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Hangover Observations From the 2013 MAD Symposium

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[Photos: Aaron Arizpe/]

This past weekend, a few hundred writers, chefs, scientists, historians and fermentation activists flew to Copenhagen to watch a short segment from an old G.I. Joe cartoon, a pig disembowelment, a bagpipe performance, and a chicken beheading. They also witnessed the giddy laughter that ensues when all the people in a room start tickling one another. For two whole days, a few hundred people voluntarily went mad.

This was the third edition of the MAD Symposium, organized by Noma's René Redzepi and, this time, co-curated by Momofuku chef and restaurateur David Chang and food magazine Lucky Peach. The theme was Guts.

As people trickled in to the big red circus tent on day one, a pig dangled from a chain on stage and a large butcher's block lay naked save for a handsaw. Dario Cecchini, Tuscany's famed Dante-quoting butcher, was the first to take the stage. Without a word, and while Metallica blared on the sound system, he carefully cut open the pig, removed its guts, and laid them on the table. It was just 10 a.m.

Other speakers elaborated on the theme in less theatrical ways, but each made his or her mark. Some sought to create a sort of thesaurus, exploring the many meanings of the word "guts." Chang started the day speaking of guts as moral currency, meaning that guts are a way in which one can measure one's own moral fortitude or integrity. A measure of the foundational morals to which we choose to adhere.

Boston's Barbara Lynch and London's Margot Henderson (her husband Fergus Henderson calls her his "favorite chef in the world") told stories of the courage they each had to summon in their careers to assert themselves as strong female chefs in a largely male-dominated culinary climate. Henderson wondered why there are not more women chefs, why "out there? it's just blokedom."

Daniel Klein of Perennial Plate took the stage to show several videos he and co-producer Mirra Fine filmed for their web documentary series showcasing sustainable food producers. It takes guts, he said, to share your story in such a true and vulnerable way as the crew of Sri Lankan fishermen had done with him in the first clip screened.

On the breaks, attendees would spill out of tent and swarm the world's best pop-up coffee bar. Roasters from all over Scandinavia and the United Kingdom offered a rotating roster of coffees prepared with a handful of different brewing methods. Sweden's Koppi Coffee stole the show, but it was all stellar.

The most poignant presenter on day one was also the youngest. Ten-year-old Martha Payne of Scotland took the stage with her father to talk about the worldwide school lunch revolution spurred by her blog NeverSeconds and the huge amounts of money it has raised to feed the children of an African village. She was too shy to speak and too humble to understand the power of her awareness.

Other speakers expanded on this notion of what one might call Social Guts. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva of India spoke about seed saving as a radical cause in the day and age of Monsanto and the "monoculture of the mind" that agribusiness has created. African American-Jewish culinary historian Michael Twitty told of his crusade for culinary justice in the Deep South. Roland Rittman (the "O.G. forager of Scandinavia," according to Redzepi) encouraged the audience to "go wild" and fight for healthy, sustainable food. One of the most energetic moments of the symposium occurred when he knelt in front of a small patch of wood sorrel, bent down, and kissed it. It was a display intended to encourage the audience to reconnect with nature, to join the "revolution" as he put it, and to take responsibility for their actions as chefs and eaters.

Chefs weren't behind all of the presentations at the symposium, but it was during those talks that the room felt the most abuzz. The loudest cheers and strongest claps were those for Alain Ducasse, whom Redzepi dubbed "the Pope of Gastronomy." ("We are just priests," quipped Redzepi.) Chang and Redzepi watched keenly while Coi's Daniel Patterson translated for Ducasse and audience members such as Manresa's David Kinch asked the French chef questions such which meal was a turning point for him. (It was Alain Chapel.) Pascal Barbot of L'Astrance spoke about spontaneity in cuisine, and Relae's Christian Puglisi talked about having the audacity to open a restaurant on what used to be one of the must drug-ridden streets in Copenhagen.

Roy Choi, the outspoken Los Angeles chef of food truck fame, silenced the audience with a poignant speech about hunger, malnutrition, and the dearth of healthy food options in South Central LA. "We are feeding a small populace," he said. "And we think we are feeding the world."

At lunch time, attendees were well-fed by Lebanon's Souk el Tayeb the first day and Mission Chinese Food of San Francisco and New York the second. By night, there were parties and after-parties. The first day, post-game festivities were at Ved Stranden 10, one of Copenhagen's best wine bars where Lucky Peach hosted a bo ssam party. The second evening started (and, for many, ended) with bottles upon bottles of wine under a bridge not too far from Noma. Restaurant Bastard from Malmö hosted with snacks like blood sausage hotdogs and slow-cooked lamb shoulder.

Everyone ate, drank, and danced their way into the night, while chef Alex Atala of D.O.M. in Brazil could be seen plucking, butchering, and cooking a chicken he beheaded earlier that day at the symposium. Atala will co-curate next year's MAD Symposium, as Redzepi revealed in his closing address this year. Hide your kids, hide your chickens.

A short G.I. Joe clip shown one afternoon by Lucky Peach's Chris Ying had a simple message: knowing is half the battle. Knowing, sharing, and having the guts to ask questions. Christian Puglisi wrapped up one of the last presentations of the symposium with a smile. As a teenager, you question your parents, you question the generations before you, he said, adding, "When you grow up, you question yourself."

— Aaron Arizpe

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