OpinionWeekend

How Food Stole the Avant-Garde: Letter From Copenhagen

P1020176
Chef Tatsuru Rai mixes buckwheat and water to make dough for soba (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Dear Art Friends,

It was my last day in Copenhagen and I had already been to the zoo and was rushing to a tasting of mummified roe deer, fried bee larvae and moth cheese. The taxi from the zoo stopped on the pier between Noma, hailed (by those in the know) as the number one restaurant in the world, and the Nordic Food Lab houseboat. I had been telling the bemused driver all about the past two days in the big red MAD4 tent. “Food is the new black!” he chortled as he waved goodbye and pulled away.

MAD4, in case you don’t know, is the fourth annual symposium of chefs, writers and thinkers organized by the Chef Rene Redezepi of Noma and his team. “Mad,” in case you don’t know, is also the Danish word for “food.” Noma, with Redzepi at its helm, has led the charge of the New Nordic Cuisine movement and the worldwide food foraging craze. Most of you will remember Noma quite famously served live ants in various dishes a few years back—from yogurt and rye bread twigs to beef tartar.

MAD4 took place in a this red circus tent on Refshaleøen, Copenhagen
MAD4 took place in a this red circus tent on Refshaleøen, Copenhagen

Given this background, it’s probably not surprising that there have been dramatic moments during the previous three MAD symposia. At MAD3, the Tuscan butcher, Dario Cecchini, gutted a pig carcass onstage and talked about the responsibilities of cooking and eating meat. At MAD2, the Nordic Food Lab served everyone in the tent three vials of edible (and deliciously flavored) insects while screening a battle scene from the giant-bug sci-fi movie Starship Troopers. Over the past four years, MAD has brought speakers to the tent to discuss farming, social justice, fermentation, climate change, deliciousness and insects as food. It endeavors to be nothing less than the vanguard of the food world. And it all happens on an island on Copenhagen’s harbor inside a red big top.

I’m not a fan girl. I don’t watch Food TV (or art TV). I don’t read the dining section (or the art section). I recognize nobody. I pass for autistic in a crowd of tall Nordic strangers. My fellow attendees pegged me as “not a professional cook” because of my manicure. “I’m a conceptual artist,” I would say by way of apology. What I didn’t tell them was that I was there spying for you, my art friends, trying to figure out if the food world had in fact become the new black; if the food world had stolen the role of cultural avant-garde from the artworld.

The snarky answer is “Maybe like painting, art and God, the avant-garde is dead,” (and the cult of TED killed it). The long answer is “It’s a smart-sounding question but perhaps irrelevant in the face of reality.” What is cooking but making something real that sustains us? Our pantries and our plates are a snapshot of our reality. Isn’t this what all culture should be? The conversation in the big top this year was not about “innovation” and “disruption,” but at its best and most interesting it was about a cook’s responsibility to the past, to the immediate and to the future. You can read the blow-by-blow accounts and listicles about the event on the foodie sites. Or better yet view the presentation videos on the MAD website. Let’s talk here about what was interesting for a member of both creative communities.

Chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out soba dough in silence while his wife, Midori and the entire tent watches
Chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out soba dough in silence while his wife, Midori, and the entire tent watches

MAD is a cozy two-day affair of speakers and feedings. One takes a chartered ferry from the mainland. On the other side, standing each morning at the entrance to the compound, was Redzepi and his co-organizer, Brazilian chef Alex Atala, waiting to greet each of us personally — to shake our hand or give us a hug. Personally. Each of us. Two of the top people in their field. I’m not a morning person so that was nice. I couldn’t help but imagine that happening at the opening of say, the Whitney Biennial. In defense of the Whitney’s seeming lack of hospitality, there’s only about 500 seats inside the big top. The total attendance was more like 650 people, including the organizers and speakers and entourages. It was intimate. It was dark in the tent. The music was very loud. There were hay bales and straw everywhere — inside and out. The first day it rained a lot. I still made sure to scope out the fire exits.

This year’s theme was projected on the big screen: “What is Cooking?”

Then it began. The music went off. Then the lights came up, and there was silence for the next twenty minutes as Chef Tatsuru Rai made soba from scratch: mixing and kneading, cutting, cooking the buckwheat (as he does in his restaurant to order). Then those of us in the peanut gallery drooled as his wife, Midori served the bowls to two lucky people in the front row.

What is Cooking? That, my friends, is cooking. We all went mad.

Chef Tatsuru Rai cuts the soba with a special knife
Chef Tatsuru Rai cuts the soba with a special knife

Towards the end of a morning of scholarly speakers (all of great interest, I might add), three-star Chef Pierre Koffman demonstrated his method for omelet making (two or three eggs and four tablespoons of butter), the first of several classic techniques that would punctuate the next day and a half. . It took less than three seemingly effortless minutes. “You’ve got to crack some eggs,” the organizers appeared to be telling us.

The rest of the symposium was filled with chefs and scholars, gardeners and restaurateurs, scientists and professional eaters, ex-cons and a Brazilian judge, along with fascinating casual chatter while waiting for the ferry, breakfast, lunch or the bathroom. All lubricated by Mikeller beer and the world’s best coffee. Eventually, the entire program will be made available free online by MAD. You’ll have to buy the beer yourself.

What I want to talk about, art friends, happened after lunch that first day. None of it was at all splashy. No pictures of man-sized chickens, fancy pasta shapes or extravagant banquet tables; just old rebels talking to the new rebels. A changing of the guard.

The military origins of the word avant-garde has never made sense to me in relation to the art world, but it does in relation to restaurants. Artists maybe good propaganda tools but the production kitchen is rife with military analogies and terms. Take, for instance, the blatantly military hierarchy of Georges Auguste Escoffier’s Brigade de Cuisine (strictly ordered ranks from the chef de cuisine, kitchen chef, down to the plongeur, dishwasher). Some have argued that this type of structure is needed when wielding knives and fire in close proximity. Canvas stretchers and MFA programs seem wimpy by comparison. I wonder if it is only within the confines of this sort of rigidity that the desire to rebel can be born. I wonder if that kind of rebellion is useful. And if only within the discipline of the Brigade de Cuisine can the call to action be truly effective.

Chef Tatsuru Rai drops handcut noodles in to boiling water
Chef Tatsuru Rai drops handcut noodles into boiling water

Imagine my confusion when Alain Senderens took the stage after lunch and spent a great deal of time talking about how pairing a specific glass of wine to each dish was a natural and obvious development of restaurant service. “OMG, this will never do. He’s mansplaining (chefsplaining?) to this audience,” I thought at first. Then it slowly dawned on me that this was the dude who started it all. OMG, this was THE Alain Senderens. If you don’t know, my art friends, he’s kind of a god. In the microcosm of the MAD tent, if the Michelin Guide were the Academie des Beaux-Arts, then Alain Senderens is Courbet. He is one of the architects of la Nouvelle Cuisine (along with Bocuse, the Troisgros, Gerard and others). He rejected the traditional dishes of 19th -century restaurant cuisine, akin to our tradition of history painting or Romanticism, for a type of Realism of the kitchen, a presentation without the heavy cloak of sauces and their cloying history. He earned three Michelin stars for his first Parisian restaurant, l’Archestrate, in 1978, then again with Lucas Carton in 1985. In 2005, quite famously, he returned his stars to Michelin, saying it was impossible to offer affordable food under the Michelin standard. The analogy with the Vendome Column will not be lost on you, my art friends.

For more than an hour Redezepi and his cohort of younger chefs (among them Alex Atala, David Chang, Niklas Ekstadt, Albert Adria) literally sat at Senderens’ feet and asked him for advice and wisdom. This is where the dangerous parlor game begins—the one I am surely qualified to lose. If Senderens is Courbet who are these young buccaneers sitting at his feet? Who is Picasso? Who is Manet? Who is Gauguin? Who is Johns? Who is Duchamp, Breton, Warhol, or Pollock? Is that chef a lesser-known Impressionist or a better-known Fauvist? Is this butcher Francis Bacon or Chaim Soutine? Shall I go on? The moment was overwhelming. It was tender, intimate and monumental. But like I’ve said, I’m not a fan girl or a scholar (somewhere I have a volume of Janson and I watched Iron Chef once when I had a TV).

Chef Olivier Roellinger talks about his seaside childhood and the spice trade
Chef Olivier Roellinger talks about his seaside childhood and the spice trade

After Senderens, Oliver Roellinger took the stage with his table of spices. A Breton chef from a long line of seafaring spice merchants, he spoke about his own natural path to rebellion: the inclusion of non-traditional flavors to the French technique and palette —the infusion of the world’s flavors to the French palate. Take his signature dish for instance, Saint-Pierre “Retour des Indes”: John Dory (a.k.a. Saint-Pierre or Peter’s Fish) steamed with seaweed then served in a coconut milk sauce inflected with a blend of spices including mace, star anise, coriander seeds, caraway, Sichuan pepper, clove, vanilla, and turmeric. Yum. I think that might make him Gauguin or maybe more like Matisse. He too gave back his three Michelin stars in 2008, citing personal reasons and the impossible standards. A generation younger than Senderens, he ended his presentation with a rousing call to action to the younger chefs in the tent. This was not simply a rejection of the academy or the staid restaurant world but a true battle charge — everything from fair wages for kitchen workers to leadership in the environmentalist forefront. In short, everybody eats, so those of us in the kitchen can change the world one stomach at a time. He’s kind of my hero. He hit it out of the park. Watch the last five minutes of his presentation and you’ll see what I mean.

So here’s what I would say to my taxi driver if the meter weren’t running: The revolution begins at the kitchen table. The desires of the artist and the chef are not so different: to nourish humans and perhaps hold up the mirror to those who consume our products. Change the world. There will always be a new black. But that is because black is eternal. It’s what fashion wants to be. Let’s reduce “the new” to fashion. Let’s call black “culture.” Black is never the old black. It just can’t be. Black is always the black. In this sense, food is always the black. Art is always the black. What is cooking? What is the avant-garde? MAD wants to change the world. What do we want to do, art friends?

I wish you had been there.

Love,

Elaine

P.S.: If you want to hear what happened the second day, you’ll have to buy me a drink.

comments (0)