Could Food on The Edge 2017 be the final nail in the coffin of the ‘Food Congress’ as we know it? If so, it’s about time. Because for 20 years the format – or should we say the frame – has always been the same. An auto-promotional, showing off, a dully TV-oriented gig on a stage starring the usual mix of techniques and dishes. A predictable playlist of chefs vogueing, making it up (to measure) for an audience of sponsors and wannabes. The Berlin Wall has fallen down, long gone are the days of Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia in the Basque Country. But something has happened since then. When the Mad Food Camp took off in 2010 a page was turned. No more mimicking with knives and forks, no more joggling with pots and pans, there you go: speak your heart out and make sense of yourself. Even make a fool of yourself. At its best, when it kept the usual big, boring names and old French farts at bay, MAD opened new doors, setting new standards, reconciling deep thoughts and emotions.
And that’s where FOTE comes in. As a MAD spinoff, it gets things right. A nice selection of decent people, a loose enough theme to riff on (« Action/Reaction ») and a friendly, indie atmosphere hosted by local hero chef/agitator J.P. McMahon whose favourite, unremitting expression as a Maître d’ welcoming speakers to the centre stage (« Put your hands together for… ») is already history. And there they were, getting down to it, a talk with no protection net, carefully written down or improvised at best. Some chanting the Pride with little Prejudice of their own land (Adrian Klonowski from Poland, Jeremy Charles from Newfoundland, Ana Ros, the Slovenian Queenie, along with Rodolfo Guzman, Prince of Patagonia, the Atacama Desert and beyond) some others panelling their own countries (Sasu Laukkonen & Filip Langhoff leading as official Finnish Ambassadors) with a little help from their chefs, foragers and friends.
Fifteen minutes or just a few more were more than enough to make their Ted talk thing fly. Even if Paco Morales and Enrico Crippa pulled videos out of their hats – and not fucking rabbits. That’s an already seen coup de théâtre – it works precisely because it has already been seen. Regardless of what they shared with the crowd, Morales his space trip in time with Al-Andalus cuisine, Crippa the garden esoterics that are the daily roots of his green fingered cuisine in Piazza Duomo (next time we should also screen Derek Jarman’s Garden project), their videos most precisely defined an intriguing reluctance, a distrust into the Power of the Verb. The last attempt to assess the supremacy of the image over the word. They might go a bit more iconoclastic next time.
A few others took their commitment… by the word. Turning their talk into a stand up. A one-man-show of the sort you’d expect from, say, from Adam Sandler. Or Jesse Eisenberg in full male bonding swing (Life Achievement for Bo Bech and his not once in a lifetime « Boys Week-End out at L’Ambroisie »). Of course, none of the dudes can compete in Ireland with with our American darling Kat Kinsman. If there’s a breach in the Wall of Fame, if there’s a path going backstage, « shedding a light in the darkness » (that’s a quote from David Fincher’s ‘Mindhunter », courtesy of Netflix) of chefs’ life, that’s exactly what Kate has been doing for years. Never mind her former workaholism at CNN Eatocracy & Tasting Table, the book she has written « Hi, Anxiety: Life with a bad case of nerves » is a milestone. The fellow companion to her activist website chefswithissues.com, a platform where problems usually dismissed behind the kitchen stove (depression, burn out, psychological harassment, you name it…) are brought to daylight.
We all have our issues. Esben Holmoe Bang, Magnus Nilsson & Nicolai Nørregaard have their own. And, guess what, they all are much the same. How to lead a successful business and yet run a decent life? How to destress and focus on your inner self when you have to be and to do 200 things at the time? How can you turn your restaurant into a life profitable venue? Nørregaard hopes to tell us one day he’s « a recovered workaholic » and good luck to him with that. Nilsson has come up, after a couple of years of thinking about it, with the best perfect plan today: add a few covers, hire more people, cover the wages by raising the prices (« none complained or even noticed that our menus went from 170 to 300 euros »), have a happy team. And accept the idea that even a freak control like Magno Magnus needs to delegate. Aka skip one service or two each week FOR A GOOD REASON (kids, family, becoming one day a grand piano player) without feeling guilty (1).
And Esben Holmboe Bang, on the eve of celebrating his Maeemo’s 7th anniversary, went straight to the point. That is: restaurants « this obsession of us, let’s make it healthy, let’s make it last ». Let’s go to work with the desire to do so, not just because you have to. All for one and one for all and, Wednesday to Saturday lunch and dinner, four days of work plus three days off for everybody. Work less to be more up to, have a life on the side to be more productive at work. Knowing that, each member of the staff gets five days leave per month. Esben has never seen such a violently happy team knocking at the door before. You bet.
Maybe it’s time to reconsider things, time to strip things down, to recompose the puzzle and go unmasked. To talk personal. To imagine other worlds, other ways of being and living. Last year, the particularly unlucky candidate to the French presidential election, Benoît Hamon, proposed not a minimum wage but a « universal income » for all. If restaurants are a little more than spots to get people fed, if they can be islands of autonomy, the theatre of (also personal) experimentation, maybe it’s time to realize the huge inner « behavioural » power they waste. Save the world, save the campesinos, save us from all the Weinsteins of the world if you want – but for Christ’s sake save yourself first.
1) By the way, our best buddy Ivan Brincat from Food and Wine Gazette recently tweeted that the day will soon come when perhaps we will all pay a discounted fare in restaurants when the « chef patron » is absent and takes his leave. Should we discuss this matter thoroughly next year at FOTE 2018?
Andrea Petrini was named as one of The Telegraph’s Visionaries for 2017, he has a career that includes food writing, a decade as French chair of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and gastronomic events such as Cook it Raw! He is also co-curator of Gelinaz! the global chefs collective. This article first appeared on Gelinaz! Tumblr’s profile.