René Redzepi strolling along the waterfront with an ice cream cart.
magnify Click image to view more.

MAD: A Voracious, Hopeful Appetite

Anne McBride / July 5th, 2012

For two days this week, the eyes and minds of the food world seemingly turned to Denmark, where culinary royalty René Redzepi and his team organized the second annual MAD Symposium, July 1-2. Introduced by Redzepi as an “annual meeting of mindful chefs,” MAD, which means food in Danish, brought together chefs, farmers, scholars, scientists, food producers, and media under a circus tent set by the Copenhagen waterfront.

Under the theme “Appetite,” the resounding message was to think about, question, and change the order of things, from the relation between tradition and modernity, past and future, nature and culture, down to the order in which a meal’s dishes are consumed, with the aim of becoming better chefs and better humans and leaving behind a better earth.

Danish science author Tor Nørretranders set a hopeful tone in the symposium’s first presentation, stressing the need to think of the world as edible: “You will find something somewhere,” in a world that is rich with water, food, and energy, even though humans have tried for too long to control it. But it’s not just a matter of the world being edible: Chefs have a responsibility to be knowledgeable, because they have the power to affect change, said many of the presenters. “Everything tastes more delicious if you feel good about where it comes from,” emphasized British chef and fish sustainability activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Dan Barber (Blue Hill, NYC, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, NY) asked for a change in the farm-to-table movement, which he said is the wrong way to think about affecting the way in which the world is used. “It sets chefs up as end-users, as passive. We need to engage with breeders to create the kind of flavors we need for the future.”

Many of the presentations were intensely and effectively personal, whether it was Zimbabwean mushroom grower and activist Chido Govera bringing the 500 attendees to tears as she explained how being orphaned at 7 led her to forage for mushrooms and now to travel around the world teaching orphans how to become self-sufficient, or Roderick Sloan and Patrik Johansson, who supply Redzepi’s Noma with sea urchins and butter, respectively, sharing the hardship, challenges, and joyful rewards of their isolated and difficult professions.

Ferran Adrià, showing how much modern cooking is an ongoing conversation and not a passing of the baton from the Spanish cocina vangardia to the new Nordic cuisine movement, stressed the importance for chefs to understand the history of modern cooking, from 1965 to today, lamenting the fact that no book exists that covers that. “If we don’t value what came before, we don’t value anything,” he said, before fittingly concluding the symposium by telling chefs to be honest, ethical, and happy.