Sunday April 3, the day after NOMA Australia served its last meal. As I walk out of Circular Quay station I’m greeted by a sprinkling of rain. I look up, a blanket of grey clouds is spread across the sky, and there’s a clammy heat, only helped by the sun fighting to poke through. I walk (actually, it was more of a bouncy skip), towards the Sydney Opera House. The smaller than imagined shiny white surface reflecting the rays from the now constant feature in the sky. Something told me this day would change my life forever.
Today was MAD SYD, an emotional, thought-provoking day of talks, ideas and stories by some of the culinary industry’s most exciting leaders, thinkers and activists – AND I HAD A TICKET! Featuring super chefs René Redzepi (NOMA), David Chang (Momofuku), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana), Zimbabwean farmer/forager/food activist Chido Govera, and restaurateur/chef Kylie Kwong (Billy Kwong), giving their view on ‘Tomorrow’s Meal’. Like with the, now, iconic Sydney Opera House, these culinary thinkers have helped to change the way people look at Australia, and its food, so the setting was perfect.
The first MAD (Danish for ‘food’) Symposium began in Copenhagen in 2011, by René Redzepi to start a discussion and share ideas about how we can better the world with the food we eat. Since then the symposium has grown into the food industry’s leading talks. Now I was here, the first MAD SYD, the first of its kind, and the first outside of Copenhagen.
As I wait outside the theatre, it’s full with like-minded food enthusiasts that believe in the same values, a community united by change. In the crowd I spot ex-head chef from NOMA, Daniel Giusti, the new founder of ‘Chefs Brigaid’, the soon-to-launch school lunch program in the USA. Caught off guard, I ask how Chefs Brigaid is going. A wide excited smile is spread across his face. Then came this piece of advice: “the possibilities to work within food are endless, just keep on going”.
As I enter the theater, I shuffle past knees and feet to my seat, the lights are turned down, and the stage is illuminated with a spot light, I wait. I’m so excited that I may pee (for the record, I didn’t). Even my knees feel the tingly chills running down my body.
Onto the stage come two mega-minds in the industry, René Redzepi and David Chang. Here is some of what they said.
Barefooted Redzepi and fellow flip flop wear Chang talked about the way we eat and its evolution. Although the quality of what we’re eating has improved, both agreed that we’re also more disconnected with our food than ever before. One example is when chefs post pictures of dead animals on their social media profiles and the comments of cruelty they experience after, when “this is the chefs dead animal”. Redzepi reveals that with just one click you see the person commenting about animal cruelty has also posted photos of big juicy steaks! This was just one example.
We used to have a better sense of seasonality, a bigger appreciation for the fruits of nature, a bigger appreciation for using our senses, and a genuine excitement for what’s coming into season.
“It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you eat something and you close your eyes and you don’t know where you are in the world and you don’t even know what season you’re in anymore”. Redzepi then went on to say “On any given Monday, throughout the year, we eat the same thing – avocado smash, if you’re in Sydney. I’ve come to discover”.
The crowd erupts with laughter.
In terms of restaurants, David Chang predicted that “Smaller casual dining is going to be more fractured and you’re going to have more single item shops”, just like in Singapore and Malaysia. I’m not sure if the western world would buy into single item menus (enough to keep them in business), and from a cook’s perspective, can you show that much restraint and stick to just one item on your menu, with no variations? I know I couldn’t.
A year in the making, Redzepi spoke about MAD’s soon-to-launch ‘Wild Food’ curriculum to help reconnect every Danish school child with the rhythm of nature, their role in the eco-system, the journey from farm-to-table and seasonality. All in the hop that food is seen as more than just an ingredient. Boasted as a natural progression from the work at NOMA,
“The dream is that every single school child in the world will be a forager, just like they learn their ABCs and their math” said Redzepi.
Drawing on his own experiences as a parent, he didn’t want his children to just see the environment as a beautiful place, but as a delicious place where they can use their senses in a more profound way. Redzepi then went on to say that he isn’t claiming that foraging will feed the world, but isn’t it an extraordinary thing to learn, do and explore? I agree. Maybe this way we get rid of the epidemic of food waste because people are more connected to their food and it’s not “just a thing we buy”.
New York City based Chang admitted that foraging for his restaurants is pretty limited, but trips to farms and being involved in the slaughtering of an animal does help create an appreciation and respect for cuts of meat. Every cook and person working in the restaurant industry should experience this, in my opinion.
In the words of Redzepi “When you’ve come from across the world, I’m not going to come here and cook carrots, I’m not going to come here and cook a steak. I want to explore what Australia is. I want to be surprised, I want to have all the new flavours”. Researching for over 9 weeks across Australia, the team of NOMA Australia soon learned that Australia is home to over 2,000 edibles from the plant kingdom (fruits, plants, mushrooms, roots). Before the trip over they could only find 2 ‘Australian’ ingredients in Denmark – 1 was Fosters Beer (which no Australian drinks) and the other being macadamia nuts originating from Byron Bay. With an outsider’s perspective, Redzepi was unaware of the history of Australia and its food; he was going by what was new and exciting. Next came a barrage of questions asking about the taste of the root, flowers, bark, shoots and leaves taste, the wood smoke, the farmer simply didn’t know because no one had ever thought to ask.
NOMA Australia’s biggest inspiration came from the original Australians – Australia’s original foragers, their aboriginal population. Even though some may disagree, fire is a key ingredient for all Australians – the BBQ is the updated version of cooking on hot coals, just in a different form. For NOMA Australia the idea was to focus on the ingredients – freshly caught, harvested and cooked on fire, serving the food as close to when people will eat it as possible.
Weighing in on the discussion, Chang, who has a Momofuku in Sydney, told how he isn’t held by any cultural truths or anyone saying, “you can’t do this, you shouldn’t do this”.
“We were literally going by our tongue – what was going to be the most delicious”.
It’s all about cooking food that is simply delicious without having a label of its ethnicity or origins.
From the perspective of Redzepi, the discussion turns to the topic of sustainability and food waste. Hoping to leave things much better than when we received it, he spoke of how the youth of Denmark were talking about the environment as their culinary goal, rather than the search for a Michelin Star.
David Chang predicted that food will become more amalgamated, so we’ll have a hard time figuring out the ethnicity or roots for a dish, which will lead to things we’ve never seen before. He was hopeful that we’d be able to erase the word ‘ethnic’ from our culinary vocabulary and replace it with this: “It’s just food – people’s food”. But there are major concerns for the restaurant industry, especially with the environment and labour. Both of which are huge topics in themselves.
To end the talk Chang leaves us with this:
“I think that the future though will be less delicious in order to be more sustainable”.
Quickly reassuring us that this unsettling note isn’t a ‘downer’, I don’t believe the quest for sustainability will hinder flavour. If anything I think the opposite. Maybe it will force chefs to show some restraint and focus on the ingredients rather than the number of components, number of moves, or fancy techniques. Maybe we’ll see healthier variations of dishes. And maybe we’ll change how the industry and consumers view ‘ugly’ vegetables and we’ll see dishes with the corner piece of meat making it onto the plate instead of disregarded because it doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing? Only time will tell.
Next up: chef, cookbook author and restaurateur, Kylie Kwong.