Monday, September 02, 2013

MAD for Copenhagen

It's been over two years since I've blogged. It's not that I've lost interest in travel or writing about it, it's just that I've been busy with other things. Around the time of the second-to-last post (also set in Copenhagen) the initial seeds of Emperor Norton had been planted, and it has since become a successful little venture - leading up to two more trips to Copenhagen to attend the MAD Symposium.

The city we formerly found expensive (solution: Airbnb, eating at home, bike rentals), maddening to reach (solution: private sleeper cabin on Deutsche Bahn, which costs less than a flight when you factor in a dog), and difficult to leave (go for a full week, minimum) has become extremely important to me and Alannah.

Why Copenhagen?
Our last visit to MAD was - quite seriously - life changing. The theme of the event in 2012 was "Appetite" and the speakers helped Alannah and I find our own hunger and examine what we were doing as cooks and broaden our horizons. (Videos of all the speakers are here.) We spent a week biking around the beautiful city, taking our dog to its gigantic parks – where grilling is allowed! – and feeling genuinely inspired to chase our dreams.

We had no doubt that we'd come back to Copenhagen again – because of our now even greater love for the city, as well as to attend MAD3 in 2013. Dates hadn't even been announced but we were already planning our vacances around it. Because when you take your piss break with Ferran Adria or get handed ice cream bars by René Redzepi, as a young chef you are obligated to want to repeat this experience.

And that's what we were afraid of: Alannah and I both thought that perhaps we'd be like heroin addicts, chasing the unattainable peak of that first high in an increasingly futile manner. Would we still love biking around Copenhagen? Would we still love its parks and green spaces? Would we still think of the Danes as absurdly friendly (and ridiculously attractive)? Would we still eat as well? And most importantly, would we get as much out of the event on which we were spending nearly a month's pay?

The answer is unequivocally: YES. And even more so.

I've attended and even helped run many a conference in my life. Nothing, in my opinion, comes close to the inspiration, camaraderie, and relevance of MAD. Rather than bore anyone any further with explanations of what the event is (the link to the web site is above) or give a summary of the event itself, I'll sum up my little takeaways of each speaker, presenting on this year's theme of "guts." (For those that don't care, you can skip to the bottom.)

Day One
Dario Cecchini, butcher: Don't be wasteful. And learn to passionately recite Dante (and the occasional Shakespearean pun) - it's seriously impressive.

David Chang, chef & restaurateur of the Momofuku empire (& co-curator of MAD3): Don't be afraid to fail. Homeboy's empire goes from New York to Toronto to Sydney, so I'd say he's worth listening to.

Heribert Watzke, scientist: Our gut has a "brain" and we must feed it well – like we do our proper brain – to stay healthy and on top of our game. Going by the size of my gut, it must have a very high IQ.

John Reiner, writer: Food has a social function, and if you want proof of it, try being completely unable to eat or taste or even ingest anything. (Winner: prize for second most terrifying life story of the day.)

Sandor Katz, fermentation expert: The war on bacteria is a war on the diversity that makes life happen. I'm glad I called bullshit on anti-bacterial soaps years ago.

Souk el Tayeb, cooking collective of Lebanese women, provider of lunch: The differences that have lead to strife in the Middle East conversely enrich even the smallest of communities. Their amazing, kaleidescopic food was proof.

Josh Whiteland, Aboriginal cultural guide: The aboriginal calendar has six seasons, which really makes more sense. Also, I really need to go to Australia again.

Roland Rittman, forager: Foraging isn't just a trend, it's an essential link to the Earth. (And really, foraged herbs taste so much more real than whatever your industrial purveyor can deliver.)

Daniel Klein & Mirra Fine, filmmakers (The Perennial Plate): Sometimes telling a story requires the guts to be vulnerable. Also, their short films are really cool and you should watch them.

Jason Box, glaciologist: Climate change is for real, motherfuckers, and the J-Box has the proof. The good news is we can do something about it. See his research here.

Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach magazine: Do you have the guts to see what your CO2 footprint really is? Noma and Franky's did, enabling them to make effective changes. Also, I will NEVER use my nitrous oxide canister ever ever again. (Ok, only when absolutely necessary.)

Tor Nørretranders, scientist: Tickle me, chef! (From the inside...) (Note: Just about every purveyor of food on this trip did exactly that. Fantastically.)

Martha Payne, 10 year-old food activist (and her dad): Feeding kids properly helps them concentrate in school – so let's make sure that's happening. I can't tell you how many times I teared up during this bit.

Diana Kennedy, cookbook author: If you're 90 years old, you can say whatever you goddamn want, and luckily what Ms. Kennedy wants to say rings true – BE MORE RESPONSIBLE.

Pascal Barbot, chef of L'Astrance: Spontaneity comes from mastery. This may sound like some high-falutin' bullshit, but it's true: If you know your craft incredibly well, it's much easier to go off-script and still come out with good results.

David Choe, artist: Lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome stories are always funny. Also, damn, there's a lot of Koreans in the house this year! (Though I must personally fist-bump the other Iranian in attendance.)

Ahmed Jama, chef of The Village: Think having a restaurant in London is difficult? Give it up to open a place in Mogadishu, tough guy. (And then have a suicide bomb wipe out a dozen people in your joint.) That, my friends, wins the terrifying life story of the day award.

Day one was an emotional roller coaster. I laughed my ass off. I wiped tears from under my eyes. I got angry. I felt futile. I felt empowered. And once again I felt inspired.

Alannah and I took the boat across the canal and biked our way back to our rental in Østerbro, chilled in the park with the dog, and had a quiet almost-vegetarian dinner of all local market goods at home. It was nourishing, it made us feel a little responsible and healthy, and allowed us to quietly reflect on what we'd seen and heard during the day.

On Monday morning I started running again for the first time in forever. Inspired by the clean air, beautiful parks, and beautiful and fit people of Copenhagen, I figured I'd actively do something good for myself. After all, I can spend all the time I want surrounded by the world's greatest chefs and thinkers going on about having courage and changing the world – but none of that would be any good if I we don't make ourselves better as well.

We went into the second day of the conference feeling recharged and ready for what lay ahead.

Day Two
Knud Romer, author: Making mean comments isn't honesty, it's rudeness. Also, writers are obligated to drink. (Maybe I do need to write more to keep in line with my drinking habits!)

Vandana Shiva, environmental activist: The food industry was borne of the war industry and its mentality of domination. This lady blew my mind. Seriously, Google her. And in the meantime, join the fight for Seed Freedom.

David Kinch, chef of Manresa, and Cynthia Sandberg, farmer at Love Apple Farms: The relationship between restaurant and farmer is far from simple, but can be extremely rewarding. (Also: Northern California rules!)

Michael Twitty, food historian: Culinary justice is difficult to encapsulate in a one-liner, but I'd say we have an inalienable right to our own historical foodways and we should learn and teach them to maintain our respective heritage. Deep stuff from the black gay southern Jew (How's that for someone who has some heritage to study?) who famously reached out to Paula Deen.

Margot Henderson, chef of Rochelle Canteen: Masculine cooking seeks to dominate the ingredient/technique, whereas feminine cooking nurtures – not sure I dig the male/female dichotomy, but she did ask the most important question of any culinary event: "Where are all the women chefs?" (I was glad to see Alannah accept her identity as a chef finally and raise her fist at this point!)

Barbara Lynch, chef/restaurateur: She went from being a dyslexic number-runner to managing a $24m empire – by having "quenelles of steel," from wanting to be Robuchon or Ducasse to be "happy being Barbara." This lady should be a motivational speaker.

Mission Chinese Food, former pop-up turned bi-coastal restaurant venture that kills it for charity, provider of lunch: These guys had the balls to turn up in Europe and not tone down their food. Mad respect. Of course, most of us would've lynched 'em had we not gotten our fill of chilies and Szechuan pepper. For those of us living in Europe and missing heat, this was a godsend.

Ben Reade, Nordic Food Lab: Ben didn't speak, but was showing off his Scottish roots by presenting the delicious "Dream Haggis" he'd made using various suggestions from the Twitterverse. (Alas, while my contribution of chicharones had made it onto the whiteboard, it was not in the haggis.) A bagpiper led the ceremony and beautifully recited some Robert Burns with a full-on brogue. Oh, my takeaway from Ben: Shaving cream removes red wine stains from white dress shirts. (Long story.)

Alain Ducasse: Even when speaking at a conference themed around "guts," only a 10% risk ratio is the norm in the Ducasse group. (Ok, so that's a remarkable amount of risk for a French enterprise, so there's that...)

Jonathan Gold, food critic (& fellow Bruin): There is no authenticity other than being true to your time and place. (Take that, purveyors of shitty Mexican food in Paris! Or, uh, not...? Now I'm confused.)

Roy Choi, modern food truck pioneer & chef of Kogi BBQ: Bringing good food to the streets can help the poor and hungry who live in food deserts – it's a chef's responsibility to the community. (Take that, purveyors of €15 food truck burgers in Paris!)

Christian Puglisi, chef of Relæ and Manfreds & Vin: Opening in a neighborhood overrun with drugs/gangs/violence isn't necessarily "gentrification" but sometimes an opportunity to revive and build a community. (This is true - Jægersbrogade is now more habitable but maintains much of its character. My favorite single street in Copenhagen.)

Alex Atala, chef of D.O.M.: Death happens. I found this chicken-choking finale to MAD3 too macho for my taste, but the point behind it is important. Death is a reality behind everything we consume to give us life – whether animal or plant. As such, we must respect the cycle of life.

While equally heavy and thought-provoking, Monday felt a little more "manageable" than Sunday. I once again laughed my ass off, was moved to tears, angered, and ultimately inspired, but a little less exhausted. This is good, because the after-party under a Copenhagen bridge would go late into the night. It was fantastic that the party was open to everyone this year, as it really provided an opportunity to cement the brief relationships attendees had formed inside the conference and during the breaks.

I thought it had been because I'd been preoccupied that I hadn't written about my travels in two years. But I think that in all my busy, crazy, hectic life, even when traveling I had lost touch with the number one, all-important, raison d'être facet of travel that always motivated me, kept me going, and fueled my wanderlust: The connection with people.

Although MAD brought me to a now familiar city to a now familiar event, it renewed my ability to connect with people. For a brief moment I was not in my office. I was not in my kitchen. I was just out there and getting face time with people who share a common interest but who come from all backgrounds and walks of life. I listened to and then broke bread with creative freaks from California, ultra-specialized professionals from London, coffee roasters from Scandinavia, head-down chefs from New Zealand and Canada, writers from France and Turkey... When I was younger and drunker and singler, these relationships were forged in the common areas of hostels over a deck of cards and a bottle of liquor. Now we come together in a slightly more grown-up manner (though admittedly no less crazy) thanks to a little conference started by the guys at a little restaurant called Noma.

Speaking of which, the third time must be a charm. On this third trip to Denmark we finally landed a reservation at Noma. For three years it was ranked the number one restaurant in the world (yes, such things are arbitrary, but it's no little thing either) and thus made Copenhagen one of the culinary epicenters of the world on par with Tokyo and San Sebastian for the amount of media and attention going to it. In the restaurant world, there is an unbelievable amount of hype, often unsubstantiated.

Our lunch at Noma felt like an extension of the MAD Symposium. (And not only because all the Noma staff work their tails off at the event themselves.) We laughed our asses off (the front of house staff are genuinely charming and fun). We got angry. ("Why haven't I thought of that!?") We felt futile. ("We will never cook this well.") We felt empowered. "We could totally do this.") I wiped tears from under my eyes. (That dessert of potato and plum? Holy shit, you guys! It changed how I view dessert forever.) And more so than any other meal in recent memory, we felt inspired.

Chef René Redzepi and his entire team (and they are many but still relatively small for the amount of work they do) do an amazing job, and I don't know where they get what seems to be the boundless energy to keep firing on all cylinders. It has been a week since the conference and a few days since Noma and I am still in awe.

Omid & Alannah at Noma, Copenhagen

This is not, of course, to disparage any of the other amazing meals we had on this or past trips to Copenhagen. The hype is for real not only about Noma but about the city. We may live in what people consider to be the "culinary capital of the world" in Paris, but it has been our trips eating and drinking in Scandinavia – and the CPH in particular – where we have had an inordinately high number of amazing meals and "wow" moments, whether at fancy Michelin-starred tasting menu joints or casual walk-ins. (This is not a food blog, so I won't bother listing every place that tickled us on the inside!) We've made some bad choices here and there, for sure, but krone for krone (and believe me, you can spend a lot of kroner) this is one fantastic eating and drinking town. And you better believe I'll be back.

I'd previously half-joked about wanting to move to Copenhagen. After several trips this has become less of a joke and more of a crazy pipe dream – but still quite silly especially since we haven't experienced winter there. But there's good reason Monocle has ranked it as the world's most livable city.

For now, though, I plan on continuing to visit. After all, Emperor Norton has yet to complete its conquest of Paris, and we still have a lot of growing up to do before expanding the empire. (Har har.)


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