Last night, the Mad Symposium—a.k.a., that annual gathering of world-class chefs and food writers hosted by Noma’s Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen—launched its first satellite event in New York City: a panel discussion titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Being a Chef.”
The cast of characters was pretty qualified to tackle this topic:
With Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan kicking off with one simple question—”What did you want to be when you were growing up?”—the discussion darted off all sorts of directions but zeroed in on one recurring theme: the difference between cooks today and cooks of previous decades. There was a little bit of (mostly) good-hearted slander of today’s twentysomething cooks. Apparently, a lot of the stereotypes are true: They want to be famous. They want to move up too quickly without paying their dues. They’re impressed by “a marshmallow made of fucking sea urchin” (Batali’s words) but might not know how to properly braise a piece of meat.
But there were also glimmers of hopefulness about how the evolution of cooking from a blue-collar trade to a coveted career might be a good thing in the long run.
“Now there are high school kids who say, ‘I want to be a chef’—not necessarily because they like food and hospitality, but because they want to be Tom Colicchio and be on TV,” Batali said. “But that’s not always a bad thing. Having role models that seem inspirational is a way that the food industry will now have really smart, cool, inspired kids in the next generation.”
The general consensus seemed to be that Millennials in the food world are just as annoying, entitled, and (potentially) brilliant as Millennials in any other industry. They have more information at their fingertips than ever before, and they’re better at multitasking (a useful skill in the kitchen), but they also tend to lack common sense and the sort of simple, primitive connection to the craft that was perhaps easier to achieve when people who weren’t distracted by Twitter and Top Chef.
Ultimately, as writer Bill Buford pointed out, the most driven cooks will rise to the top, no matter what the generational differences are: “It doesn’t matter that there’s a bunch of riff raff and silly people; it’s going to be the hardcore ones who make it work.”
All in all, it was an enlightening event—we hope those Danes make a habit of coming to NYC.
Since it’s tough to capture all the twists and turns of the debate, here’s a look at some of the best wit and wisdom that we jotted down from the panelists:
On how the industry has changed
“Restaurants have more humanity now. You have to care more about your cooks than before.”—Lee Hanson
“Young cooks today are not worse than they were years ago. They are the same.”—Mario Batali
On how perceptions of the industry have changed
“Being a cook was not cool when I started. It was what you did after you got out of the army and before you went to jail.”—Mario Batali
On cooking and fame
“If you become famous, that’s fine. But half the kids in culinary school are in it for that, and that has to change.”—Mario Batali
On starting your career as a cook
“My advice to young cooks? Don’t leave a kitchen before you’ve been there for a year.”—Mario Batali
On going to cooking school
“You should go to cooking school. But maybe you shouldn’t finish. Try to figure out who you are.”—Riad Nasr
“Take your 40 grand…and go get a liberal arts education so your mind’s not an empty, unthoughtful place. You’re going to still wash dishes when you get out, one way or the other, but at least you’ll have some books to think about and you’ll be more interesting for me to talk to when we’re working together for 14 hours.”—Gabrielle Hamilton
On new-school cooking technique
“You have to remind people what it means to cook in a saute pan, and to know that something is done not because the timer on the circulator has hit its 90 degree mark… That perfection is technological and not human. I’m interested in repetitive perfection—or close to perfection—from the human. I know many time people are like, ‘Hey I can rock that out on the Japanese mandolin it’s so much better.’ And I’m like, ‘Can you get a fucking knife—let’s see what you can do with your knife and a cutting board.'”—Gabrielle Hamilton
On new-school cooking technique
“I think tweezers in a kitchen are a bit of an affectation. You can’t braise with tweezers.”—Bill Buford
On the influence of technology
“A cook can now watch someone sear foie gras 400 times on the Internet between the last time he went to work and the next time he comes to work, which means he can come to a quicker understanding of how to do something… All of this sort of super information floating around leads me to believe that the next generation will be slighty smarter, slightly more evolved, and slightly more able to look on three tickets at the same time.”—Mario Batali
On life lessons
“I smacked a busboy. It cost the restaurant $80 grand. Was it a moment I could have avoided? Absolutely. Did it take that for me to understand that? It did.”—Riad Nasr
Batali on eating at El Bulli
“I had unbelievable meals at El Buill, and it was because there was a silliness. The joke was not on me—we were all in on the joke and it was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’… It wasn’t like there was a little masturbation onto the plate. It’s really about the shared experience.”
Gabrielle Hamilton one-liners
“Food has eclipsed the currency of art.”
“I do like cerebral food—just not for dinner.”
“The chef is no longer the help. Now we’re the fucking star.”
“I didn’t plan to [cook]. I was just good at it. I’m clean and organized and bossy by nature.”
“As a chef now you have to be flexible and nimble with the new tools and the new techniques, but you also have to safeguard and pass on the old technique.”
And here, just to make you jealous, is a photo of the free, one-off Sixpoint beer brewed to commemorate the event.
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