A couple weeks ago, Noma’s René Redzepi and Lucky Peach hosted the third annual MAD Symposium, a gathering of some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs and food writers. Stalking the action from afar, it seemed that one of the most poignant moments of the festival was a rousing speech from Roy Choi about hunger and malnutrition in South Central L.A.
Since we know Roy’s never one to beat around the bush, we caught up with him for some insight into the prestigious (and somewhat mysterious) event, as well as what message he had for his famous comrades in the audience.
You just got back from your first MAD symposium in Copenhagen. What was the experience like?
Sometimes when you’re a chef, you get so caught up in just the chef world that you forget about everything else, and you become a little bit single-minded. I’ve been deconditioning myself from getting excited about chef stuff for the past four years, so, to be honest, I went to MAD not that geeked out or excited or anything. I went with an open mind, but it just blew me away. René Redzepi and his whole team waited for us at the airport when we got off the plane, they carried people’s bags, and they picked us up in their cars…everything was so organic and human, it’s not for show.
They took us [the speakers] on this mystery tour, to an island east of Sweden in the Baltic Sea called Bornholm—it was the first time I ever rode a plane without knowing where I was going. They took 90 people on a bus to the airport, put us on a plane and flew us to the island, put us on another bus, and took us to the tip of the island where there’s a restaurant called Kadeau. All the chefs were waiting there and welcomed us in. It was like the olden days when ships used to reach a harbor and the whole town would greet you. They had all these vegetables laid out for us and we were cooking—it was just a great time.
The first night I also ate at Noma, and when you walk in, all the cooks come out of the kitchen and welcome you. It was really mind-blowing. Everything about the Danish spirit is really, really hospitable.
It sounds like you gave a pretty ballsy speech, essentially telling a group of the most famous chefs in the world that they need to keep it real and give back to their communities. Can you talk about what you said?
Yeah, I really spent a lot of time on the talk. The topic of [this year's festival] was Guts, so when they gave that to me a few months back I really thought about what are guts and what does it mean to me—I tailored it towards the guts to tell the culinary world that we’re sucking our own dicks. We really think we’re feeding a lot of people and changing the world, but really we’re only feeding a small [portion of] the populace.
We really think we’re feeding a lot of people and changing the world, but really we’re only feeding a small [portion of] the populace.
It wasn’t a confrontational speech. It was just saying these words because no one in our industry wants to say them: We cook for rich people. There’s nothing wrong with that system because it’s an economy, but the premise of my argument is that our whole nature as chefs is to feed people, we are very maternal…I just want to change patterns.
Five years ago, when we started serving tacos on the street [at Kogi], and connecting it with Twitter, we were able to change the scope of how we can make food accessible. We were able to give food a voice and made it fun and young. Now, 14-year-old kids are interested in it, because Kogi is more than just food—it really is from the street, it represents skateboarding, graffiti, hip hop, angst, being on the outside, the underground, not fitting in, loneliness… In this age of hyperawareness and connectivity, we’re still only feeding the people that can afford our food at the end of the day. Let’s stop saying we’re feeding people and actually go out there and start feeding people.
What are some ways you see to change that paradigm?
My challenge was to still continue to do avant-garde and fine dining, but what if every chef also balanced that by making food more accessible? And not just feeding the hood, but also challenging fast food. Imagine every chef in every city was doing their restaurant but also creating a kiosk in a working-class neighborhood, working with the purveyors to bring the prices down—so, instead of fast food, there would be chef-driven fast food. Kind of like a Shake Shack, in a way, but broadened out so that the culture of chefs moved beyond the hip neighborhoods, and it spilled out to every part of the city, cool and uncool. Then, the culture of eating might begin to shift to the point where it’s not like guest list to get into a club; instead of getting Skittles and chips, kids could actually get great food, and then have junk food as well. Because the problem we have right now is not that junk food and fast food is all bad, it’s that it’s the only option sometimes.
What I’m trying to ask chefs to do is not get on a soapbox about fast food, but do something to provide [for their communities]. We cook great fucking food, yet we feed such a tiny populous. So what if we start trying to feed more people? It might not happen in our generation, but we have to set the standard for the next generation of chefs to start cooking more food for more people.
Were you surprised by any of the responses you got from the chefs gathered there?
I didn’t know how it was going to go and if people were going to care. All the chefs came up to me and really, really gave me support. Everyone that approached me was like, “You really inspired us, we’re gonna start.” I want to create some sort of network with the chefs who gave me their word and commitment, including René and Daniel [Patterson] and David [Chang]. As much as we talk about food science and foraging and flavor, I want the idea of food deserts and affordability to be in the [conversation].
The food world has to let down their guard a little bit and stop being so fucking hoity-toity about shit.
We also have to ask, are we making food fun enough for people? The food world has to let down its guard a little bit and stop being so fucking hoity-toity about shit. We gotta clown a little bit, we gotta dumb it down a little bit, and speak the language that the youth wants to hear—not make it so intellectual or precious. We have to learn from what our so-called enemies are actually doing and how they are reaching the people. I speak about fast food, energy drinks, candies, because I know what people want to hear. It’s the content people are interested in. We have to provide similar content, but instead of processed candies, I want people to get get hyped up about asparagus in the spring.
What was the vibe of the whole symposium part? Were you vetted in any way, or did you just get up and do your thing?
It was very, very loose. They just asked me for my topic, but they trusted me. That was the most beautiful thing—that René and the whole Lucky Peach team, they trusted their speakers. It was as if I asked René to come to L.A. and cook with me. If he ever said yes, I would not micromanage what he wanted to cook, you know? It’s really, really grassroots, run by the seat of his pants. René was there greeting every single person, at the beginning and the end, at all the extracurricular events—he was thinking about every single person there.
There’s always a lot of criticism of how TED micromanages speakers so much that it kind of sucks the personality out of them—they’re all trained to speak the same way, craft their talks the same way…
What you’ll see in MAD is that everyone has a different cadence—some of it is not as professional as others, but that’s part of the mix. It’s just people out there pouring their soul out to 600 people.
And how’d you like Copenhagen as a city?
I’ve never been to a city like this, man. And I’ve been to some cities—I’ve been to Tokyo, I’ve been to Seoul, Bangkok, Paris, Milan…I’ve been to some shit. But Copenhagen is just amazing. They have this whole ethos of design that’s esoteric and creative, but also utilitarian. So you have the most amazing city planning, the most amazing design in furniture, but everything is made to be used. Everything is integrated—it’s not just their to be pretty.
And oh my fucking god, the girls in Copenhagen! They all ride bikes in skirts, and they’re in shape because they ride bikes every day. They’re smart and beautiful and sardonic and edgy…and the town parties like crazy! It’s like New York back in ’80s. I went jogging at 5:30 in the morning the first night I was there, and the bars were still packed and it was sloppy all on the street, but then they clean it up by 8am when everyone else is ready to go.