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Symposiums, Conferences, and Traveling Chefs: Necessity or Narcissism?

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Illustration: Eric Lebofsky

An evolution of the more traditional and commercial food festival has given way to a newer kind of culinary event that puts the chef center stage to discuss his or her ideas. In many of these situations — like the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, Mesamérica in Mexico City, and Melbourne Food & Wine's Theatre of Ideas — cooking is optional. This particular type of event underpins a debate on the role of the chef: should they be leaving their kitchens and aspiring to give TED-caliber presentations? Or does it all amount to cliquey navel-gazing for the sake of PR?

Some chefs see it as beneficial to their cooking, their restaurants, and their profession to be able to interact with colleagues from all over the globe. At these events, chefs get to promote their work, talk about ideas that are important to them, and see new places. The way the restaurant business typically works, chefs don't often have the opportunity to travel to far-flung places and learn new things. However, those who criticize the modern festival circuit see in it a kind of culinary nepotism, where a family of familiar faces tends to dominate the landscape. Others argue that the intellectual aspirations of some of these conferences have created a climate where chefs are taking on issues beyond their grasp, often leading to obnoxious posturing rather than progress. To the debate:

The Positives

"If you're a chef who doesn't have that much money," says Christopher Kostow, of the three-star Michelin Restaurant at Meadowood, "and suddenly someone invites you to present in Mexico City, how are you going to say 'no'?" According to Kostow, the ability to go to these events, network with talented and intelligent people, and learn from those with diverse backgrounds is beneficial to chefs and the profession at large. It's especially useful for chefs to interact in a context where they aren't preparing tastings for hundreds of guests in a banquet hall.

Daniel Patterson, whose San Francisco restaurant Coi lies an hour south of Kostow's, agrees on the pluses. He recalls the first conference he attended, the French production Omnivore, in 2007. There he had the chance to meet international chefs like Ferran Adrià, the Roca brothers, and Marc Veyrat. "I have a small restaurant in San Francisco, and I was able to talk about it with people that might otherwise have never come to eat there," Patterson says of his introduction to the world of modern conferences. In the years since, the chef has traveled to Spain (Madrid Fusión), Denmark (MAD), Mexico (Mesamérica), and other countries to participate in conferences and symposiums.

"Not only does it get you positive exposure and help you build wonderful relationships," says Patterson, "but it allows you to see new places and experience new cultures." On that Omnivore trip to Paris, for example, Patterson had meals at restaurants like L'Astrance and Le Chateaubriand — required reading for many chefs today.

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Patterson at last summer's MAD Symposium, in Copenhagen [Photo: Gabe Ulla / Eater]

Charleston chef Sean Brock, who has skyrocketed to culinary fame in recent years, has spoken about how he's accepted many invitations for travel so he can spread "the Southern gospel" and dispel misconceptions about his region's foodways. "People have no idea, and that's why I'm trying to speak at as many places as possible," he said. "I want to show people how interesting and fascinating this culture is."

And Brock agrees with Patterson on the benefits of learning from other cultures. He was invited to the 2011 edition of Cook It Raw — an event in which chefs like René Redzepi, David Chang, Magnus Nilsson, Ben Shewry, and Alex Atala came together to explore the Japanese countryside, forage, and cook a culminating dinner inspired by the trip. Cook It Raw differs from symposiums and demo events in that it's more of an intimate retreat, but its cast of participants and its push to make chefs interact and think freely shares more than a few similarities with the major conferences of today. Brock apparently came out of Raw with new knowledge:

It was life-changing in many different ways, because I saw a culture that was so advanced. Then I saw a lot of similarities with where I come from, the Lowcountry, and Japan. They're both cultures based around rice, but unfortunately, rice left the Lowcountry right before the Great Depression started, and now it's making its way back in. You wonder what the culture would be like in Charleston and the rest of the region if rice had never disappeared from 1930 to the 1990s.

Stories similar to Brock and Patterson's are easy to come by: at a recent conference in Latin America, I witnessed how chefs that had never met before — among them Carlo Mirarchi of New York and The Young Turks of London — almost instantly hit it off and found themselves seeking out the best street food they could find. They remain in touch. Relationships can form between a chef with a restaurant in Melbourne (Attica's Shewry) and another with one in Copenhagen (Noma's Redzepi) thanks to similar productions. In such a strenuous business, it would be difficult to imagine many opportunities outside of professional events to meet and spend time with colleagues who live a grueling plane flight away. These events, in general, foster a sense of community and encourage exchanges; at their best, they make the culinary world a little smaller.

A More Critical View

Some fear the contemporary conference scene could be making the culinary world too small. Wall Street Journal writer Charlotte Druckman remarks that it's noble to create platforms where chefs and thinkers try to discuss food in intelligent ways that go beyond restaurant culture, but that she's "turned off" by the fact that she sees the same faces pop up at most of these events. "The original intention was to think outside of the box and outside of the traditional festival model," says Druckman. "But by not democratizing it enough, these events run the risk of creating just another box for these more ambitious chefs." She adds, "They end up creating another phenomenon equivalent to food television, just for a different audience."

After attending the Gastronomika conference in San Sebastian, Spain, blogger Bonjwing Lee (Ulterior Epicure) expressed some ambivalence about the event: "I learned that these chefs have access to amazing ingredients. That they cook in amazing places. That they can make and compose food in the modern way. And — if I may be slightly cutting in my honesty — I learned that these chefs are not in their kitchens."

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Atala at Gastronomika 2012. He also was on the bill in 2011. [Photo: Bonjwing Lee]

Druckman and Lee are not alone. Back when Ferran Adrià gathered in Peru a group of international chefs that included Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura, Redzepi, and Atala — the G9 — to discuss the obligations of the chefs of tomorrow, British restaurant critic Jay Rayner cried foul. At the conclusion of their summit, the G9 published an "Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow", which, in general terms, outlined the group's goals for the professional, social, and ethical obligations of young chefs. Rayner called it "an act of such self-importance, such ludicrous self-regard you'd need an oxygen tank to help you get your breath back." Like Raw, the G9 isn't a conference, but it's similar to the aforementioned events in that it allows chefs to take on topics like agriculture and sustainability, which lie beyond the typical restaurant chef's purview. It probably wouldn't have been possible ten years ago.

In an interview last year, the Oakland chef Russell Moore, who trained at Chez Panisse, reacted to the aspirations of the Lima letter: "My central point is that I'm more interested in people just doing it instead of talking about it. Or at the very least, doing it first before making declarations... It comes off as a little light and a little late." Moore did describe the positives of having influential chefs taking on important causes, but warned against "reaching the point of obnoxiousness."

The 2011 G9 letter prompted Sam Sifton, then restaurant critic of the New York Times, to ask, "Should chefs gather to discuss and disseminate their cultural and ethical beliefs, as artists in other fields very well might, without critics of their commercial work crying foul?"

The Road Ahead

Author and journalist Lisa Abend, who has attended both MAD and Mistura (where the G9 open letter was signed), points to Madrid Fusión as one of the important contributors to the last decade's conference boom. When the festival debuted ten years ago, it was seen as something completely new and innovative, with serious intellectual aspirations. It was there that Ferran Adrià first presented his groundbreaking work at elBulli, around the same time he appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. "It was when this new cooking was all getting started," says Abend.

Abend used the Fusión example to explain how it might not be the fault of the chefs that these lineups are getting repetitive. "A lot of these chefs feel pressure to make it to these events," says Abend. In many cases, journalists are responsible for putting together the festivals. "Whether it's explicit or implicit, the chefs feel an obligation to commit." In the case of Madrid Fusión, the organizer is José Carlos Capel, the critic of Spanish newspaper El País.

Patterson acknowledges that one could say the scene is oversaturated or too repetitive, but he asks, "What if we put on one of these events in San Francisco and a culinary student or someone who's never had a chance to hear from Magnus Nilsson or Davide Scabin suddenly has that opportunity?" According to him, something that might be hackneyed to an industry insider is actually a valuable service to someone else. If, for instance, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have an album to promote, there's a good chance they'll play a similar set at more than one festival appearance during that tour.

Furthermore, everyone deserves the right to promote their work. Kostow says that "some chefs might do these events just to be on the invite list and get on the stage, but I'm not going to begrudge them that." It can be difficult, to say the least, to run an ambitious restaurant with low margins, and international exposure can help a business. Kostow also points out that there might be "a tight correlation with those who participate in these events and rankings and lists." But it's a similar scenario when it comes to actors, producers, and directors who fly to many more places than chefs to get people to see their films — and to get academies to vote for them. It's a natural part of the process for people who want to fill seats and have their work appreciated.

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The most recent G9 meeting was held in Tokyo last fall. [Photo: Basque Culinary Center]

It's not too hard to find poignant stories about how these events can help less visible players: at one point during his presentation at last year's MAD conference, the chef Leif Sorensen, who's had more than a few struggles trying to introduce fine dining to the Faroe Islands, talked about how the opportunity to present in Copenhagen gave him hope. "I come here, I meet these people, and it makes me want to keep doing what I'm doing despite the odds," he said.

Brock provided another, more general justification for these events: "When you're able to get together all of these talented and intelligent people in what's basically a roundtable discussion, you learn so much. What's wrong with like-minded individuals getting together and discussing things of interest? Nothing negative is going to come of that." Chefs are trying to get smarter, to have more room to think, and to gain exposure in ways that are less frivolous than they perhaps used to be. That can be a good thing for any profession.

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