
In comes Dario Cecchini. He runs a butcher shop in Panzano in Chianti, Italy, called Antica Macelleria Cecchini. Dario the butcher has a long line of butchers in this family. He also has stories to tell, real stories about eating, respect, love and death. He does that in a dramatic manner and in beautiful Italian, opening up the pig and taking out the guts. Now and then he stops the beautiful stories and his lovely wife translates this butcher prose into English. Listening, you are really touched and you understand why cooking is about life.
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Then he finishes the whole performance with a recital from “Dante’s Inferno” with a deep, clear voice. At that point, tears are quietly running down my cheeks.
On the first day, lunch was cooked by Kamal Mouzawak and the women from Souk el Tayeb, where they cook in the restaurant Tawlét that connects with the market. They had traveled from Beirut, Lebanon, to Copenhagen to cook our lunch and, thus, share the local customs and dishes they cook for their families in their daily lives. We ate a buffet of dolmer, baba ghanoush, hummus, breads, salads with lentils, parsley, pomegranate, sumac and other spices. It was real home-cooked food done with a lot of love.
The other real high point of the conference for me was Margot Henderson. Margot’s husband, Fergus Henderson, gave her such a lovely introduction, saying she was the best cook he knew. With the danger of sounding a bit too hippie-like, at this symposium there was love in the air!
Margot Henderson gave an insight into female cooking and described the differences between female and male cooking: why nourishment is part of female chefs’ cooking, and how male chefs are often driven by prestige and technology. How can anybody think it is better to confit a duck leg in sous-vide rather than fat, as we have done for decades? It is a relevant question.
Also at the symposium, Diana Kennedy gave a talk about her life and ways in Mexico, and Vandana Shiva gave a very thoughtful and important speech about seeds and biodiversity. Redzepi interviewed Alain Ducasse and could not hide his excitement about being on stage with his all-time hero. Christian Puglisi told his story about opening up his restaurant Relæ in a rough neighborhood — which in the first year got one Michelin star and is now 90% organic.
Lunch the second day was also spectacular. Those in attendance came out from the dark tent and walked under the blue sky, and there Mission Chinese Food chefs cooking on woks and serving plates while the Smashing Pumpkins played loudly from the sound system. Right there and then, time was dissolved and all my years in the kitchen became present. Such energy from a bunch of young and upcoming American chefs from San Francisco and New York on a field in Copenhagen gave an instant feeling that the world is really present and everything is possible. Ten years ago, nobody in Denmark would have believed this could happen in Denmark. It just proves there is so much we don’t know, even in the food world.
Every single time I have dined at Redzepi’s Noma I have left very happy, thinking “This is one of the best restaurant meals I have ever had.” Running Noma is one thing, but I really understand Redzepi’s dream: to use his position to create the MAD Symposium, bringing people from around the world together for a conversation about how we can get a better life through food. From a small, insignificant corner of the world, where we do not talk loudly about each other’s success, I really congratulate Redzepi on his dream to create the MAD Symposium. I felt I was part of it for two days.
Top photo: Butcher Dario Cecchini at the MAD symposium during his demonstration. Look closely and you might see René Redzepi in the background near the far left. Credit: Trine Hahnemann