If you know me, you know about my extreme interest in Denmark. While my fascination with Danish culture can sometimes be frivolous (what’s cuter than Scandinavian children in bright colored clothing?), it’s most often driven by an admiration for their innovative design and creative society. Many parts of the culture go beyond interesting to inspirational, and it’s in this later category that chef Rene Redezepi falls.
When we saw Redzepi in 2010, I wrote that one quote of his stayed with me days later:
"Whether we like it or not, what we eat effects how the world looks."
For the past two years, Redzepi has taken his intense, obsessive interest in cuisine and its accompanying role in culture and ecology, and applied it to the creation and implementation of MAD Food Symposium.
For Redzepi, cooking goes well beyond knife skills and flavorful dishes. He, like so many chefs scattered around our country and the world, feel that they have a role, a calling almost, to shepherd the dining public into an awareness of the food they're eating: why they're eating it, why it was cooked in a certain way, and from where it's sourced. Yet Redzepi, in person and in the articles I've read, has never claimed to have definitive answers to complicated food questions. He's a lifetime learner with an important calling: to disseminate information that will help create a society of informed, in-touch diners (and thus, citizens).
Redzepi recognizes that “we” (in this he means any food professional) need to learn more about many food issues: culinary history, food systems, sustainability, and the social implications of food. This recognition inspired Redzepi to create the MAD Symposium, a conference that calls on farmers, chefs, journalists, and academics to listen, present, and challenge each other, with the hope that each will leave the week-long event with a new sense of creativity and awareness.
Redzepi has tasked himself with challenging goals--not only how to make a conference interesting, but how to make it career-inspiring or even career-altering. Both last year and this year, he invited multiple people to speak, with this year’s theme being "appetite". I can't speak as an attendee, but from watching videos of some of the talks, even without participating in the discussions or feeling the palpable energy in the room, I found myself especially engaged with two videos.
The first video I watched features Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a constant companion in my kitchen and many conversations about food. Fearnley-Whittingstall is the founder of River Cottage, which along with a slew of informative, conscientious cookbooks, educates consumers on how to cook, how to source, and how to be an aware consumer. Fearnley-Whittingstall is a tenacious believer in responsible eating; his latest cause centers around fish. In January 2011, after learning that half of the fish caught in the North Sea were being discarded as a result of fish quotas, Fearnley-Whittingstall launched a campaign to try and change those laws (and learn more specifically what was happening).
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s talk at MAD details the rationale behind fish quotas and his ideas on how to improve the current system. He argues that the main change needs to come in the way fish are targeted: the current system allows fishermen to catch anything and then sort it out later (read: discard dying, unwanted fish back into the sea). But he also doesn't want to advocate for a system that simply shifts the process of discarding fish at sea to discarding fish on land.
As he says:
We have a greater volume of ethically aware and sustainably aware consumers than ever before. But fighting against that, we also have an expanding global population. The problem is not food availability, but rather food distribution, and frankly, methods of production. Food sustainability ultimately is food ethics, because if we tear the world apart in pursuit of short profits from short-term investment crops, we are heading towards a massive crisis at some point. It's so important that anyone who regards food as anything other than a fuel, and even those who see it only as that, accept that there are massive changes that are needed now in food production across the world.
The other video I want to highlight is Dan Barber's talk on wheat. Again, I've written much about Blue Hill at Stone Barns. And you can assume correctly that I sought out these two videos both from an interest in their topics, and from a great respect for what these two men have each done for awareness of conscientious eating--and the inspiring strides they continue to make.
Barber's latest area of interest centers around wheat. Working with plant geneticist Dr. Steve Jones, he's developed a new wheat variety that he's currently growing and milling at Stone Barns. Until this research, Barber never considered growing wheat, instead being an unwilling participant in a system that forced him to cook with 'dead wheat' from diluted soils. When faced when a complicated question, Barber tackles that question from the very root (in this case, the history of wheat) and investigates through the very end (developing a new variety and growing his own wheat), not stopping until each stone is unturned.
Barber’s research on wheat reminded him of how wheat is not unlike any other crop. Just as his carrots, lettuces, and broccoli need the best soil, so does wheat. Barber's discussion of wheat quickly developed into a discussion of soil, arguing to treat soil like a bank account: if you withdraw something (a food and with it, minerals and nutrients), you need to make a deposit (a complimentary food, a cover crop, manure) to ensure that the soil is self-sustaining.
In the 1960s, wheat was changed from a crop with multiple varieties and tastes, into a monoculture, grown in isolation with chemical fertilizers. With this change came erosion and a decline in diversity and flavor. Barber points out that when you're farming, you're not just feeding the plant, you're feeding the soil. And if you bypass the soil to feed the plant, you're creating a temporary fix with disastrous long term problems. (An argument which echoes Fearnley-Whittingstall’s discussion about throwing out perfectly edible fish or overfishing a certain species). When we eat food, we need to think about flavor and preparation, of course, but we also need to grow or farm that flavor in a way that ensures the flavor will remain and develop for years to come.
Barber ends his talk with the question (and call to action): "Chefs-are we to remain in the kitchen or are we ambassadors for so much more?"
We can ask ourselves the same question as home cooks and restaurant consumers.
If you have 25 minutes, be sure to watch one of the videos in its entirety. Or visit the MAD video section for a much larger selection of thought-provoking talks.