Think of it like a TED Conference for chefs: more casual—René Redzepi, David Chang, and José Andrés have presented barefoot or in flip-flops—but just as serious. MAD5 ("Mad" is the Danish word for "food") is Redzepi's non-profit organization that aims to improve food worldwide, and every year or two they host a symposium where chefs and cooks congregate and let ideas about food and cooking circulate and stew. In late August, Seattle's John Sundstrom was one of about 60 chefs invited to Copenhagen to present on this year’s theme: Tomorrow’s Kitchen.
So you just got back from presenting at MAD5. What was your topic?
Mine was called “Keeping It Real: Connecting Without Compromise" I had everyone who attended write a dream menu with ingredients I listed but with no other restrictions. And then it was like maybe you're the chef of a restaurant with a wide clientele, families, tourists, and how would you change that menu to appeal to that crowd? The third menu was somewhere in between. The idea was to get people to think of the language they use when they write their menu, did they give a lot of description, did they talk about the farms the work with—find a way to still stay connected to your guests but stay true to your vision as a chef.
Did you get to interact with anybody notable?
There was a keynote speaker or two each day, so Jacques Pépin and Claudine did a little demo Saturday, and then you had like René and Alex Atala and David Chang sitting down to talk, great people telling stories about restaurant life. Everything hinged on how do we make this work for us as owners and chefs? How do you keep from getting burned out and how do you find new staff?
There’s a woman who used to work at Noma has a taco restaurant now in Copenhagen called Hija de Sanchez. And she did a guest chef thing where Alex Atala was making tacos with her. I knew about that from Instagram and went early and got some of the first tacos and met Alex.
What’s the mood there like?
René made a point of saying, “Hey, there are a lot of well-known people here, and it’s easy to be star struck, but just come up and say hi to people. The idea is just to make connections and step outside of your comfort zone a little bit.” It was very fun and democratic in that sense.
And they fed us really well… A super Nordic seafood feast, this really killer southern lunch, and the final dinner was by the chefs from Amass and Relae—they did this big feast with all kinds of crazy stuff.
Which presentations were the most inspiring or had the biggest impression on you?
Carlo Petrini, the head of Slow Food, gave a very passionate and intense talk about how chefs and restaurants are at the intersection of economy, environment, culture. Chefs have an unprecedented reach in terms of people wanting to hear what we do, and he was like, “It’s your job to start fixing things. There are food systems that are broken, international corporations are hijacking our heritage….” It was intense, but super inspiring. The general idea was to start with your own house.
Part of that is chefs need to find a way to balance so they can have a home life, but also their restaurant family and that dovetailed into the wage discussions we’re having in the US, and it turns out the same thing is happening all over the world. A lot of ideas about finding a way to balance things out. You know, your ten-year prep cook should be just as valuable as a server in terms of what they get paid. You know, paid vacations, healthcare—all these things should become normal in our business.
So a lot of things that are going on here. What do you think tomorrow’s Seattle kitchen will look like?
Mark Canlis was there, and we agreed to take a little time to absorb everything and get together hopefully this fall and talk about what can we do to rally the Seattle restaurant community around some of these ideas. And maybe just to spend more time together. It was clear that it was a very tight-knit community amongst these Nordic restaurants.
It seems like the industry here isn’t especially cutthroat.
Seattle is growing and at some point things might get a little more intense. I do think we’ve got a great community. Mark and I were saying there are a half dozen or so restaurants that are really the leaders and we feel like it’d be great to tackle some of these big issues as a group. We all just get really busy but it’d be nice to connect on level that’s more fun too. Maybe we get together and throw a dinner and hang out, just having time to deepen the connection among chefs in Seattle.