‘We need to confront some ugly truths about the restaurant world’

‘Mind the Gap’ was the theme of the Ted-talk style food festival MAD in Copenhagen

MAD food symposium in Copenhagen. Photograph: Instagram/MAD/Jason Idris

MAD food symposium in Copenhagen. Photograph: Instagram/MAD/Jason Idris

 

Sometimes it feels like food culture is a mass distraction project. All bluster and noise, a Wizard of Oz pulling frantically on his levers and sending out dry ice.

The world’s most talked about restaurant list is sponsored by a company owned by Nestle, one of the 10 food giants which control most of the food most of us put in our mouths. Chefs tell stories about fermentation and foraging and through that beautiful prism it looks like food choices get better. Pay no attention to that conglomerate behind the curtain.

In 2011 Danish chef Rene Redzepi stood in front of an audience in a red circus tent on the edge of Copenhagen for the first MAD Food Camp. He had to shout to be heard over the sound of rain drumming on the tent and opened up two days of talks by chefs, scientists and environmental thinkers which set the blueprint for Ted-talk style food festivals around the world. It didn’t seem to matter that not every chef had something interesting to say when you handed him (and they were mostly men) a microphone.

The 68-year-old Hollywood producer Lynda Obst talked about how her generation of women navigated a world of 'pigs and drunks'

The mood was upbeat and blokey. Chefs were rock stars. The world was listening and they were here to tell us how to make the world a better place through food. Obama was in the White House. The good guys were in charge. Social media had created new democracies. It was heady stuff. It would be a great thing, I tweeted, to get the ideas out of the tent and into the real world. “This is the real world,” a rock star chef tweeted back. If only.

But still it was a blast of freshness. In recession-ridden Ireland of 2011 the environment and food’s role in it was a subject in which no one seemed interested. It was all about the economy, jobs and getting the boom back. Voicing ideas from a Copenhagen circus tent about the dangers of intensive agriculture seemed like a luxury sport for evolved Scandinavians.

MAD6

This year I went back for the first time for MAD6. The big red circus tent has grown and the audience has trebled. This year’s MAD was presented and run mainly by women. Celebrities were thinner on the ground.

Jay Fai's Famous Crab Omelet

The only food that cooked onstage was by Jay Fai, a Bangkok street cook in her 70s, who deep fried her crab omelette wearing her trademark goggles on her head and talking a torrent of Thai barely leaving bare slivers of time for translation into English. Over two days the best talks and interviews opened up questions instead of presenting perfectly plated answers.

“We need to confront some ugly truths about the restaurant world,” MAD executive director Melina Shannon-DiPietro said in her opening speech. “We’re facing a reckoning with decades of systemic inequity and discrimination.”

That reckoning felt very real when Trish Nelson struggled to keep from crumbling as she talked about what it took to blow the whistle on celebrity restaurant owner Ken Friedman when she worked as a server in his New York restaurant The Spotted Pig. “We can and we should be better than this,” she told a silent audience. “Redefine what is normal.”

The New York Times journalist Kim Severson who won a Pulitzer prize with Julia Moskin for their coverage of MeToo stories in the restaurant world chaired a discussion about harassment, bullying and inequality. A woman in the audience said she still had to deal with obnoxious behaviour from a famous chef, but could not risk standing up to him because she had employees to protect. Severson fired out her email address like a grappling hook.

The 68-year-old Hollywood producer Lynda Obst talked about how her generation of women navigated a world of “pigs and drunks”. Her women peers were “small warm-blooded creatures among the dinosaurs huddled together for warmth.” Younger women were angry at men, she said. But they were also (and this was where it got difficult) angry at women like her who had succeeded in those shark-filled tanks. “Now women are everywhere and, I pray, safe at last,” she ended.

Regenerative agriculture

The lens widened dramatically at times over the two days. Environmentalist Chad Frischmann from Project Drawdown told the audience that eight of the top 20 solutions to climate change related to food. Changing how we eat “is the most impactful solution every individual can make,” he said. Regenerative agriculture was a “win, win, win.”

Fewer animals better grassland management and grazing animals on forest pastures or silvopasture could give us “the farming future that we want.” Was Project Drawdown – which aims to reverse climate change in thirty years with eighty different measures – just too ambitious? “You can say game over or game on,” he answered.

The MAD theme this year was ‘Mind the Gap’. Photograph: MAD
The MAD theme this year was ‘Mind the Gap’. Photograph: MAD

The MAD theme this year was ‘Mind the Gap’. At times that gap felt more like a chasm, with lots of spindly bridges starting at either side of it.

The former head chef at Noma Dan Giusti tore down the proverbial curtain when he took to the stage to talk about Brigaid, an organisation set up two years ago to improve the quality of school food in New York and Conneticut schools for some of America’s poorest children. His work at Noma had provided him with a “bullhorn” to talk about his work. If he hadn’t stepped out of Noma’s kitchen “nobody would give a shit about what I do”.

Working to feed children whose only food might come from their school meal had changed how he saw the ambitions of chefs, the accolades and culture of the high end restaurant. It was naive to think that what was happening on stage could change how most people eat, he said. “Before you change it through food you’ve gotta get people to understand why it’s important.”

The cult of the celebrity truth-teller chef was born in the MAD circus tent. A cynic might accuse it of jumping on the MeToo bandwagon and yes there’s definitely something in the Copenhagen air that encourages idealism. But this year MAD grew up, connected with the tougher truths of today and sent its audience out into the rain with a lot to digest.

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