Sunday, July 8, 2012

Are we MAD? Yes we are! Reflections on Day 2 of MAD Food Camp

Ferran Adria burning down the house at MAD Food Camp
Considering the theme of MAD Food Camp was appetite, the first day’s speakers certainly whetted the audience’s appetite. In the words of one chef, Josh Pollen of London’s Blanch and Shock, day two was only bound to be “massively epic.” With heavyweight speakers Wylie Dufrense, Nordic Food Lab, Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, and Ferran Adrià, listeners had no excuses.
Chido Govera
But before any of the speakers began, René Redzepi paid to tribute to Spain – Spain’s soccer team, that is. Busting out a giant picture of the Spanish flag, Redzepi asked the audience to listen to the Spanish national anthem – probably much to the consternation of Massimo Bottura. But the start of day two was not about games. In what was probably the most poignant talk of the entire symposium, Chido Govera talked about hunger, memory and the will to do differently. Govera, a young Zimbabwean, was orphaned at the age of seven. Left to take care of younger brother and grandmother, Govera learned to forage for mushrooms from her grandmother. Saved from forced marriage by her own decision, she was fortunate enough to be chosen for a pilot project on fungiculture. Taught how to cultivate mushrooms using agricultural waste, Govera skills provided her money and food for not only supporting her own family, but also other orphans in her community. Using her story, she has not only taught fungiculture to other disadvantaged youth, but also started her own business to fund her development projects across the Africa and even in Oakland, California. But what does this do with appetite? In what could be said as an inspiration to the world, “Appetite lets us look inward and bring it outside to make change with what we have.” 
"It was a shitshow" Oh boy. Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese
Hope was also the message of Anthony Myint and Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food.  In only what could be a described as a fairy-tale which even made St. John Bread and Wine head chef Lee Tiernan cry, Myint and Bowien told the story of Mission Chinese Food. Myint, then a line cook in San Francisco, “didn’t know what I (Myint) wanted to do with my cooking career. As I often do in moments of uncertainty, I ate a taco.” And thus the story of Mission Chinese Food was born. First starting with a food truck and then renting space from a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant for the princely sum of 300 dollars a day, Bowien and Myint started cooking food in a cramped kitchen, also shared with the still running Chinese restaurant. It wasn’t easy. As Myint and Bowien put it mildly, “It was a shitshow.” After doing their own cooking for a stint, Myint and Bowien would then sponsor guest chefs at the restaurant. As each night was a “logistical nightmare,” both Myint and Bowien thought that maybe “failure was an option.” After closing the restaurant for a month, Bowien and Myint reincarnated themselves as Mission Chinese Food. Like other Chinese restaurants, Bowien and Myint hired local Chinese immigrants to be staff. Unlike local Chinese restaurants, they paid their workers living wage and donated a large part of their profits to charity: one year alone, $130,000 dollars was donated to the San Francisco Food Bank. Using their appetite for good food and social justice, Bowien and Myint’s story proved that Cinderella can go to the ball… even with Szechuan peppercorns.
As several speakers noted, part of understanding appetite is understanding science. In studying the memory of meals, Dr. Paul Rozin examined the psychology of memorable meals and his findings should make restaurants take notice. After surveying diners in America, Rozin asked “Why should be serving dessert at the end of meals if it’s not our favorite dish?” (Sorry, pastry chefs.) The key to memorable meals is in the physical ordering and structure of meals. Foods that are novel, food order (quick survey of Mad Food Camp participants found that majority liked appetizers the most), and communality all affect our experience with meals. But are chefs willing to incorporate those elements into planning meals? Are we missing a certain vocabulary about how we understand the meaning of food?
In challenging conceptions, the Nordic Food Lab’s Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen presented the world of edible “inedibles” – namely insects.  In a world where food security has become paramount concern of policy makers, environmentalists and governments, why aren’t we eating more “inedibles”? For Nordic Food Lab, that question is one of the reasons to go wildvore. But the other major concern? Deliciousness. “Deliciousness is the driving force of edibility.” Distributing a little bag filled with live ants, bee larvae and a fish sauce of garum and grasshoppers, “Everything is edible, just some things have consequences.” Luckily for us (and any future diners at Noma), the ants, bee larvae and grasshoppers happen to be delicious and can create unique flavor palates.  So why aren’t we eating more ants, grubs, and grasshoppers? “Only prejudice can make it taste bad.”
Science. For any occasion. Wylie Dufrense of WD-50
And speaking of prejudices, there are the chefs who just aren’t interested in science. To those who think as such, Wylie Dufrense of WD-50 has a message for you: “There are many people outside the kitchen with much more knowledge than chefs. We have to learn from them too.” For Dufrense the appetite for knowledge came out of a curiosity to know how and why chefs cook. Going through the motions is not good enough: “Understanding the processes and having more knowledge about the ‘whys’ helps us (chefs) to do our jobs better.”  But lest anyone think that Dufrense is just a scientist, he also emphasized the personal and creative aspect of chefs. How can that be expressed? With humor. But in the end? “Whoever knows the most wins…Let’s keep knowing. Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep cooking.”
But that humor bit? Leave it to Mr. and Mrs. St. John to provide it. Sitting down on two hay bales with a nice bottle of red, Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver of St. John Bar and Restaurant in London.  What do these refined gentlemen have to say about appetite?  Fergus said it best: “I am a prisoner of appetite. I have a lunch habit.” But in terms of where that appetite comes from? It’s from diners. That is where the force is. But in terms of a restaurateur? Trevor tells it like it is: “A good restaurant will take five or six years. You have to have an appetite to hang on while you build that.”  To wit, Fergus suggested that “chefs have to be Jedi knights, or rather, Jedi chefs.” But most importantly, the message was one of humility – and a good bon mot.
The St. John Show: Fergus Henderson & Trevor Gulliver
Adria explains the entire culinary universe...on a flipboard
But in what was probably the most anticipated talk of the entire symposium, Ferran Adrià took the stage. Considering the circumstances, it was a miracle that he appeared at all: “For 18 months, I (Adrià) swore I would never go to another chef symposium. I swear. But I came. And I want to explain why.” In what may seem as a surprise to many, Adrià explained from 1994 to 2008, El Bulli never made any money. But it was never the point: “I got into cooking because I like the challenge of creativity, to forge new paths. I never searched for success, but happiness.”  Creating that happiness takes a lot of work. In probably the only statistical demonstration using grapes, Adrià pointed to the miniscule population interested in avant-garde cuisine-in a grape seed. “What’s a grape seed? It’s nothing! But if you put it in the ground, it grows.” But that growth is one that takes hard work, dedication and creativity. And creativity does not come automatically. It’s a capricious beast: “If you want to play at the Noma/El Bulli level, know that creativity has no compassion, no matter how passionate the chef.”  But ultimately it is not just one chef that makes a great restaurant. For Adrià, “El Bulli is not made by Ferran Adrià. El Bulli is bigger than any of us.” And in what could only be a tribute to the 2000 staff that came through the restaurant, Adrià reminded all of us what it’s all about: “The human side of this symposium is always with human values - ethics, honesty, happiness and justice – and you.”  If Ferran Adrià and El Bulli are any indication of the manifestation of those ideas, the world is going to be a better – and happier – place for it. 
Cross-posted at The Daily Meal.