The videos for the 2014 MAD symposium just came out and to say the least it was fantastic! The timing was especially ripe for me because I have been questioning many of the things that were addressed this year. What is cooking? Watching this year’s videos also sent me into a sadly habitual YouTube spiral were at 2AM, I wondered what happened with my day. But it was well worth it.

The MAD Symposium is a yearly event in Copenhagen, Denmark that started in 2011. It’s purpose is to bring chefs from around the world together to discuss food and cooking. If you are familiar with TED, its like the same thing but for chefs.

The prompt for the 2014 symposium was a follows:

In many ways, this is an incredible time to be a cook. The public has taken an interest in our traditionally blue-collar trade, opening doors previous generations could never have imagined.

But the more attention our industry receives from television, film, newspapers, magazines and the Internet, the less clear it becomes what it means to cook. A path to celebrity, a means of attaining fortune – the past decade has given rise to a great many things that we know cooking is not. Our goal for MAD4 is to remind ourselves what cooking is.

Let’s re-evaluate the fundamental techniques and responsibilities of the profession. What are the legacies that we should uphold and what should we strive to change? And what’s cooking in the pan, on the grill, in the oven? Where does the food we cook come from and what’s in it? What will it become in the next century and how do we ensure that it changes for the better? How will cooking — and cooks — adapt and evolve?

For me, cooking is science coupled with spontaneity. Even when you know the facts and the process, the application differs slightly each time. We need to feed ourselves but how do we do it respectfully and responsibly? Although this may sound morbid, cooking is death. Everything you put in your mouth at one point was alive and self preserving till well… it wasn’t. Being a chef now is no longer just browning substandard meat in a pan and calling it a steak. Tastes have evolved and diners are more knowledgeable. Now more than ever, it is understanding the product you are working with that takes precedence. If that means sous vide, you get a water bath. If it means slicing thin, invest in a mandoline. After all, the diner could have stayed home and eaten instant noodles. They have come to you. Take them on a ride and satisfy their senses.

I must confess that often times when I see the greatest chefs of our time get featured on TV, or read their books I am saddened. Not because of their success but because I always feel I cannot attain that level of success even though it is my dream for now.  It seems to be the tradition that true greatness is bred through understudying the truly great. Not just in cuisine but in almost all fields. You work for them, understand the essence of the craft, and when you are ready, you do your own thing if you want. The best part is you can later mention your teachers and they give you instant credibility. Due to my leg ulcer, my ability to stand for long periods has been greatly diminished indefinitely. As a chef mostly spends his or her time standing, that is not the best thing to happen. As a result, I didn’t try to get the internships I could have while in France. These opportunities would have propelled me to work with the chefs I wanted to understudy in the near future. I am still trying to cope with this and it is a constant source of depression for me that will hopefully pass with time.

I will forever be grateful to the founders of YouTube for bridging the gap between me and people who would otherwise be strangers. Not total strangers because I know their names and achievements, but I also only know the personalities I want them to have. With YouTube however, I am able to see the people I wished to have worked with talk and work. FYI the stuff I watch on YouTube would never have enough ratings to become a documentary on any TV network. I know this as I am one of the only 200 viewers over 2 years.

As I watched the MAD videos and others while I was in my spiral, I started to realize something that I wanted to share. The underground culinary masters that I have come to admire: Mossimo Bottura, Paul Rozin, Wylie Dufrense, Pascal Barbot, Alex Atala, Grant Achatz, Albert Adria, Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, Heston Blumenthal, Nathan Myhrvold, Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Joel Robuchon and Harold McGee are me to an extent. Let me explain. I speak similarly to these guys when I talk about Nigerian food and what I want to do with it. I noticed this more and more I watched these guys talk about the food they cook and why.The only difference is I have not yet acted on my ideas.

These are some of the condensed ideas I have had over the years:

I want the food I make to be similar to what we all know butlook and feel different. Rene Redzepi does that at Noma

I want to make an evolving dining hall for the diners. Grant Achatz does that at Alinea

I want my restaurant to be small and only last for a while.Albert Adria does that in all his current small, short term restaurants.

I want science to be at the forefront of my cooking. Wylie Dufrense did that at WD-50 and Ferran Adria did that at elBulli while creating molecular gastronomy as we know it.

I want to use indigenous ingredients and show there is more out there. Alex Atala does that at DOM

I want the food to be the same but different each time. Pascal Barbot does that at L’Astrance.

So then if I already share the ideas and the mindset with the people I want to work with, why do I still want to work with them? Understudying someone, the systematic knowledge behind their idea is alive and can be absorbed within seconds. When I did an internship at Dalloyau, I learned more in 2 months than I have learned in my whole life. I am not exaggerating. The experience was overwhelming, scary and exciting at the same time as it was also all in French. There was knowledge oozing at every turn of the neck. The words and actions of the chefs around me were gold. They were all just as passionate and alive as I was. This concept was new to me.

It seems like all these people I admire dared to try at one point. They saw potential in executing their ideas and they did it. Not all of them were able to understudy. They all had no name in the beginning. They all only had an idea of what they wanted to do at the start. They all stumbled and got up a few times. They all have fear about new things they try under the
safety net of the restaurant and their names. They all had an idea and the courage to execute.

This realization hit home for me as I am now in the second week of my baking project. Everything I knew would go wrong on the first day has not happened. The guy working with me has not run away because I am a horrible boss, and I have not hated everything I have produced. Instead I have realized a few things. I do not know as much as I thought I did at all. I do not really know how to teach. Technique and experience are only half the battle. Communication is the most important tool in this life. Inspiration comes when you aren’t forcing it to show up, and there are no rules to the game because you are the programmer.

After trying a few things, I may realize that I indeed need to understudy to beef up my skills. I may actually fail at my current projects because I lack certain basics. That is perfectly fine! However, I would not be doing it because I believe it is my lifeline, but because I need it as a personal supplement to move my ideas forward.

When things make no sense, keep trying to achieve whatever your heart calls you to do. Although you may not see it, the little actions will add up and by the time it mushrooms you will be shocked. You are much stronger and resilient than you give yourself credit for. However you will never know this fact if you don’t trust yourself and leap.