MAD, Noma, and Tomorrow’s Kitchen

I’m late for dinner. My plane arrived in Copenhagen from Moscow without my bag, so after sorting things out with the airline I take an Uber straight to the restaurant. The driver doesn’t recognize the location, as 108, a Noma spinoff, is still quite new. I tell him I’m food writer and he asks if I am in town for MAD, which is being held in a circus tent on the Refshaleøen waterfront in a few days. He is well aware what it is and what Noma is. There might not be any other city in the world where even the taxi drivers are as knowledgeable about the city’s culinary scene as Copenhagen.

He is Turkish, but has lived in Copenhagen for a few years. “How good could a meal be that costs 500 euros?” he asks. Before I can answer he goes on. “You know, the other day my wife made something that was so good. I couldn’t believe it. She’s not a chef or anything. It was just something at home. She just changed one thing. I was like ‘what did you do?’ But it was so delicious.” He was smiling and almost in tears thinking about how good this meal was. “I think about Noma and I ask myself how much tastier could a restaurant like that be?”

“Well, it’s not, really.” I try to explain. “But there’s more to it than that.”

MAD 5, Tomorrow’s Kitchen, opens with Jacques Pépin. The lights are dimmed. It’s quiet. He begins to talk as he breaks down a chicken and talks. When he grew up home was a restaurant he says. His mother did everything from scratch. Everything was local and organic because that’s the way it was. He taps the leg bone with the knife and it just slides out. The crowd roars.

“First learn to be a craftsman,” he says. “Repeat and repeat. If you are a good craftsman, you can run a restaurant. Only then you can express yourself. If you have taste, talent, a bit of vision. But you need to repeat those techniques enough so you can afford to forget them.”

This is how MAD begins every year. Tatsuru Rai of Japan’s Sobatei Rakuichi started MAD 4 making soba noodles, while Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini opened MAD 3 cutting open a pig while Metallica played overhead. So the lesson is, before everything else, be a cook. A good cook.

Another theme that ran throughout MAD 5 was health. The kitchen can be a brutal, crappy place at times and many cooks burn out. They don’t take care of their physical or mental well being. They turn their backs on their personal lives. They turn to drugs and alcohol.

René Redzepi suggests on the main stage in trying to do the things you can. The new Noma will have a 4-day work week and gym access. “It can still be an unforgiving place and I can still be the biggest dick in a kitchen,” he says.

“We’re not taking care of ourselves or each other. Work takes a toll. It can make you a mess outside the kitchen,” says journalist Kat Kinsman, in her keynote “What’s Killing the Restaurant Industry.” She speaks of how 84 percent of cooks suffer from depression. How alcoholism is rampant but most cooks are afraid to tell anyone for fear of being seen of as weak. How a former Manresa chef succeeded in the workplace, yet it took a toll on the rest of her life.

Mexico’s Jaīs Tellez and Rafael Magaña found a solution in making their restaurant Laja like a family.

So two lessons right away: be a good cook and stay healthy, without those two things you can forget about changing the world.

New this year are attendee generated discussion sessions. The idea was hatched by Vaughn Tan, an assistant professor at University College London’s School of Management who helps organize the symposium, as a way to increase interaction. Thousands were turned away to keep MAD purposely smaller than before.

Two chunks of time are set aside each day for the sessions, which range from groups of 8 to 35 people and last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. I organize a short discussion titled “Thinking Beyond the Concept: Your Restaurant Story.” I’m not sure if anyone will come, but the max number is hit and a group that included chefs, restaurant developers, and writers chat about communicating the ideas behind restaurants. Through the sessions it becomes apparent that many are having the same questions and are searching for a lot of the same information, things the keynotes can never cover completely.

The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, makes his case for Native American cuisine in one session. “The U.S. should not be identified by hamburgers and Coca-Cola,” he says. He has to dig through anthropological text books to find what was being farmed, hunted, and foraged for before colonialism wiped it out. Writer Matt Rodbard and the Meatball Shop co-owner Daniel Holzman, gather a group of about 15 writers and chefs spoke of their own experiences writing cookbooks and just the nature of cookbooks in general. Some complain that cookbooks have become PR stunts. I mention that I just helped write a cookbook no one can cook from, but it isn’t a PR stunt. Other topics include how restaurants can fight climate change, the impact of media on contemporary cuisine, and chamber music in the kitchen.

In one session someone jokingly suggests to have Guy Fieri at MAD next year and Jose Andrés speaks out: “No, Guy Fieri should come next year.” He’s suggesting that if this conversation wants to grow, it needs to include different ideas about food.

Not everything is flawless. A panel of attendees that went to the MAD Yale Leadership Summit in June doesn’t translate to the audience. It’s apparent that profound things were discussed there, but a stage of chefs talking about their experience wasn’t the right vehicle.

Basque World Culinary Prize nominee Kamilla Seidler of Bolivia’s Gustu happens to be in Copenhagen and probably understands Tomorrow’s Kitchen better than anyone, yet she is at MAD helping a friend scoop ice cream during lunch break. No one notices.

Toto’s Africa plays twice.

There is lots of doomsday talk on the main stage.

“We are on the brink of an environmental disaster of biblical proportions,” says Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. “The principal causes of this disaster is our food systems. People think pollution is because of factories and cars but it’s not true. It’s the way that we produce food. Tomorrow’s food needs to go against the system.”

David Chang has his doubts. “I’m a pessimist who hopes he’s always wrong. So I could be an eternal optimist?”

There’s also hope.

“Instead of competition, cooperation, and sharing,” says Petrini. “Compassion. We need lots of compassion. Cooking has to be first and foremost an act of love.”

“I don’t want Noma to be a 10-year plan,” says Redzepi. “I want it to be a 50-year plan.”

“Maybe we’re the first generation to realize that cooking is more than eating,” Alex Atala says.

Desmond Dekker sings “Israelites” over the loud speaker as the crowd filters out of the tent for the last time. “Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir. So that every mouth can be fed. Poor me Israelites Aah.”

Beyond Refshaleøen, in the after parties and restaurants of Copenhagen, where the attendees linger around for a few days, the conversation continues. I meet a hunter that listens to opera and is against bullfighting. I hear Fäviken’s Magnus Nilsson and the Nordic Food Lab’s Roberto Flore discuss the ethics of killing predatory animals. There is talk about how the best mozzarella in the world might be from the micro-dairy above Christian Puglisi’s restaurant Bæst. There are far more discussions being had about natural wine, masa madre, and zero waste than Donald Trump.

At Noma, I find a restaurant that is speaking about this precise moment of world cuisine as any I have ever experienced. I can tell you about all of their fermentation rooms, how the harvest and use of every ingredient is so precisely timed, or how a radish tart can taste better than any caviar or lobster or Kobe beef you have ever had, though you probably already know that. It’s the realization of the Nordic culinary dream and it will continue to drive the conversation as it re-invents itself.

Yet, Copenhagen, MAD, and Noma are just small blips on a big earth.

They’re bubbles, safe and secure from pesticides and shitty bread. At some point everyone must go back to where we came from. Will we try to implement the same organic gold certification of Amass, to put ramson leaves in everything, or build a garum room to ferment fish blood and intestines? Will people in Peruvian shantytowns or Syrian refugee camps think about tomorrow’s kitchen when there’s still no running water and they can catch tuberculosis as easily as a cold? They are still thinking about tomorrow’s meal. Or will we take what we have learned and create our own Copenhagens? Places not really like Copenhagen at all, but points of information that help us understand what food is and where it comes from? Things that our Uber or rickshaw or peke-peke drivers can appreciate too.