I recently spoke to Ali Khurshat Altinsoy at Mesamerica in Mexico City about how they were all gearing up for this years event and am posting my interview with him.
Ali Khurshat Altinsoy is the curator of the annual MAD Symposium held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Ali entered the food industry while working as an investment banker who invested heavily (personally) in dining experiences which included 20 at Noma itself. This Warwick university graduate of Turkish/Cypriot heritage wears many hats, contributing to food publications, traveling the world to eat and meet chefs and cooks, organizing the symposium, vetting the speakers, and is also Rene Redzepi’s right hand since 2011. Being avowed food enthusiasts we constantly bump into each other at Tickets in Barcelona one day and Quintonil in Mexico a few weeks later.
MAD symposium, or MAD4, is taking place on August 24th and 25th this year and is one of the most highly anticipated food related events of 2014. It is no surprise that the limited tickets are sold out within days of going on sale. In a recent conversation with the London born and bred Altinsoy and his clipped British accent we spoke about the preparations for the upcoming event and its organization.
How are the preparations going this year? Are you ready?
It’s hard to say sometimes I think we are ahead compared to last year and sometimes I worry we are behind but in reality we are in a good stage of readiness. I am not worried about being ready and I do think it’s going to be great.
We know that Alex Atala of D.O.M. Brazil is one of the co-curators, but is the rest of the speaker list finalized?
Right now we are finalizing the speaker list. We are not releasing it till that Sunday morning! (The 24th of August, 2014)
How do you go about finding speakers and presenters?
It’s a very complicated and arduous process. We look at the theme and that dictates who will be on the list. We do have half chefs and half non chefs which makes it interesting for our audience instead of having mainly chefs. The great thing about having non chefs is that it opens up the discussion in other directions. Our audience is exposed to ideas they may not come across in the normal course of their lives.
I personally feel that we come away with ideas that we keep absorbing and reflecting on. Is this what you are aiming for?
We want to motivate and inspire people and hopefully they take away new ideas to their work places.
A lot of people refer to this as a cult gathering since it is open to a very limited audience. Is that true?
I know we have been called a chefs club etc. and that is unfair. We only have a limited space as you have seen and can only accommodate a small number of people. It’s just the way it is but what is important about MAD is that it is an interactive experience for the audience and we want to keep it small and sustainable. To make it bigger will only take away from the event. To combat this elitist tag we have the MAD Feed and everything on line including MAD Monday’s where 50 or so places are open to everyone on a first come first serve basis.
Why is it so hard to get tickets?
It’s because so many people want to come there now and it’s strange because in the first year we could not give tickets away and it was so hard to get people to come.
How would you explain the difference between huge events like Mistura or Gastronomika and your symposium?
Those cater to a different audience and they all offer something of interest we are trying to fill a gap and just bring people together to expose them to new concepts and ideas. We have a specific intent and a specific way in which we like to do things and which separates us from other events.
So you are following your own philosophy and an idea and sticking to it?
Yes we are and we have a few strong opinions for example we don’t have any food or beverage sponsorship. The event is completely clean and there is no advertising or marquees. We want to take care of people who come here, feed people well since it’s a food event so we have breakfast and lunch every day and a dinner on the last evening which is a kind of party and celebration. We have snacks and drinks on site the whole two days and we try to be as generous as possible in taking care of people.
Some thoughts I shared in an article published in January of this year after the subject for this years event was revealed:
At the MAD 4 symposium (created by Chef Rene Redzepi of the famed Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark) to be held on 24-25 August, 2014, this query is probably directed at those who cook for a living. The international audience at this event held under a red circus big top is mainly comprised of individuals and groups from culinary and other related fields and professions. This unique two day event in Copenhagen has consistently focused on promoting thought provoking dialogue and this year, the discussion will center on the question of “What is Cooking?” Since the presenters range from cooks and chefs to scientists, social activists to food journalists and writers the presentations and dialogues cover a vast spectrum of topics. In the past three years culinary luminaries such Ferran Adria and Alain Ducasse have graced the stage and added gravitas to discussions at this forum. Incidentally the 2014 event is being co-curated by Chef Alex Atala of D.O.M, Sao Paolo, Brazil one of the most colorful and respected chefs of our times with a huge fan following.
Food, simply stated, is culture on a plate and it represents a society at a specific time or place. It is how cooks and human beings express themselves and feel fulfilled when they create something that connects them to other beings. Cooking is a part and parcel of the basic human desire to nurture and connect. Ever since the advent of fire into the human arena people mothers, grandmothers, hunters caregivers have been cooking to feed bellies and sustain life. In this piece the conversation is about the cooking by those who have chosen it as a profession.
Food like everything else evolves and changes over time and the boundaries are constantly being expanded as part of a natural progression. The creative act of cooking also empowers the cook to be courageous and defend their vision while moving beyond tradition and the accepted norms. Change is important and the young cooks who are leaders in the evolving face of the culinary art need to be recognized, celebrated and embraced. The future of cuisine and the direction it will take will emerge through this brigade of young cooks both male and female. It is our window into the future of gastronomy. However there are times when upon tasting a sublime morsel we applaud the cooks choice of this métier and on other occasions wish they taken another path in order to spare their diners the unnecessary techniques and ingredients to embellish their tasteless tasting menus.
Physically demanding, at the cost of familial relationships, monetary pressures, it is a tough place, this world of cooking and yet cooks choose to live their lives cooking. So what is cooking?
Most of the world cooks to feed hunger but we are part of a society where we feed not just a physical hunger but satisfy something more inside of us. Is cooking transforming ingredients? Is it creating new and revolutionary combinations of flavors? Is it recreating the past, are memories being revisited or cultures being explored? Do we need to study the historical evolution of this art /act to study how we ate in the past or to predict how and what we will be eating in the future? The future is built on the foundations laid through history as we are discovering through anthropological research but at the same time we are establishing the base for cooking assisted by technology and restricted by scarcity of resources that will surely occur in the future. Will we cooks be engaged in eradicating or mitigating hunger on our planet or self-absorbed and cooking for our paying audiences? Is the act of cooking the same in both instances?
It is hard to generalize because it is more a emotional and creative process rather than a physical or manual one since the cook bares his soul and puts it on display for the world to see. Cooking is a brave act in our present food culture because in this world of social media, Instagrams, Twitter etc. the cook opens up not to a small audience or his diners but to the world at large not knowing what response he or she will garner. Sadly, most successful (materially) cooks are not actively cooking anymore because their celebrity has taken them out of their kitchens onto TV screens or stages at symposiums or book signing events. There are positives to this status too as they have a voice that is heard and the power to change people and opinions for the enhancement of the society of cooks and it is heartening when they do so.
Do these cooks perceive cooking in the same way as a line cook, a home cook or a culinary student?. What about cooks who cook on an assembly line or designated stations to bring the head chefs vision to the plate? Are they cooking too?
The process of cooking has through time referenced the medicinal value of foods and herbs to heal our bodies from the times when we were foragers and hunters. In affluent societies around the world we have now started to regress and are now targeting our cooking towards better health or to building up resistance to diseases by using ancient sciences like Ayurveda and Chinese herbal medicines. Now is this still cooking or is it medicating? Some of us don’t know and don’t care, simply being focused on the benefits of ingesting these healthy foods and cooking with them.
Just as the process of cooking evolves, the perception or meaning of this act of cooking also changes constantly and makes this discussion pertinent and interesting. The role of cooks is changing in our society as we become involved in the process of cultivating, as well as sourcing products, the science behind the processing , our impact on the environment and the politics of food that seems to be at times distracting the cooks away from the paraphernalia of the kitchen and cooking.
Cooking can be referred to as an art, a profession, a menial act, a media sport in the Iron Chef arena, a quasi-scientific process, an emotional expression, the topic of discussion at forums, a means to satiate hunger, a bridge between man and the elements, an entrepreneurial or intellectual process that involves fire and heat etc. and I can go in and on about it. For those fortunate to be able choose to cook, it is an absolute joy and the only way to exist.