Highlights from Rene Redzepi's MAD Syd 2016

Chefs Rene Redzepi, Kylie Kwong, Massimo Bottura and David Chang spoke at the sold-out MAD Syd event.
Chefs Rene Redzepi, Kylie Kwong, Massimo Bottura and David Chang spoke at the sold-out MAD Syd event. Photo: James Brickwood

In 2011, when the first MAD Symposium began in Copenhagen, organisers had to cope with a muddy field and a collapsing tent. Rene Redzepi's inaugural Australian spin-off, MAD Syd, took place on April 3 in less shoe-ruining circumstances. Unfolding on a sunny day after the chef staged the last service of his Noma Australia pop-up, it's apt that the event was at the Sydney Opera House - an icon by another Dane that changed the way people looked at Australia. 

Billed as a day of talks on tomorrow's meal, MAD Syd is named after the Danish words for food and south, with the handy double-meaning of 'Syd' standing in for its location. The line-up was truly diverse, spanning from Zimbabwean farmer and food activist Chido Govera to serial multi-tasker David Chang (chef, restaurateur, publisher, delivery-app mastermind). 

Here are some of the perspectives raised at the event. 

We should embrace native foods - like the 'citrus caviar' of finger lime - says chef Clayton Donovan.
We should embrace native foods - like the 'citrus caviar' of finger lime - says chef Clayton Donovan. 

Sameness is plaguing our diets

"It doesn't matter where you are in the world, you eat something and you close your eyes and you don't know where you are in the world and you don't even know what season you're in anymore," said Redzepi. "On any given Monday, throughout the year, we eat the same thing – avocado smash." 

This, understandably, got a laugh, from those suffering menu fatigue from seeing that brunch staple in cafes everywhere. The Noma chef also inserted a joke about the recent avocado prize frenzy. "$6 for an avocado, come on!"

Macadamia was one of the few Australian ingredients the Noma team could find in supermarkets.
Macadamia was one of the few Australian ingredients the Noma team could find in supermarkets. 

Restaurants will get more specific

Chang predicted that "the smaller casual diner is going to become more fractured", and that we would see more specialisation, like in Singapore and Malaysia, where there is a proliferation of eateries dedicated to one dish alone. 

Chang also forecast that the meal of tomorrow will be about "more amalgamation", with the border-tangled results "fusing into something we've never seen before". He added: "I think that the future, though, will be less delicious in order for it to be more sustainable."


Native produce needs to go mainstream

Indigenous chef Clayton Donovan paid tribute to the versatility of bush foods - showing how a finger lime, when broken in half becomes "a beautiful natural spear" and is a "citrus caviar" that can play along with the entire food spectrum. 

And while grateful for the centre-stage spotlight that Redzepi gave indigenous produce at Noma Australia, he said introducing native foods to the everyday diet was key to advancing the progress made.

Kids should be foragers

Billy Kwong's crispy salt bush cakes with chilli sauce: a unique hybrid of native ingredients and Kylie Kwong's Chinese ...
Billy Kwong's crispy salt bush cakes with chilli sauce: a unique hybrid of native ingredients and Kylie Kwong's Chinese heritage. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Redzepi lamented how disconnected people had become from food, seasonality and the environment. So his MAD non-profit organisation will launch a project in 2017 that will change the curriculum for Danish schoolkids - to reconnect students to the land. "The dream is that every single school child in the world will be a forager, just like they learn their ABCs and their math."

Australia has 2000 edible items from the plant kingdom, but the Noma crew could only find two truly "Australian" foods in our supermarkets

They were Fosters beer and macadamia nuts. When Redzepi quizzed a macadamia farmer about the flavour of the nut's bark, root, flowers and wood smoke, the farmer admitted to having no idea about any of those aspects. Not being anchored down by typical ways of doing things and having an outsider's fresh perspective has definitely proved advantageous to both Redzepi and Chang when considering what Australian cuisine could be.   

Massimo Bottura in the kitchen.
Massimo Bottura in the kitchen. 

There is probably a novel in Kylie Kwong's dramatically rich menu

From red-braised caramelised wallaby tail to crispy salt bush cakes, the Billy Kwong chef-owner has authored a one-of-a-kind cuisine inspired by both Australia's ancient landscape and the heritage of her Chinese great-grandfather, who came here during the gold rush (and lived here with his four wives and their 24 children, all under the same roof). 

Community is an unshakeable part of making food 

Kwong also spoke of her "black period" - losing her son Lucky, who was stillborn. Her dark, all-consuming grief was tough to escape from - but what drew her out, finally, was a sense of community, inspired by how the Quarmby family created the Outback Pride project in memory of their son Daniel, who died in a tragic car accident. 

"Tomorrow's meal, I believe, will always be found in celebration, collaboration and community," said Kwong.  

You can create a future from food waste

Chioda Govera began working at the age of seven in Zimbabwe, after she lost her mother to AIDS. Tomorrow's meal, she thinks, should "unlock the potential of everyone", particularly people like her who missed the chance to study, because they were busy trying to feed themselves. 

Instead of marrying a total stranger as a teenager (the "future" that was presented to her), she learnt how to farm mushrooms from the abundance of available food waste - a future-building act that she's been able to pass onto others, helping to feed 13 communities and support vulnerable children. 

"Cooking is a call to act" - Massimo Bottura

Judging by the many photo flashes and concert-loud cheers, Italian chef Massimo Bottura had the most celebrity-like reception. His address felt like a rock-star TED talk. The focus was Refettorio Ambrosiano, the star-powered soup kitchen he staged in Milan last year, with top chefs from around the world turning food waste into new meals for the disadvantaged and homeless.

"I've seen things that you people wouldn't believe! Alain Ducasse at 8.30am was unloading the truck with ugly eggplants and start chopping the eggplants in the kitchen. Ferran Adria in the kitchen – cooking!" Bottura told us theatrically. 

"65 friends from an all over the world turned 15 tonnes of food into 10,000 healthy, beautiful meals," said Bottura. The legacy of such a project is the existence of resourceful recipes such as chutney made from black banana peels - and potential spin-off projects in Rio and other Italian regions. 

The future could taste worse - or a lot better

Redzepi was asked if he believed that the future was going to taste "less delicious" as Chang had suggested. The Danish chef disagreed with Chang and predicted that we would see a movement towards small-scale, localised food systems – with "better flavour for sure".

There is more to food than what ends up in our shopping baskets

Social researcher Rebecca Huntley expressed that food security and food issues had to influence wider policies (health, housing, community, cities) and we couldn't continue our current approach of springing up blocks of apartments and placing a supermarket in them as a solution, or having Aldi next to the Coles as an example of "diversity". 

We still don't know what Australian food is

"Why is it so difficult to describe?" asked David Chang. 

Chang believes Australian food is really Asian food, even though "people will think I'm crazy" for making the claim. "Australia could ... be one of the best food cultures in the world," he said - we just had to embrace what it truly was. 

Huntley backed him up by saying it was our inability to acknowledge that we're an immigrant nation that's stopped us from realising this. We have been shaped by the "worst possible British food", and culturally-inappropriate dishes like hot puddings in summer.

Australian food, she said, "is a harmonious mixture of all the best people that have come to this country".