Daniel Patterson, chef-owner of Coi, is freshly back from last week's MAD Foodcamp in Copenhagen, at which he presented a history of beets.
The two-day symposium was organized by René Redzepi, chef of Noma, which has been celebrated for its intricate experimentation of native Scandinavian foods. Heavily covered by the international food press, the event brought together some of the most interesting people cooking today: Michel Bras, Gaston Acurio, David Chang, Andoni Aduriz. (In rock terms, it'd be like the Pitchfork Music Festival distilled down to a 300-person gathering.) The theme of the event: plants.
SFoodie talked to Patterson earlier this week about his experiences. Here are a few excerpts from our hour-long discussion:
SFoodie: How did the camp go?
Patterson: I flew in Friday afternoon and went straight to a reception. René could have just catered it, but each of the chefs there made a dish. So when I got there, Dave Chang was messing around with a pork stew and Michel Bras was making some vegetable dishes. It was outside, a table set outside the restaurant, and it was very family-like. We all knew each other, so we sat at a big, long table and talked with one another.
Saturday and Sunday were pretty packed days. Back to back to back sessions. I saw all of it -- it was amazing. In the middle of the sessions, there was a break, and they'd set up stations where they'd made different kinds of bread, hay, seaweed, and plants for sale.
The symposium was held in a circus tent, which was perfect -- put a bunch of cooks together and put them in a circus tent! There were maybe 300 people and change. The whole thing was about vegetation. Something like 90 percent of all species on earth are plants, yet we can only identify about 10 percent of all the plant life.
Stefano Mancuso, a plant neurobiologist, talked about plants as sentient beings. He showed a time-lapse video of a bean plant growing toward a support that was a foot away. How did it know the support was there? One guy talked about urban farming, and brought with him charcoal made from different organic materials -- when they burn it, they use that energy, then plant what's left, so it's a total utilization of the material. Alex Atala [chef of Dom in Sao Paolo] talked about the symbiosis of insects and plants, so he passed around an ant that tasted like lemongrass. David Chang [from the Momofuku restaurants in New York] talked about fermentation. I loved his idea of a microbial terroir -- everyone's using these microbes, like koji from Japan, that were developed over generations. But what about utilizing our own microbes?
Did you make anything during your presentation?
I didn't make anything. However, I brought gummi beets made from beet juice to pass out. My presentation was a short history of the beet: where they came from, different historical usages, everything from borscht to canned beets. Then I talked about the beet and goat cheese salad. You know, the beet and goat cheese salad was a revelation. That you could take something out of the earth that normally came from a can and cook it, and have something that tasted totally alive and different. And there was no domestic goat cheese before Laura Chenel started making it in 1977. I think Chez Panisse was her first customer. That salad was something very new in a lot of ways, it changed people's ideas of what they should expect in terms of freshness and brightness. Then of course, it came to be more than just a dish of food, something that symbolized a way of looking at the world.
I had someone who works with me go out and find 10 menus. Eight of them had beet and goat cheese salads on them, and another two had beets with different kinds of cheese. (It included Plum, so I'm fully culpable.) That brought me to the next thing I talked about: How do you take an old vegetable like beets and make new ideas with it? Why would you use something as ubiquitous? It's easy to get the shock of the new with a new ingredient people have never seen before. But there is so much power in using something that people know and then turning it something they've never seen before. That's where the real cooking comes into play.
What was interesting to me about the MAD Foodcamp was that it was an international symposium of chefs who, like you and Redzepi, all seem to be celebrating hyperlocal food.
There's a zeitgeist that is centered around René because he's an amazing cook, and he's always trying to help other people. He's a great ambassador for looking at this way of looking at the world. So if a local chef is going to say, I'm inspired by this guy thousands of miles away, and it brings them closer to where we are here, I think that's a very positive thing.
The best thing that came out of that whole weekend was this positive energy, this sense of discovery and hopefulness about the future. Sometimes that gets lost in this crush of media talking about new places and everyone wanting to plant their own little flags in their own little areas. I love that I can call someone around the world, and ask: I've got this situation, what do you think I can do? For me, that for me, that was really inspiring.
If you look at Copenhagen and Denmark right now, there's so much going on there because they've all supported each other, like they did in Spain a decade ago and like they're doing in Peru right now. Getting out there and seeing that is magic. My hope is that, as wonderful as [the Bay Area] is, we can have even more of that spirit of cooperation and communal endeavor out there. It makes everyone better.