It’s the evening of Thursday, Sept. 24. I’m standing next to Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway. Modern art abounds. Fur adorns each seating option. We are in the main room of fashion designer Lela Rose’s apartment, watching in awe as an already-set glass table is lowered from cables — as though from the heavens above — like a hockey rink scoreboard. Holloway and I are perhaps the tallest people at this cocktail hour, but even we feel dwarfed under the descending table.
As I sip a drink garnished with “absinthe-scented mint,” I’m scanning the room, contemplating Rose’s clientele (the Duchess of Cambridge, for one) and thinking about the team of chefs she has assembled. Clearly Rose is the one to contact if you ever need to throw a dinner party in Tribeca. Dan Barber, Roy Choi, Daniel Patterson, Daniel Boulud and Rene Redzepi are not necessarily household names — but take it from me that Rose has called to battle a five-man army of brilliant chefs, who boast a collective seven Michelin stars and the undivided attention of the culinary elite.
If you’ve ever eaten at a food truck, you owe that to Choi. If you’ve ever read “The Third Plate,” a treatise in favor of sustainable agriculture, you’re familiar with Barber. And if you’ve ever wondered, “What’s the best restaurant in the world?” the response would be “Noma,” the Copenhagen-based brainchild of Redzepi.
This dinner is inaugurating “MAD at Yale,” a series of seminars and classes beginning this summer that will turn chefs and food professionals into students. The venture is a collaboration between the Yale Sustainable Food Program and MAD, Redzepi’s nonprofit offshoot of Noma that focuses on food and culture in and beyond the kitchen.
Each diner paid thousands of dollars to attend. I didn’t stay for the dinner, but after mingling, it was quite clear that the guests were at least pretty interested in the partnership the dinner celebrated. This surprised me — I figured that the type of people eating at fancy restaurants or attending lavish fundraisers would be more concerned with the meal in front of them than, say, the sustainability of their scallops and grains.
Redzepi told me a few days later that his clientele are rarely interested in food’s far-reaching ramifications. But history professor Paul Freedman, faculty advisor to MAD at Yale, says that while the most revered chefs have historically been considered talented artisans, today they are seen as all-knowing changemakers — for better or worse.
“Chefs are asked their opinions on these things, whether we think they’re knowledgeable or not,” Freedman said. Even if they’re only situated at one node of a complex network, chefs are first responders to the gamut of questions about the “food system.” Why aren’t you doing more about food waste? Why are you serving Chilean sea bass? Why aren’t you purchasing locally?
“There’s a lot of tension in the very word ‘chef’ and what that means,” Redzepi told me.
What does “chef” mean, then? And what makes a hifalutin chef uniquely positioned to engage with larger food-related concepts that affect everyone? These are the questions MAD at Yale hopes to address.
The morning after Rose’s dinner party, the MAD team left Manhattan on a day trip to Yale, first stopping at the Yale Farm to announce the new collaboration. Local chefs, cooks and Yale students all gathered to greet Redzepi and company.
“We wanted to demonstrate to the MAD people and to Dean Holloway that there was a contingent of people that were really going to care about this,” said Anna Lipin ’18, who has worked with Freedman to help with the preliminary planning for MAD at Yale.
Noma investor Mark Blazer chatted with a couple of Yalies working on a food startup, as Redzepi could speak candidly with aspiring student-chefs. For Lipin, this initial meeting was microcosmic of the collaboration to come.
MAD at Yale will bring together six to eight chefs and “food leaders” from around the world. Participants will be able to exchange ideas with professors about the ways in which a variety of issues — sustainability, the natural sciences and politics among them — intersect with a chef’s trade. Yale students will be able to interact with, cook with and learn from chefs. Like Yale’s Global Fellows program, in which students help acclimate mid-career global leaders to campus, students will similar introduce chefs to Yale and its surroundings.
Freedman said that while initial attention will be on chefs, other food leaders and activists thinking about environmental issues, fisheries, indigenous foodways, immigration and globalization will have a seat at the seminar table.
Part of what makes MAD so exciting, Lipin said, is the collaboration between academics and chefs. She and Redzepi agreed that such partnerships are rare. Redzepi, who dropped out of high school at age 15, said that he had been taught that a class void separated his working-class trade and the “tweed-jacket” — if not white collar — reputation and status of the university. Redzepi told me about the “snob effect” that existed between the ivory tower and the restaurant.
“I thought [Yale] would be much more snobbish, but that doesn’t exist at all,” Redzepi said.
The walls between what he calls the “cooking community” and academia have become more permeable. To him, something has leveled out.
According to Lipin, this communion between academics and chefs would not have been possible without Freedman, the YSFP and a larger institutional respect for food and the study of food. MAD at Yale, she said, is an extension of the philosophy already present in the YSFP or in courses such as Freedman’s semi-regular lecture “The History of Food.”
Freedman recognizes that academics, when compared to chefs, also do not hold the answers to major global issues like world hunger, and that the social dynamic within MAD at Yale ought to be of conversation, and not stuffy, one-way lectures.
“Getting people to Yale so that chefs only learn stuff from the experts — that’s not the point,” he said. Freedman insists that academics have as much, or more, to learn as do chefs about food’s big problems.
To understand MAD, one must understand Noma. In 2003, as Yale students literally broke ground to start the Farm on Edwards Street, a waiter was smoothing the tablecloths for the first time at the newly opened restaurant in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn neighborhood.
Noma is best known for putting “New Nordic Cuisine” on the map under Redzepi’s direction — a dramatic rethinking of the traditional flavors and forms of Nordic cuisine (think hearty breads, hunks of ground meat and seafood fresh from the sound, all stripped down to their most acoustic versions). Most ingredients come from within Nordic borders; locality is sacrosanct (although it must be noted that Redzepi takes issue with even defining something as “local”).
The seasons beget what is on the menu. Foraged foods are focal points. The kitchen is a laboratory. Noma’s meticulous approach to cuisine has earned it the title of “best restaurant in the world” from Restaurant Magazine for four of the past five years — 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014 — and from a spate of other publications over the same time span.
“We’ve transformed from this tiny gourmet palace to opening up our world to different fields and research,” Redzepi said. Today, he added, Noma is a “place to explore food culture, but through the lens of a restaurant.” A restaurant alone, however, could no longer sustain such energy, so Redzepi started MAD to address the spillover.
Since 2011, MAD has hosted the annual MAD Symposium, a place where chefs, practitioners and academics come together in a lollapalooza of discussing how to move toward “making a better meal.” (Think “Great Big Ideas,” the fabled college seminar, but all about food.) All chefs cooking at the fundraiser dinner — save for Patterson — are alumni speakers of the event. Two years ago, Freedman himself presented a history of the celebrity chef at the festival.
Redzepi first interacted with Yale when he visited in 2011 to speak in the Program in Agrarian Studies’ yearly seminar series. Since then, Yale students have gone to work at the Redzepi-founded Nordic Food Lab.
Lipin noted that Redzepi realizes the power he holds in his profession, and that he wants to wield it responsibly. For his part, Redzepi believes he can realize the grand ambitions of the MAD brand with Yale’s resources at hand.
“I think we will unleash a generation of super, super chefs that will cook better than ever, be better business people than ever and will be strong community leaders within their food world,” he said. “At the end of the day, everybody should be doing something to make any situation within their world better.”
That’s Redzepi’s answer: He doesn’t think that being a chef should preclude him from leaving a place, or profession, better than he found it.
As Redzepi revealed his new collaboration at Yale, his restaurant back home is in transition. Last month, he announced that Noma would close at the end of next year and reopen in a different part of Copenhagen, this time with an urban farm — one about the size of Yale’s own farm.
“I think one of the interesting parts of actually going and having an urban farm is to see what you can produce in a city environment — in a raised bed, and in a greenhouse and on a raft in a lake,” Redzepi said. An urban farm takes the notion of “local” food and injects it with steroids.
Pointing to parsley growing at the Yale Farm, Redzepi tells me that he wants to know how to maximize that parsley’s flavor: what the perfect combination of soil, water and air is. Ever the chef, flavor is his guiding principle, the holy grail at the end of his pursuit for that better meal.
This is part of his theory of change. For change to occur within the food system, he says, food needs to taste delicious.
“When I talk about things I dream of, it’s places like our part of the world where any flavor will convince people of positive change,” he said. For Redzepi, urban farming is as much a common-sense, if unconventional, way to grow food as it is an exhilarating challenge.
“Why not?” he asks.
“MAD” is named as such because it’s the Danish word for food. Redzepi claims its English meaning, however, is intentional — this “why not” attitude conjures an image of a mad scientist, mixing potions as complicated as the mixed drink I held in Lela Rose’s dining room, in ways never before imagined. This is the spirit with which MAD at Yale will begin come next June. How it precipitates remains to be seen.