Thursday, July 5, 2012

Chewing on Thoughts: Day 1 of MAD Food Camp 2012

Hosts with the mosts. Rezepi and staff greeting MAD hatters to food camp


After much anticipation and Twitter buzz, René Redzepi’s second annual MAD Food Camp started in Copenhagen yesterday, Sunday, July 1, with giant balloons set afloat in the middle of the audience at the start of the program. The two-day symposium brings together chefs, food purveyors, scientists, and writers under a common theme. While last year’s symposium centered on vegetation and its various iterations, this year’s theme looks toward a more bodily concern: appetite.
"We need appetite to make our lives better," said Redzepi. Yes we do, but how?

According to the day’s first speaker, noted Danish science writer Tor Nørretranders, the answer to Redzepi’s question lies in re-examining our relationship to the natural world. "The sad story of vegetation and gastronomy is that we eat so few species," he said, "[in spite of the fact that] the world is edible everywhere you look." For Nørretranders, our inability to use our innate sense of appetite has diminished our own relationship to nature and the environment. How to correct the situation? By thinking with our stomachs and demanding more from our natural selves and of nature itself.
Rodderick Sloan: Fisherman Extraordinaire

No one knows this better than fisherman Roderick Sloan and butter-maker Patrik Johansson. Purveyors to Noma and other restaurants, both say that it was the appetites of diners and chefs that allowed them to re-engage with their own natures. Diving into Arctic waters to supply Noma and other restaurants with impeccable sea urchins, Sloan has an almost preternatural knowledge of ocean terroir that provides him a living even in the harshest conditions. For Johansson, making butter provided a conduit into a lifestyle that allowed himself and his family to return to the country in rural Sweden after years of being an IT consultant. "We’re kind of hippies with a Michelin edge," Johansson says.
Me and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

But what happens when we abuse nature? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage chef, food writer, and activist, explored this theme in describing the vast problems of fish by-catch rules, by which half of the fish hauled in by trawlers, much of it edible, must legally be thrown back into the sea dead. Calling overfishing and the wasteful practice of fish discards as one of "the fixable problems we have," Fearnley-Whittingstall called on chefs to use think about how can aid social conscience in creating better food: "I think food is always more delicious when we feel good about it."

On the other hand, David Chang explored what seems to many the epitome of artificiality: MSG, or monosodium glutamate. But for Chang, MSG is not banned in his vocabulary or his kitchen. In describing the role of glutamates in creating umami, the so-called "fifth taste," Chang blasted a food culture that vilifies one particular ingredient on the basis of unsubstantiated knowledge: "If MSG is so bad for us, then why don’t we question why it is so bad for us?" Noting that "All data suggest that MSG is not harmful for you," Chang squarely put the blame on cultural misunderstandings of science and flavor for wiping out what he believes is one of the pillars of good food.
David Chang

But culture and tradition do not have to be the enemies of cooking. It depends what how you use it. For Massimo Bottura, the famed chef of the Michelin-three-star Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, culture is a motivating force in cuisine. "Culture is awareness," he said. However, culture should not be hidebound. In describing the boiled meat dish bollito misto, Bottura asked, "Are we so sure that tradition respects the ingredients?" It is precisely that tension in culture that allows the chef to push the boundaries of cuisine as an emotional lever between past and present, tradition and modernity. And as if to take a wink and a nod to those cultural notions of food, Massimo presented a film short with a rather macabre take on tortellini.



And there is no tradition that respects tradition as much as the Japanese kaiseki meal. But for chef Shinichiro Takagi, of the celebrated Zeniya in Kanazawa, on Japan's western coast, the traditions of kaiseki allow for a highly personalized culinary conversation between food and nature. When a diner makes a reservation at Zeniya, Takagi asks as much about the diner’s personal journey to Japan as he does their food preferences. It is this personal touch combined with 500 years of tradition that allows for a unique culinary journey through time and space.
Dan Barber and a picture of Dr. Stephen Jones experimental farm


For Westerners, no food carries so much cultural weight as bread. In the last talk of the day, Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill restaurants in New York City and at Stone Barns in New York's Westchester County, asked why and how did wheat get the shaft? In an examination of the standardization of wheat, the monoculture, and its impact on flavor, Barber described his relationship with plant scientist Dr. Stephen Jones in breeding a wheat variety that was both flavorful and environmentally sound. Challenging chefs, he threw a gauntlet on the table: "This farm-to-table movement is the wrong way to think about it. We need to do more. We need to engage with people like Steve. None of Steve’s work matters unless it’s tied to cuisine." Chefs can and must be the instigators of change in this world. And tomorrow will be another day at MAD Food Camp to see how it’s done.
 
This has been cross-posted on The Daily Meal