Chefs are everywhere – on our TVs, on our coffee tables, on the covers of our magazines, mostly flogging their restaurants and their recipes. But pioneering Danish chef René Redzepi, of Copenhagen’s restaurant Noma, wants them to start using this ubiquity to change the world for the better. This weekend the Noma team held the inaugural MAD Foodcamp Symposium in a red-and-blue circus tent on a patch of urban wasteland on the outskirts of the city’s harbour, part of a larger food festival they had laid on for the general public.
“This symposium is about planting ideas. We all need to learn more about the food we eat, and about the people who provide it,” said René in his opening speech, a message that was comprehensively underscored by the likes of legendary food science writer Harold McGee (who instructed us henceforth to “slap” our mint leaves, rather than chop them – it’s a long story); Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute (talking about future food systems); and Molly Jahn, chosen by President Obama to lead the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change (on how making global food production sustainable is going to require a moral revolution similar to that which saw the end of the slave trade). The Italian neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso managed to convince a sceptical audience of chefs and food writers that plants are sentient, and there were also more practically orientated talks from foragers telling us how to tell our meadowsweet from our melilot.
There were chefs galore, including Ferran Adria’s heir, Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz; the legendary French chef – and Redzepi’s great hero – Michel Bras; and Momofuku’s David Chang, who gave a very learned talk on the kind of bacteria we want in food. Fast-rising Swedish star Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken left his fellow chefs slack-jawed when he explained how he managed to supply his restaurant, which is snow-bound for a large part of the year, solely with local produce. Other speakers talked about how chefs can affect great social change: such as Lebanese farmers’ market pioneer, Kamal Mouzawak, and Peru’s leading chef (and rumoured future president) Gastón Acurio, who closed the symposium by speaking via an interpreter about his impressive new culinary centre being built in Lima.
The highlight for many was New Zealand-born chef Ben Shewry, whose Melbourne restaurant Attica is pioneering the use of foraged produce in that part of the world. Perhaps most gratifying of all for Redzepi, both Shewry and his fellow speaker, Brazilian chef Alex Atala – who forages for produce in the Amazon rainforest and is widely considered the best chef in South America – are proving that Noma’s “local, seasonal, sustainable” model has global potential.