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René Redzepi's MAD Symposium Hangover Observations

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René Redzepi
René Redzepi

[Photos: Gabe Ulla/Eater.com]

On Sunday and Monday, 500 or so chefs, purveyors, food academics, and journalists gathered inside a circus tent along the harbor in Copenhagen for René Redzepi's MAD Symposium. Over the last two years, at a time when it would be an understatement to call the global food festival scene oversaturated, the event has proven a promising alternative.

Much like last year, the symposium was designed as a conversation starter in the hopes that the relatively small number of attendees will return to their respective cities and bring the topics of debate and discussion back with them. With a lineup of twenty-two presenters — including Ferran Adrià, Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, Dan Barber, and Fergus Henderson — there was plenty of fodder for that.

Recurring themes included negotiating the modern and the traditional, as evidenced in the presentations of chefs Enrique Olvera and Massimo Bottura. Olvera, the chef at Mexico City's Pujol, dedicated a significant portion of his presentation to discussing how you can honor and preserve tradition, even when you're trying to be progressive; as he spoke, the screen behind him showed images of his interpretations of classic Mexican preparations. Bottura, for his part, offered that at Osteria Francescana, the team respects and looks at the past "not with nostalgia, but with a critical eye."

New York chef Wylie Dufresne's speech supported that line of thinking, albeit indirectly. He explained what he does at wd-50 — presenting the unfamiliar in familiar ways, and vice versa — and emphasized the objective importance of understanding science and seeking out knowledge, something he feels is valuable to cooks at any kind of restaurant. What you end doing with it, he argued, is the subjective and personal part.

David Chang of Momofuku, who wasn't originally on the bill for this year's event, ended up going from attendee to presenter after word came across that French chef Marc Veyrat couldn't make it. Chang decided to focus on the stigma surrounding MSG, bemoaning the fact that it's so derided in the United States and arguing that there's no proof that it's an allergen. It can only exacerbate other conditions, he claimed. During the question and answer session that followed, UPenn's Paul Rozin backed Chang up, saying that there's "no difference" between the synthetic kind and the glutamic acid produced through other cooking methods. Even still, the synthetic stuff won't be making its way onto Momofuku menus any time soon.

A number of advocates — both involved in gastronomy and not — also presented. There was Chido Govera, for example, the Zimbabwean author and activist, who explained how she became an orphan at 12, had to take care of her siblings, and quickly discovered the potentials of farming mushrooms. She now travels throughout Africa, sharing her story of self-reliance and helping to feed communities in need.

There were plenty of academics, too. Tor Norretranders, who was the only repeat performer from last year, reiterated his criticisms of monocultures and urged the audience to consider the benefits of the hunter-gatherer philosophy. The ethnobiologist Andrea Pieroni called for scientists and chefs "to come down from their towers" and exchange ideas, while Rozin and medievalist Massimo Montanari emphasized in different ways the potentials of interactivity in the dining experience.

There were very few demos. The focus was on giving presenters a rare forum in which to express their ideas and be as heady, optimistic, and long-winded as they wanted; not everyone was a master or even comfortable orator, yet that didn't appear to be the point. Whether it's the guy who lives in a tiny Norwegian village and braves ridiculously cold water to catch Noma's sea urchin (Roderick Sloan) or the chef who does TED talks that go viral (Dan Barber), there was an interest in having them there and exploring the myriad aspects of the restaurant experience.

After a session in which St. John's Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver sat on some haystacks, drank some wine, and told some stories, Ferran Adrià delivered the closing presentation. It was the longest of them all, a whirlwind of information and reflections that, like the man himself, was frequently hard to follow but ultimately electrifying. He spoke of creativity, the changing role of the chef, and the near-impossibility of pulling off avant-garde cuisine. He showed footage of the final three minutes of service at elBulli, in which the team from the restaurant and several famous former stagiaires embrace and chant olé ("People often say that I am a cold person"). But he closed, at Redzepi's request, with a succinct message: "You can compete, but be honest and don't step on anyone's toes." "Most of all," he concluded, "be happy."

As previously reported, MAD will return next summer, with David Chang and Lucky Peach guest-curating.

· All MAD Symposium Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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