The 2013 MAD Symposium stage, with symposium founder René Redzepi.
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Have Guts, Change the World: MAD Symposium 2013

Anne McBride - August 30th, 2013

Guts was the one-word theme of this year’s MAD symposium, which took place August 25-26 in Copenhagen. But while actual (pig's) guts were indeed spilled on stage, “guts” referred to courage rather than butchery: Carefully selected by Noma’s René Redzepi and co-curators David Chang and the editorial team from Lucky Peach, the 26 presenters of MAD’s third edition showed no restraints while sharing life stories, business models, and appeals for chefs to be agents of change in front of 650 chefs, sommeliers, baristas, journalists, academics, and activists from all over the globe.

Feeding the world was the subtext of the symposium, from ensuring that farmers have royalty- and GMO-free seeds and relieving hunger on the streets of Los Angeles or the schools of Malawi to creating business models that allow for the perfect realization of one’s creative process from soil to plate, whether in California or war-torn Somalia. Having guts is about taking risks and taking action, whether at a personal or global level. “Cook your own food but also take responsibility for generations to come,” implored Swedish forager Roland Rittman, who kneeled on the ground to eat wild sorrel off the all-natural stage decor. “We go wild to rescue the planet and humanity,” he continued, stressing that the “wild revolution” didn’t start in Copenhagen, but rather in native communities around the world.

Glaciologist Jason Box, who studies the ice/climate interaction in Greenland, explained that the food world can play a major role in restabilizing climate, and thus the planet, through the choices and actions chefs and producers make, since industrial pollution is the main cause of ice melting. Indian activist Vandana Shiva spoke of the dangers to our food system created by multinational corporations using “blind violent technologies” to create monocultures that strip the food system of its necessary diversity (a point also made by Mexican cuisine expert Diana Kennedy). Charging royalties on seeds―which are typically genetically modified―makes farming impossible, and hundreds of thousands of farmers in India have committed suicide as a result.

“Please, let’s do something and feed those we're not reaching collectively,” implored Roy Choi, who launched the food truck movement with his Kogi Korean BBQ trucks in Los Angeles and actively works to reduce food deserts in that city. Ten-year-old Scottish Martha Payne, who began documenting her school lunches on her blog, NeverSeconds, raised over $200,000 to feed schoolchildren in Malawi. An inspirational story shared by her father―Payne being too shy to talk―brought the audience to tears and left everyone inspired to do more with their own powers of change.

“We take on killing so that our community can eat,” stated Italian butcher Dario Cecchini, as he gutted a pig hanging over the stage in the opening presentation and set the tone for a symposium not afraid to provoke. Alex Atala, of D.O.M. in Brazil, who concluded the program and will be next year’s co-curator of MAD, killed a chicken on stage, after asking the audience whether or not to save it with Roman emperor-like thumb gestures. “Death happens,” proclaimed his T-shirt, but should not take place thoughtlessly; rather, we need to rethink the relationship between humans and environment and act consciously.

In a symposium that sees both the world’s best chefs and young cooks sit side by side on benches or bales of hay, guidance for the next generation abounded, with presenters not afraid to share vulnerabilities and weaknesses, in the spirit of allowing others to benefit from one’s mistakes. A homeless man saved Danish author Knud Romer from a certain alcoholism-related death and forced him to be honest with himself. American artist David Choe, calling himself a motivational speaker, spoke of not letting IBS define his interactions with the world and of believing in himself before anyone else did to create his dream career. Chang said he opened a restaurant he never should have, and Redzepi confessed he broke a rule he was adamant his staff always followed: he kissed the waitress (who is now his wife and the mother of their two children). Alain Ducasse―who received perhaps the longest standing ovation of the symposium when he took the stage―said he made a conscious decision to have 10 percent of mistakes as part of his business model: “If we are afraid, we cannot launch into anything,” he said. “We need mistakes to build expertise.” Ahmed Jama, tired of seeing his native Somalia being the scene of nothing but war and tragedy, spoke of leaving behind a successful restaurant in London to build one in Mogadishu and give hope and jobs to his fellow citizens.

L’Astrance’s Pascal Barbot and Manresa’s David Kinch shared some of the creative risks they take by having a completely spontaneous cuisine (Barbot often changes dishes from his tasting menus during service every night, depending on the diner, the ingredients, his mood, and the staff’s state of mind) or having an exclusive relationship with one farm (Kinch works only with Love Apple Farms’ Cynthia Sandberg and is often at the mercy of what ingredients are ready on any given day, while Sandberg put her own business success in the hands of just one customer).

Having guts is also about finding oneself in the process: “I wanted to be Alain Ducasse; now I’m happy to be Barbara Lynch,” stated the successful Boston chef, bringing the audience to its feet.