My father, a Muslim immigrant in Denmark, has had all the typical working-class jobs. He’s lugged heavy crates as a greengrocer, driven people around Copenhagen at night in taxis. He has cleaned piles of dirty glasses and espresso cups. In fact, it was whilst washing plates that he met my mother, a cashier at the same cafeteria.
When I turned fifteen, I left school having failed to make the minimum grade. With little direction I enlisted at the neighbourhood culinary school. Here the academic demands were less rigorous. For instance, one of the more challenging questions on my final exam was to name ‘soft-boiled egg’ in several languages (for the record, I came up with three and passed). Kitchen work at that time was considered menial labour; perhaps if a cook became skilled enough he might be called a craftsman, but he would never be valued for his contribution in the same way as a lawyer or an architect is. We were merely the ones that fed them.
Twenty years later, I’m still a chef, but the public perspective of our profession is very different. No longer are we thought of as simple labourers chopping carrots in sweaty, dangerous kitchens, never seeing the light of day. The traditional distinctions that define and dictate what we do and our place in society have become blurred. We chefs now have responsibilities that transcend our knife skills.
Chefs have a new opportunity – and perhaps even an obligation – to inform the public about what is good to eat, and why. But we ourselves need to learn much more about issues that are critical to our world: culinary history, native flora, the relationship between food and food supply systems, sustainability and the social significance of how we eat.
It was in the hope of extending that education that, a couple of years ago, some colleagues and I began to think about staging an open, collaborative forum dedicated to the changing role of the chef. Taking as our reference points the Glastonbury Music Festival or Denmark’s own Roskilde – both grassroots celebrations where inspiration and quality of content trumps commercial interests – we wanted to organise the culinary analogy: an outdoor festival fuelled by a devotion to food and a desire to understand it better.
On the last weekend of August 2011, years of thought, patience and persistence become reality at the first MAD Symposium, as we brought together farmers, scholars, foragers and chefs to talk about where we are and educate each other about where we can go. Somewhere we could all learn together in an enjoyable and relaxed environment, building on past experience and creating new combinations of gastronomic knowledge for the future.
The Symposium pulled together the audience into what we hope will be a long-lasting and growing community of people who are mindful about the food they cook and eat. Understanding and treating our produce with care is an obvious step if we hope to produce the finest taste, but it is also necessary to provide the next generation with a solid foundation.
We recognise that the modern chef is faced with challenges and responsibilities that go far beyond supplying simple sustenance for the duration of a single meal and want the chefs who attend the Symposium to return to their kitchens and reflect on what they have seen and heard; the new questions we now know to ask, to become more inquisitive and imaginative.
New knowledge not only makes us more responsible, it can also make us more creative, more socially engaged, with a fresh understanding and the tools to consider the cultural, historical, social and scientific context of the food all of us cook and serve every day. This Symposium, this format of collaboration, is one way of setting a new educational standard amongst ourselves, one that goes beyond simply naming soft-boiled eggs.