Yesterday morning, the fourth annual MAD Symposium kicked off in Copenhagen, Denmark, hosted by Noma chef René Redzepi and co-curated by chef Alex Atala of D.O.M. in Brazil. Chefs, front-of-the-house staff, producers, journalists, academics, and other industry professionals gathered under the MAD 4 circus tent for a day full of lectures that explored the theme "What Is Cooking?"
Plenty of big-name chefs from around the world were milling around at the conference — Redzepi, Atala, Massimo Bottura, David Chang, and others — but the lineup this time around gave the spotlight to writers, philosophers, historians, museum curators, and lesser-known chefs. Therefore, this year's lectures ranged from lessons on the ancient history of celebrity chefs to exhortations for chefs to stand up for their cultures and their environments. There was also a lunchtime surprise activity for the audience members. Here's a look now at Day One of MAD 4:
1) Soba noodle master Tatsuru Rai — owner and chef of Japan's Sobatei Rakuichi — led off the conference with a wordless and mesmerizing demo of his noodle-making process. The audience watched in silence as well as the chef very precisely and quickly transformed the ingredients of the dough into cooked soba noodles, which was handed out to a few audience members in the front row. Overheard in the audience after the presentation: Austin chef Paul Qui noting that the entire process took only about 14 to 15 minutes altogether.
2) Alex Atala, who co-curated the Symposium's events along with Redzepi, next took the stage to welcome the audience and explain that they chose to explore the meaning of cooking now during a time when the business has changed. Redzepi later joined Atala onstage (apologizing that he was busy eating noodles backstage) and the men told the audience that the day ahead was for learning.
3) British writer and philosopher Julian Baggini was up next with a lecture based on his recent book The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think. "The idea behind Soylent is dubious," Baggini began, arguing that eating is more than just ingesting nutrients or "feeding" as animals might, but rather it's a very human enterprise that involves the mind, body, heart, and soul. Further, he said, those who say food is just for survival are "fundamentally mistaken" and that even the world's poor use food as a means for celebration. Diners should always be thinking about their place in the world while they eat, Baggini said, to the point of imagining animals, farmers, producers, the earth, staff, ancestors, culture, beliefs and values all sitting around the table with them.
Baggini also took issue with the most famous lyrics from everyone's favorite band ever The Bloodhound Gang: "You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." Baggini: "Do you know any other mammal that would seduce with music and rhyme?" Fair enough. Anyway, in the end, Baggini concluded that how we eat and cook tells us how we live with others.
4) Yale University history professor Paul Freedman — whose most recent paper is on women in restaurants and who is writing a book on the 10 restaurants that changed America — was up next to talk about celebrity chefs throughout history. The earliest celebrity chefs were, of course, the chefs to kings and other royals, one of which Freedman pointed out was depicted in art dressed as a knight. Then Auguste Escoffier came along. While Escoffier did cook for Kaiser Wilhelm II at one point (during which the German emperor apparently called Escoffier an emperor among chefs), his clientele was a large, rich audience, Freedman said.
Freedman also discussed the evolution in dining as it related to celebrities, noting that everyone followed Paul Bocuse for awhile until the end came to "unquestioned French power." Now in the 21st century, he said, we're seeing a "fidelity not to tradition, but to ingredients."
5) Coffee expert Oliver Strand — who acknowledged that, yes, there is a subset of people who travel around for coffee — was in the house to introduce all of the coffee producers who were cranking out cups from both a brew bar and an espresso bar all day long. These included: Drop Coffee, Workshop Coffee Co., Tim Wendelboe, and Koppi. Then everybody took a coffee break and with MAD-provided buttermilk ice cream in cones.
6) Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, started off with a warning and photographs of the Burton Nitta Algaculture project: "Never let designers decide what you will eat" because they're doing things like making cheese out of human milk and armpit bacteria. Antonelli's lecture also touched on the debate as whether cooking is an art or a craft, arguing that art is free from all bounds while design, like cooking, has to respond to certain expectations or have certain functions — even if that function is to evoke emotions.
7) Actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey lectured on cuisine across cultures, and especially in her native India, where she says, "We really are magicians in the way we use spices." Everyone in India knows how to use food as medicine, she said, whether it's that fried mice is the best cure for bed-wetting or that rice and yogurt cure a "loose stomach." Then, of course, there's the antiseptic qualities of turmeric, as she related a story about a house full of ear infections during her childhood that her grandmother treated with cotton swabs of turmeric that turned her ears yellow but cured the infection. We are all born into certain cultures, Jaffrey said, and a culture is like a mother that you run away from and experiment with others, but in the end, our mother is always in our hearts and minds.
8) Pierre Koffmann interludes: The French chef came out a couple of times throughout the program to provide its few, speedy cooking demos. First, he made an omelet with a ton of butter in it, and emphasizing the importance of seasoning: "The difference between good and bad food is always a pinch of salt." Later on, he brought Redzepi and San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino to the stage to break down pig trotters.
9) The likes of Massimo Bottura, Daniel Patterson, David Chang, and René Redzepi watched from the side as MAD-described "front of house legend" Silvano Giraldin of London's three-star Le Gavroche spoke — rather sassily — about the art of service. Giraldin argued that a waiter should be invisible, not filling wine glasses that are already full or interrupting conversations. He challenged the chefs in the audience to invest more in training their servers by sending them to the vineyards to learn about the wine they're selling and so on. Feeding them well is important, too, he said, adding, "Ask your waiter to be your ambassador and they will be your ambassador forever." For the record, Giraldin is cool with chefs delivering plates to guests themselves as "there's no better person to explain what's going on."
10) Over lunch — which was an insane Brazilian spread by chefs Rodrigo Oliveira, Thiago Castanho, and David Hertz of Gastromotiva — Redzepi had a surprise of sorts for the Symposium's attendees. His Noma team had split everyone into small groups by alphabetical order, emailing them essays a day before the Symposium to read as "homework." During the lunch, each group got together to discuss that group's particular essay and make short video about the meaning of cooking. Those videos were mandatory to attend the after-party, and presumably will be screened at some point this weekend.
11) And those essays? They've been compiled into a neat book titled MAD Dispatches, featuring works from Christine Muhlke, Michael Twitty, Thomas Keller, Wylie Dufresne and Sam Henderson, Massimo Bottura, Charlotte Druckman, Juan Mari Arzak, and more.
12) Bon Appétit executive editor Christine Muhlke translated for French chef Alain Senderens, who earned and gave back three Michelin stars and has also mentored Alain Passard. Redzepi and David Chang sat on the floor at the foot of the stage toward the end of Senderens' talk, asking him questions like how you keep going and finding inspiration. Senderens replied that you have to remember that cooking is about all five senses and also that you're the master of yourself and should choose your own style.
13) Yet another chef who gave back his three Michelin stars, Olivier Roellinger was up next and brought a sort of tent revival feeling to the day. The audience cheered and clapped for declarations, like Roellinger's second source of motivation to cook came from meeting his wife, as well as his explanation of how he got his third Michelin star in 2006. (Let it be noted that the Mexico delegation of chefs Jorge Vallejo and Edgar Nunez also whooped for the mention of Mexico.)
There were also cheers and eventually a standing ovation for his barn-burner of a conclusion: chefs must buy products respecting the diversity of animal species and biodiversity, and cultural differences of the planet; chefs must support fair trade and fight against waste; and chefs must protect and promote the diversity of cuisines and hospitality everywhere.
14) Another audience-pleasing speech was that of Italian chef Fulvio Pierangelini, who closed his acclaimed restaurant Gambero Rosso in 2008, much to Redzepi's dismay. Pierangelini said that Redzepi had written him a great letter full of existential questions leading up to the conference, and so the speech was in turn a letter full of answers while Redzepi stood off to the side asking more questions and for more advice. Pierangelini had a lot to say, so here's a quick breakdown:
— "Don't be arrogant enough to think you've understood it all."
— "Young cooks, please be aware cooking is a history of women. We guys just invaded this very intimate place."
— Kitchens are filled with guys who aren't following the natural shape of food, he said, and too often use tweezers and such things in their cooking.
— Pierangelini didn't have email, a website, or a PR team for his restaurant on purpose, having taken a radical stance against all of those trappings. He maybe also is not a fan of food blogs, saying that "food blogs were for gastronomy as were pedophiles for love." Lots of glances exchanged in the audience for that one.
— Really not a fan of the media, Pierangelini also talked about how overexposure can cause a chef to lose their dignity "at the hands of merciless people that only want our blood." He lamented that chefs reach out for the limelight now whereas in the earlier days "it was enough just to be winked at by a housewife with a shopping bag."
— Pierangelini also argued that a good cook or waiter should earn double what a bank employee makes.
— Finally, Pierangelini told Redzepi that he doesn't miss the restaurant team, the audience, the stage, or the power. What he misses about cooking, he said, was waiting for the fish, feeling the emotion of the market, foraging for herbs, seeing the wild pigs in the woods, the burns on his fingers and arms, the heat of the pot on the stove, the adrenaline of a crazy night, the smell of rosemary, and "getting home in pieces because he's hopelessly tired."
15) Four months into her new restaurant in Paris, Le Servan's Tatiana Levha (who has trained with Pascal Barbot and Alain Passard) gave a talk about what she called the "pleasurable pain" of opening a restaurant. She spoke of getting a ton of press right away, which she said was good because of how it can fill up a restaurant so quickly, but also scary because the restaurant was still only just beginning and evolving. She also talked about staff turnover, learning how to react to spontaneous menu changes, and how it felt to close for a vacation just four months in. "It's scary knowing you're going to be scared for the next 10 years," she said, to which Redzepi called out, "You learn to live with it."
16) Finally, food writer Anya Von Bremzen closed out the day talking about restaurants from the diner's perspective, lamenting about dinners she'd had earlier in life at famous chefs' restaurants where the staff smirked at her and placed plates filled with blood before her. A dinner at elBulli turned her around in favor of fine dining, though now she thinks fine dining is "in a difficult place."
In response, she urged chefs to open more ambitious restaurants and for young chefs to leave room in their culinary fantasies for the diners. Chefs make a lot of calibrations, she argued, but what they sometimes forget is the idea to create a fantasy for diners that is better than reality: a space where everyone is happy to see you and everything tastes better. She then described the "absolute visceral, primal thrill of being fed by a great chef" when Massimo Bottura gave her a taste of food from a spoon in his kitchen. She said she thought it'd be cool to have a little bench in a restaurant's kitchen for young cooks to buy a ticket to come taste. Though she acknowledged that might not be practical, it was an idea that got some real applause before the Symposium concluded for the day.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a recap of the second half of MAD 4, happening right now in Copenhagen. The lineup is still technically a mystery as of the writing of this piece, but it's been a fun parlor game guessing which of the various chefs seen around the grounds — Jeremiah Tower, Albert Adria, and more — might be seen onstage.