Four years later, has MAD Symposium changed the conversation?
It was March of 2010, and René Redzepi was on the brink. The Danish chef's star had been on the rise for years: he was the chef and owner of the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, he was the face of the unimpeachably hip culinary style increasingly known as New Nordic, and his practice of foraging ingredients like beach dandelions, sea buckthorn, and moss had become an object of global media obsession. No one was going to be surprised the next month when Noma snagged the number one spot on the annual S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list, the first time in four years the honor would go to anyone other than elBulli. He couldn't have been hotter. And as a result, everyone with a food conference wanted a piece of him.
For a chef of a certain level of fame and influence, attending food conferences is just part of the job. Food conferences provide a chance for chefs to share cooking techniques and promote their restaurants on stage before an audience of food enthusiasts. Though they're opportunities to travel and meet fellow chefs, attendance—even if it's covered by the organizers—comes at a price. At virtually every conference, the chefs are lending not only their knowledge and expertise, but their aura, their fame. They're expected to take meetings with the event's sponsors, to glad-hand sales and marketing folks behind the scenes and carouse with them at dinners and afterparties, not to mention sit on stages surrounded by brand names. Redzepi began to feel like some of these conferences were mostly about business, that food and education were only secondary considerations. Something needed to change, he thought, and Redzepi realized he might as well be the one to do it.
And so in the summer of 2011, Redzepi launched the inaugural MAD Symposium in a massive circus-style tent pitched in Copenhagen's Refshaleøen neighborhood, a formerly industrial area on an island off the mainland. The two-day event brought together chefs, farmers, activists, and academics to talk about the food industry. The first year of MAD—which means "food" in Danish—drew in some big names. Momofuku chef David Chang talked about microbiology and fermentation, food scientist Harold McGee explained the chemistry of plant flavor, and Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson of Faviken spoke about preservation techniques.
It's the kind of collection of gastronomic firepower that a trend-minded chef, in-the-know culinary student, or restaurant superfan might only dream of having access to.
Three years later, the MAD Symposium is the Super Bowl of food conferences. This year, 6,000 people competed in a lottery to land a mere 450 tickets, which cost more than $400 each. The lucky few descended on Copenhagen this past August to bask in Redzepi's glow, and to hear from some of the most influential figures in the food world—past speakers, the lineup designed each year by Redzepi and his occasional co-curators David Chang and Alex Atala, have included Massimo Bottura, Gaston Acurio, Andoni Aduriz, Fergus Henderson, Ferran Adrià, and Alain Ducasse. It's the kind of lineup you rarely find all in one place, a collection of gastronomic firepower that a trend-minded chef, in-the-know culinary student, or restaurant superfan might only dream of having access to. But how different is it, really, from the kinds of conferences Redzepi built it to stand in contrast to? What is everyone there saying? Why should we be listening to them, anyway?
While MAD began in a field in Denmark in 2011, in a sense it really originated in Spain, at the turn of the millennium. At the time, Spanish chefs were leading global gastronomy around by the ear with a new kind of cooking they called molecular gastronomy, a cerebral style most exemplified by Ferran Adrià at his now-closed restaurant elBulli, on Spain's Mediterranean coast just a few kilometers from the French border. Adrià's innovative techniques—foams, spheres, and sensory whiz-bangery that, at the time, were thrillingly new—earned him three Michelin stars, legions of obsessive fans, and introduced molecular gastronomy to the world. As Time's Lisa Abend explained to me, a new breed of food conferences took root as a vehicle to disseminate Spain's avant garde cuisine to the rest of the world. Most particularly, this began with the debut of Madrid Fusion in 2003.
Food conferences had existed for far longer, of course. In the United States, the Culinary Institute of America has hosted its academically inclined World of Flavors conference since 1998. Spain itself had already had an international food conference in the Basque city of San Sebastian since 1999, known as Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia ("The Best of Gastronomy"). But it was at Madrid Fusion where food conference culture—at least, the kind Redzepi was reacting to—really took off.
Like its predecessors, Madrid Fusion focused primarily on cooking demonstrations. Its organizers brought in chefs from all over the world to show off their techniques and recipes—the sort of thing that, before this era of collaborative bonhomie, might have been considered trade secrets—on an elevated stage before an audience of hundreds of fellow cooks and food industry professionals. Through these conferences, chefs began to form relationships and a new spirit of cooperation. But Madrid Fusion had deeper pockets and a farther reach than the more regional Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía. Supported by Spain's national tourism organization, Madrid Fusion became so important a venue that in 2010 Adrià—who had been a headliner since the conference's first year—picked it as the platform from which to make the earth-shattering announcement that he was closing elBulli.
In the eleven years since Madrid Fusion's debut, a glut of international food conferences has cropped up. In a 2010 Food & Wine article, writer Anya von Bremzen credited Madrid Fusion as an inspiration for the subsequent launches of France's Omnivore conference and Identita Golose in Italy. StarChefs—the online magazine billed for "culinary insiders," which built its name on exhaustive coverage of these events—launched its International Chefs Conference in New York City in 2006. And then there's the Flemish Primitives in Belgium, Semana Mesa SP in Brazil, and Gastronomika, which replaced Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía in San Sebastian in 2009. "I don't know of any conference that wasn't inspired by Madrid Fusion," Abend told me.
These conferences may have had differences in their mission statements, their venues, and the details of their agendas, but they all clamored after the same set of internationally renowned chefs each year. And they didn't necessarily always have the interests of those chefs at the top of their list of priorities. Instead, they focused on sponsorship, providing companies like San Pellegrino or Coca-Cola opportunities to get in the hands (and mouths) of these influential figures. Logos from deep-pocketed kitchen equipment manufacturers literally loom large over the chefs on stage as they demo their latest egg dishes. And some conference organizers require visiting chefs to use equipment provided by their sponsors, mostly for the photo op.
Redzepi's clear about one thing: the fact that the MAD Symposium is a reaction—an ever-evolving one—to what food conferences had become.
Whenever he tells the origin story of MAD, Redzepi makes a diplomatic point of not saying which of the world's many conferences it was that finally pushed him over the edge. But he's clear about one thing: the fact that the MAD Symposium is a reaction—an ever-evolving one—to what food conferences had become. Rather than relying on corporate event planners, focus groups, and sponsor interests, Redzepi and his staff plan MAD themselves, pursuing and responding to whatever inspires and interests them. They emphasize audience interaction through communal meals and occasional break-out sessions. And MAD doesn't have any corporate sponsors at all.
Keeping sponsors out isn't about an inherent opposition to outside money; rather, it's about control. Redzepi tells me he wouldn't mind being bankrolled by the right backer, the sort of silent corporate partner that wouldn't want to get involved in the programming and would allow the chefs to continue holding the reins. At MAD, chefs decide what themes are important and whose voice should be heard. But has chef-empowerment made Redzepi's congresses any more relevant?
Last year, covering culinary conferences for Eater, I felt like I was on inadvertent Massimo Bottura detail. I heard the Italian chef speak first in London, then in Mexico City, and I would have ended the year with him at a conference in Sao Paulo had he not had to cancel when his mother fell ill. Bottura also participates in Cook it Raw (sort of an elite foraging camp for chefs, not open to the public but minutely chronicled via social media and a handful of invited journalists), Identita, Gastronomika, and he also was a presenter at the second iteration of the MAD Symposium*.
It's not that trailing Bottura was a bad thing; there are few chefs as personable and entertaining, and he's selling a compelling message about using traditions to push gastronomy forward. But while his message might have a new live audience in a new city each time, beat reporters like me are transmitting it to the same international audience we did for the last conference. And when that broader audience is only hearing from the same chefs time and again, it starts to read like an exclusive club, a group of international superstar chef-bros traveling the world to sell their already ubiquitous messages. Their fame can drown out the messages of lower-profile chefs speaking at those same conferences. It's no surprise that in their regular complaints about culinary conferences, critics point to a lack of diversity of voices as one of the major damning elements.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, Bruce Palling criticized Belgium's Flemish Primitives conference, describing it as "akin to attending a rock concert with the sound turned off." He wasn't a fan of the event's focus on international superstar chefs such as Redzepi, who he was concerned were robbing the spotlight from Belgium's own culinary talent. He wrote that the danger of this internationalism "is that rather than highlighting or promoting national or regional cuisine, such events tend to globalize the food movement even more." In 2013, Charlotte Druckman further argued that food conferences encourage homogeneity in the top rungs of cooking, telling Eater in 2013 that "these events… end up creating another phenomenon equivalent to food television, just for a different audience." Instead of home cooks and Guy Fieri fans, food conferences perform for a crowd of professional cooks, food-world socialites, and the René Redzepi faithful.
Despite its intentional separation from the herd of food conferences, the MAD Symposium hasn't been immune to similar criticism. Its first two years featured lineups full of big-name chefs, including Ferran Adrià, Gaston Acurio, Andoni Aduriz, Enrique Olvera, Fergus Henderson, and back-to-back appearances from David Chang. Of the forty-eight presenters in MAD's first two years, only three were women, and none of the women were chefs. To its credit, the conference made moves toward correction in its third year, featuring seven women out of 26 presenters, but plenty of food world insiders still think of MAD as an exclusive boys' club, a continuation of the gender inequity at the upper echelons of the food world, something that's ultimately not at all a departure from what you'd find at one of the old-guard chef conferences.
But where MAD's presenter lineup does depart from the Madrid Fusions of the world is in its inclusion—alongside those famous dude chefs—of an intriguing diversity of disciplines. Cooks, psychologists, government officials, filmmakers, mushroom farmers, glaciologists, food scientists, and even a Scottish schoolgirl who started a blog about her dismal school lunches have all spoken at past iterations of MAD. And Redzepi's team has worked continuously to expand that inclusion. "Each year, we've been trying to dabble in different topics, to experiment to see how we can keep doing this every year," Redzepi told me. He and his team try to answer a simple question each year: "How do we keep having an interesting conversation?"
In 2014, Redzepi and his team decided to answer that question by choosing a lineup comprised largely of lesser-known chefs. To be sure, the usual complement of superstars were hanging around the tents—David Chang, Alex Atala, Massimo Bottura—and the real headliners, including Albert Adrià, Chris Cosentino, and Jeremiah Tower, are not exactly unknowns. But the list of speakers also included the likes of Tatiana Levha, a first-time restaurant owner of the Paris restaurant Le Servan, and the 74-year-old Alain Senderens, whom Redzepi describes as one of cooking's "forgotten names," despite his mentorship of French legend Alain Passard.
Just having a diverse set of speakers isn't enough to make a conference a force for good; it also matters what these presenters are saying, and to whom they're speaking.
Theoretically, all of this is on the right track. Amplifying the voices of people who don't have platforms — or who had them, but have lost them—can be a good thing for discourse. It's how you learn about a Portuguese nonprofit's success in fighting food waste, or programs in Brazilian jails that are teaching inmates how to cook in hopes of reducing recidivism. MAD's expanded idea of who can participate in a dialogue about food most certainly sets it apart from its conference brethren. But just having a diverse set of speakers isn't enough to make a conference a force for good; it also matters what these presenters are saying, and to whom they're speaking.
The crowd inside the MAD tent is lousy with world-famous chefs, fancy media types, and restaurant industry insiders, but there are also plenty of people with smaller Instagram footprints. Christopher Haatuft, a chef and first-time restaurant owner, opened an informal tasting-menu dining room called Lysverket in Bergen, Norway, a little over a year ago. 2014 was his second year attending the MAD Symposium, which he considers an opportunity to meet his fellow Scandinavian chefs. There isn't anything comparable back home, and so Haatuft comes to MAD each year in search of his community.
As far as Redzepi is concerned, that's MAD living up to exactly its intention. During his closing address at the conference this year, Redzepi remarked that everyone had been coming together for a few years now, that they'd all gotten to know each other. Many conventions like to bill themselves as a family, but in this case it was true; most of the people I met at MAD had attended at least one prior symposium—if not all of them. In conversation a few months later, Redzepi described the phenomenon to me in idyllic terms: "You could say that we've spent the past four years creating a meeting space."
It turns out that people crave this particular meeting space. The first two years of the MAD Symposium just barely sold out, but in its third year, the conference received about 2,500 requests for its 550 seats. This year, the number interested in attending jumped to nearly 6,000, plus an additional 400 media inquiries. After the 200 or so tickets reserved for the speakers, their families, anyone who has presented in previous years, anyone that the MAD organizers are considering asking to present in the future, and local chefs, there are only about 400 tickets available for the general public and press, which are doled out in a lottery system.
But the randomness of a lottery system doesn't ensure diversity. Tickets to the MAD Symposium cost 2,500 Danish kroner, or about $430. With processing fees, my ticket to MAD cost $465.74. It's a price tag that even Redzepi acknowledges as unfortunately high (though not unusual for conferences at this level; tickets to the three-day International Chefs Congress in New York cost $199 per day). "In the best-case scenario it'd be free," Redzepi says of the event. "Most of the people in the tent are just regular chefs and regular people to whom flying to Copenhagen, setting up three to four days in a hotel, and buying a ticket is a big deal." To address that, the MAD team tries to keep the conference as low-cost and high-value as possible; the conference cost includes breakfast and lunch every day, a communal dinner at the end, and factors in Denmark's steep twenty-five percent value-added tax. Still, financing such a complex operation is such a challenge that Redzepi worries that each year of MAD could be its last.
It's unlikely that line cooks, bussers, and dishwashers who are getting paid by the hour have either the time or means to leave work for a couple of days of culinary philosophizing in Copenhagen.
Those who manage to land a conference ticket might be getting a lot of bang for their buck, but the fact remains that MAD can be largely inaccessible to many of the people whose lives it aims to influence. The price and location conspire to create a barrier to entry favoring those with money, established careers, and so intense a passion for the Noma ethos of creative use of local ingredients that they are happy to pay just to be there. Sure, plenty of chefs show up, particularly those like Haatuft who are based nearby in Europe. Some even bring key members of their staff, like Austin chef Paul Qui did this year, arriving with an entourage that included his chef de cuisine, sous chef, and the restaurant's general manager. But it's unlikely that line cooks, bussers, and dishwashers who are getting paid by the hour have either the time or means to leave work for a couple of days of culinary philosophizing in Copenhagen.
MAD's organizers recognize this inequity and, to their credit, try to do something about it. One of the biggest line-items on MAD's budget is the cost of filming each presentation, editing the videos, and posting them online. "We wanted to make sure that everything that happened at the symposium, people would be able to tap into it everywhere," Redzepi says. He's also helping people tap into it at the source: at this year's conference, MAD flew in ten cooks from around the world, all under the age of thirty, to tour Copenhagen and attend the conference, all expenses paid. At one point, Redzepi brought these young cooks to the stage for introductions, and they also had opportunities to meet with Chang, Atala, and other big names, the kind of networking that can launch a young cook's career.
The tent was suffused with a revivalist feeling when French chef Olivier Roellinger rolled into the conclusion of his presentation this past August. As his voice rose to fill the space, Roellinger ticked off a list of rules for modern chefs that is, for the most part, precisely in sync with the worldview of Redzepi and his team at Noma: support fair trade, fight waste, protect and promote the diversity of cuisines, and buy products that respect animals, as well as the planet's biodiversity.
By and large, the speakers and attendees at MAD care about knowing where their food comes from. They celebrate the artistry of cooking and the joy of eating. They desire to be responsible stewards of their environments. If they're eating meat, they believe it's a matter of respect to be aware of how it was killed. This kind of thoughtful attitude is an inadvertent answer to the criticism lodged in a 2011 Guardian op-ed by British food writer Jay Rayner in which he argued against the loftiness of certain international chef conferences, specifically the G9 summit of chefs and its manifesto proclaiming chefs to be key agents of social change.
"The fact that what these chefs do is unlikely to have real impact on the terrifyingly vast food security challenges the planet faces, as a combination of population growth and climate change wreaks havoc on the global food store, is neither here nor there," Rayner wrote of the pontificating men who spoke about protecting nature, bridging the gaps between cultures, and teaching the public about healthy eating habits. "Somewhere along the line they have got it into their heads that what they are doing matters on a global scale."
I have sympathies for Rayner's argument. I'm a child of diplomats, and I could not roll my eyes hard enough when I once heard a chef posit that the real solution for global conflict is to simply gather warring parties around a dinner table. There is sometimes a tendency for these chefs to get carried away with their own importance. But as Rayner goes on to note, there's nothing wrong with chefs claiming responsibility for their own corner of the world, so long as they're aware of their limitations—as well as being aware of the hypocrisies inherent in the chef of a fine dining restaurant with a tremendous carbon footprint going out of his way to extoll sustainability.
At MAD, there's a little bit of both attitudes about chefs. To be sure, there's plenty of chest-pumping. Los Angeles-based urban gardener Ron Finley even described the chefs in the tent as superheroes during his presentation. But one of the most powerful speeches at this year's conference offered a reminder that chefs are not superheroes, that they are human and they are fallible. San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino delivered an unsettlingly honest account of his quest for celebrity and the pain—both literal and existential—that it brought him. Cosentino was the winner of the fourth season of Top Chef Masters, and he shared his disappointing discovery that participating in reality television meant competing in humiliating eating competitions that ravaged his stomach so badly it took years to heal. And instead of rising to glory on the strength of his victory, he lost his credibility and his restaurant. It was a lesson in limitations, a sober moment that tempered the revivalist fervor that otherwise filled the MAD tent that day.
One of the most powerful speeches at this year's conference offered a reminder that chefs are not superheroes, that they are human and they are fallible.
Earlier in the same conference, Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying had directly addressed the hypocrisy of restaurants advocating for sustainability with the announcement of his new non-profit Zero Food Print, which aims to reduce restaurants' contributions to climate change. The goal is a good one, and takes real steps to help fine dining restaurants address that hypocrisy. But to a first-time restaurant owner like Haatuft, it's still unrealistic. "I think the initiative is great," Haatuft said to me, but the way he sees it, that sort of idealism is a privilege of the already successful. The little guy has more bottom-line concerns. "There was no one talking about how to combine creativity with profit, long-term investment, stuff like that," he said. "It was like pretending that what we do doesn't have a financial aspect to it. And that financial aspect is very, very, very real for everybody but the top five percent of the top 100 restaurants."
Telling cooks to support fair trade, fight food waste, and know where your food comes from is one thing, but it's quite different from researching and teaching the implementation of these ideals in a meaningful way. What is the best way to put these into action? How can cooks know for sure that their ideals are grounded, and that the action they're taking will achieve their goals? And when the people selling these ideas are culinary heroes of titanic influence and a perceived superlative infallibility, who is really going to ask them these questions?
Outrage spun out across the internet last year when Brazilian chef Alex Atala decapitated a chicken onstage at the 2013 MAD Symposium. It wasn't just the act of killing an animal that was controversial; it was the bloodthirst of the audience hollering their support. "I was surprised by how loud and insistent they were for me to kill it," Atala admitted to Food Republic shortly afterward. "I thought they might be sympathetic and request that I spare its life."
Redzepi disputes the version of events that has the crowd whooping in gleeful support of the South American chef's butchery; as he recalls it, about half the audience sat in stunned silence during Atala's presentation, and to his mind, the folks cheering the decapitation understood his point about the importance of knowing where your food comes from and facing the realities of slaughtering animals. People shouldn't be criticized just for understanding a point, Redzepi told me. But he acknowledges there may have been some additional factors at play. "I think some of the audience were just starstruck," he admits. "They liked the machoness of the whole set-up; the fact that Alex is there."
That starry-eyed rapture means that, as well-meaning and forward-looking as the topics and opinions discussed might be, there's often not a whole lot of critical debate happening inside the MAD tent. It's the biggest criticism Haatuft has about the conference. In his fantasy conference, there would be panels of people with opposing ideologies hashing out topics like the role played by plant genetics in poverty and drought. "You'd come out and there's no conclusion or consensus," he said. "And the 500 attendees can leave with something to talk about."
In MAD's first year, Redzepi did actually reserve twenty minutes for debate after each presentation, but he's disposed of that practice in the years since; for one reason or another the audience never seemed to want to speak up. "It was unbelievable the way that we'd be standing there waiting for somebody to say something," Redzepi said. "So after that I thought to myself, okay, maybe with time we can experiment." That experimentation has led the organization down alternate routes to create conversation and debate, with a rapidly growing lineup of ancillary activities like the MAD Dispatches book of essays, MAD Mondays panel discussion series, and its MADFeed blog. But lively debate at the symposium itself isn't there yet; for now, the conference audience seems happy to just let the speakers' words wash over them.
A rapt audience hungrily taking in every phrase spoken by a larger-than-life culinary demigod isn't exactly what Redzepi was going for.
A rapt audience hungrily taking in every phrase spoken by a larger-than-life culinary demigod isn't exactly what Redzepi was going for. "I'm not absolute in my opinions about food at all," he says. "I believe people should do what they feel like. And I don't believe that there's only one way to do things." But he points out that over the past few years, people have stopped asking him questions about his sauces; instead they ask him about the future of food.
It's all a part of the rise of culinary superstars, a phenomenon the origins of which Redzepi freely admits that he doesn't understand, but he's pretty sure it's not going away anytime soon. So he's rolling with it, embracing the opportunity to challenge himself to answer the big questions. "It's very important that it comes through that food is a complex system to which there are many opinions. If MAD can provide a few of them so people can learn more, it's great."
At MAD, the odds are better than elsewhere that whoever is standing on the stage has something smart to say. The odds are also pretty good that the conference's presentations will actually inspire the audience to action. Even though chefs like Haatuft can list off ways they'd like to see MAD change, the conference has been deeply relevant to many of its attendees' lives.
At this year's event, Haatuft listened with special interest as Ron Finley, a Los Angeles-based urban gardener, described his work planting renegade gardens in derelict public spaces. Finley argued that making good food accessible is a step toward building a healthy, interconnected community. Finley's talk jolted Haatuft to action on an idea that had been percolating in his thoughts for some time. Near his restaurant in Bergen—a city that has "northern Europe's largest public drug scene"—there's a park that had for years been taken over by heroin addicts, one of whom was Haatuft's brother. To deal with the problem, local politicians had closed the park and walled it off. Haatuft didn't think that was much of a solution—to simply shut the park down, rather than transform it into a better place. After he got home from MAD, he reached out to politicians and community leaders suggesting that the city transform the park into a garden where the recovering addicts themselves would work the soil and help make the space beautiful again. Just a few months later, everyone seems to be on board with Haatuft's plan.
A forum with this kind of spectacle and scope helps put things into perspective a little bit for Haatuft and other attendees. "When you're sitting there listening to all of those people, it's hard not to do something," Haatuft says of the conference's exuberant mood. He's not the only one who feels that way. Chris Ying's carbon-reducing non-profit Zero Food Print was inspired by a presentation he gave at MAD the previous year, in which he had asked a carbon emissions specialist to investigate the restaurant industry's contributions to climate change. Los Angeles-based chef Roy Choi's 2013 MAD speech urging fine dining chefs to consider opening affordable alternatives in poorer communities was the call to action that led Daniel Patterson, chef at San Francisco's two-Michelin-starred restaurant Coi, to team up with Choi to develop an affordable, healthy fast food chain they're calling Loco'l.
He and these other high-profile chefs are dictators of culinary culture. When René Redzepi forages, the world forages. When David Chang ferments, the world ferments.
Redzepi likens the MAD Symposium to a trade conference, which is accurate purely in the sense that it does, in fact, bring industry professionals together to discuss their trade. But it's also a bellwether: he and these other high-profile chefs are dictators of culinary culture. When René Redzepi forages, the world forages. When David Chang ferments, the world ferments. Chefs are influencers, thought leaders, and celebrities. They might not have asked for it, but a lot of them sure haven't shied away from it. Redzepi and all of these other guys are luxury brands. What they advocate might not be attainable, but it's an object of aspiration for many of their followers.
Aspirational branding is a powerful thing, and some of these ideas are bound to trickle down whether they're good or not. When I asked Redzepi if his staggering influence means that he has a responsibility to make MAD a force for good, he acknowledged that the visibility of cooks today means he has to think carefully about what he wants to leave behind for future generations. In a world full of hard-line opinions, he says, there's no room for the nuance or moderation he values. "You only use handmade knives because everything else is shit," he offers by way of an example of the elitist absolutism he tries to avoid. "You're organic, or you're a douchebag." Redzepi, with his imperfect but evolving MAD Symposium, wants to leave behind a little more thoughtfulness. "Maybe it's the Danish, egalitarian part of me that always wants to meet in the middle, and say that nobody has the correct truth."
Perhaps the most profound testament to MAD's relevance is the influence it has already had on the ecosystem of international chef conferences—the very same conferences that it was created in order to reject. Thanks to MAD, there's evidence we'll see more conferences going forward—and more variations and permutations of them. Mexican chef Enrique Olvera hosted the first Mesamérica summit in the summer of 2012, drawing chefs from all over Mexico and the world—including Redzepi—to discuss the complexities and the future of Mexican cuisine. Mesamérica has sponsorships, but Olvera does indeed take the lead in curating the conference. And then there's last month's debut of superstar New Zealander chef Ben Shewry's WAW Gathering in Melbourne, Australia.
"Chefs and restaurateurs are realizing we can organize our own conferences," Shewry said to me. The chef of the celebrated Melbourne restaurant Attica—who spoke at the first MAD Symposium in 2011—started the WAW Gathering because he wanted to create something for his community of cooks that would energize and motivate anyone who had been brought down by what he describes as the "hardness of the industry." He told me that MAD was the first conference where he didn't feel any pressure to tiptoe around both the organizers and the sponsors; he credits that experience as one of his major influences for the WAW Gathering.
As with MAD and Noma, the team at Attica planned the WAW Gathering in-house. Shewry believes that this notion of chefs programming for other chefs is the key to a conference's relevance. "We have a better handle on what other cooks would find interesting," he says. After all, he's not so much interested in watching a celebrity chef cook as he is in hearing how Roy Choi overcame addictions to drugs and gambling—cooking is a notoriously tough profession with long, late-night hours and little time for a personal life, so it's no great stretch to assume other cooks are dealing with their own troubles and addictions. Stories like Choi's are inspiring. And so Shewry brought together a lineup of presenters including Choi, Daniel Patterson, British chef Isaac McHale, and Thailand's Bo Songvisana.
Also taking its cue from MAD, this year's WAW Gathering didn't have corporate sponsors. It was important to Shewry that speakers should feel free to speak their minds, so he funded the festival using a combination of his own resources and donations from within the industry. But the WAW Gathering has one big difference from MAD: It is free to attend. Shewry says he felt a responsibility to give something back to his community after having achieved so much in his career. And the cost of subsidizing everything was worth it to him. "This was the best thing I've ever done professionally, to be honest," he said.
Like the rest of the conferences it's inspiring, MAD is evolving, too. In October, Redzepi announced that the editor of their blog MADFeed, Gabe Ulla (a former Eater editor), will open an office in New York City to "handle all of our publishing projects and host more events in the States." These events include their MAD Mondays, a series of panel discussions on topics like creativity, culinary plagiarism, and the relationships between chefs and critics. The organization is committed not just to talking a big game, but actually playing it.
That'll be especially true of next year's symposium. Addressing the audience at the end of the 2014 event, Redzepi said that next year's gathering is going to be about action. When he and I spoke later, Redzepi told me that the shape of that action is still a bit unclear. He and his team have a lot of ideas—"some of them are very wild"—for a way that their MAD community can come together on a project with a purpose. He stayed tight-lipped on what exactly those ideas might be, but he was clear on his intent to experiment with change. "We believe that we're going to try something bold," Redzepi says. "We're going to see if we can risk everything."
*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Massimo Bottura presented at the first two MAD Symposia; we've updated this story to reflect that he only spoke at the second edition after having had to cancel the first year.