Summary and insights from the acclaimed restaurant industry conference.
This year's annual MAD Symposium was its sixth, and this time there was a special focus on inclusivity and equality for people facing obstacles to opportunity — mostly found to be women, immigrants, and other minorities — and how to ensure great opportunities are available to all, in turn allowing equal chances to achieve meaningful lives in the restaurant and food community.
As a creative, I was a sort of outlander at this event, as I don’t come from the restaurant industry, but am instead one of the increasing number of ‘others’ selected for the event to contribute a broader perspective on food and social culture as a whole. So for me, a necessarily-objective observer, it was a significant opportunity to take a long look at one of the most influential sectors of the wider food industry, to get a snapshot into what excites and infuriates the very talented and passionate people within it.
The restaurant industry is a significant player in our global food culture, layered and diverse as it is in terms of the multi-level experiences it creates and the decisions it makes — from creativity, innovation and trendsetting, to supply chains, agriculture and labour. So, while we co-citizens are obviously part of the restaurant scene as patrons, it's vital to understand what's going on behind the scenes, in order to support the right product and those making a difference.
Overall, the talks programme was very engaging. The first day kicked off with a cookery demonstration with the much celebrated Jay Fai, a Thai chef operating a street food restaurant which is the first of its type in Thailand to win a Michelin star. That outstanding achievement aside, what radiated from her was her authenticity and integrity — no compromise on quality or craft — a lesson we can all apply, whatever our works.
It was the perfect start to the show; a simple message of great significance to everyone there — after all, 600 people from 58 countries applied to attend this event, each presenting a strong sense of purpose, and representing a hugely diverse array of experiences and issues. In fact, I would have loved to have studied the individual purposes behind each application. The ability to spot the patterns in passions and priorities would reveal some enormously powerful collaborative potential.
But, in shifting the talks and format into a different order in my head, I could clearly identify several areas that could use some further attention, and that I want to spend more time on as I pursue the cross-sector connections in support of positive change:
One of the main focuses was how the restaurant industry sits in the context of the bigger picture, and its potential to solve problems beyond its own. And it's a big ask of any industry — any kind of operator striving for a smooth and successful day under stressful circumstances finds it hard to connect to global goals. That is, if they have the space to see the global goals in the first place.
A batch of talks highlighted the need in this area. Vincent Hendricks, Professor of Formal Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, championed my own over-riding message, that we must all look up from our industries to see the change-making connections beyond — in his words, 'restaurants must serve more than just food' - a civic responsibility, in his opinion, considering their reach. His talk was further supported by Chad Frischmann, VP and Research Director at Project Drawdown, Berkeley, California, who brings together diverse industry experts to create actionable solutions to the impact of climate change, and calls on the negative impact caused by our food systems to be turned around by the strength of the restaurant industry.
Danish chef Kamilla Seidler spoke of her socially conscious projects among the international restaurant community, particularly South America, and her global expedition supporting social change through culinary endeavours. Her final question to herself and her audience was on her personal future — if her skills and ongoing efforts were best placed continuing such outreach work, or 'within the four walls' of a restaurant in Copenhagen. I feel that scope and purpose is an important question for all of us, but if I was her? Considering the level she has reached and the lives she has changed? No question.
A song from Nina Persson of The Cardigans led to a discussion on the power of celebrity, and the responsibility of using your celebrity and voice for common good. Arthur Karuletwa's story of a higher purpose was intensely felt by all — how, as a refugee surviving the Rwandan genocide, he channeled his unimaginable trauma into positive action, crafting a career connecting fair coffee trade with global distribution at Starbucks, and re-connecting with his own identity. And Dan Giusti discussed his decision to leave behind industry success as Head Chef at Noma for personal success in founding and running Brigaid, a food education initiative feeding tasty and nutritious school food to children in and around New York — a version of success beyond accolades and awards.
I feel that if only there was room to iron out some of the day-to-day issues that dominate daily working life, there would be so much more room to embrace the collaborative and problem-solving opportunities that food connections create.
Not just those within the restaurant community (and those who supply it) supporting each other more, but support from the extended community too i.e. other industries. The restaurant industry appears to self-identify as a bit of an outsider, too different and disconnected from other industries for anyone to truly understand. It came as a surprise to some, for example, that a number of seemingly insurmountable workplace issues are experienced equally by many other people in many other sectors. That there are structures in place to deal with problems in those sectors, so the problems happen less. And that, in turn, surprised me. For, sincerely, there is nothing new under the sun.
So it was good to see not only interviews with chef-patrons building restaurants from scratch and chefs juggling family life, but from other creative industries too. Internationally-acclaimed artist Jeannette Ehlers spoke of her thought-provoking projects and sculptures created in response to historic injustice, and the difficult conversations she had to have to be heard. She shone as an inspiration in claiming her space — as a woman, a black woman, and a minority in her hometown — finding support and added strength through collaboration. And film director Lynda Obst recounted her experiences as one of a small but growing number of women in the film industry in the years leading up to the current #metoo movement, arduously navigating yet succeeding in a male-dominated industry.
All of these were great examples of how the restaurant industry can both support each other and take inspiration from parallel industries, from overcoming obstacles, to collaborating, to introducing regulations — those in difficult circumstances would really benefit from opening up the conversations a little with other industries tackling similar issues, so that existing learnings can be shared — both ways — for efficient resolution.
And thirdly, respect.
We learned that an inherent sense of hierarchy and misogyny still infects kitchen culture in restaurants, merrily making its way across upcoming generations as it swaddles the puffed-up majority with misplaced power. Women, immigrants, minorities, the 'different' and the down-to-earth take the brunt, at best, their unique skills and problem-solving potential stifled; at worst, actual mental and physical abuse. An exercise in meditation and mindfulness by expert Michael Miller was not out of place at this point.
Given that people are in the kitchen for upwards of fourteen hours per day, in a career that it is unusual to leave (it's widely seen as 'giving up') in a hierarchical culture that keeps you from speaking out (you risk being blacklisted and losing your livelihood), there is no way that your mental wellbeing would not be profoundly impacted for life.
This was quite a shocking topic, and these talks were very hard to hear. On gender equality in the workplace, or rather, the desperate lack of it, we heard personal stories — highly emotional — of bullying, violence, yelling, all the way to sexual harassment and even rape, and an industry panel of Kim Severson, Lisa Donovan and Wade Davis imploring the culpable or collusive to change their ways. We heard a male perspective from Australian chef Ben Shewry on how he rose above learned banter and bullying to cultivate a healthy, respectful and progressive working culture in his own restaurant, and it was a relief to hear it was possible.
The most complex of all the discussions, all the way from female empowerment to leadership and anger management, to business skills and workplace training — very specialist support required from diverse experts outside the field, and it will take time to unravel this backward behaviour that is choking good intentions.
Perspective, support, respect. You could say these needs show up in all sectors, in varying weights and urgencies, and you’d be absolutely right. There isn’t one industry or mindset that doesn’t need these qualities in play to reach its full change-making potential.
But I think that, of all of them, the restaurant industry is one that has an enormous impact on the whole of life — legs, wings, fins, flippers, the lot — and despite the awe-inspiring creativity and passion behind it, the support infrastructure’s not quite there yet to reinforce these powerful everyday change-makers.
This event was largely focused on the internal culture of the industry (and rightly so — all real change must start from within and ripple outwards). But as an outsider in this, it would be unfair of me to simply echo that. I must draw attention to a major part in this imbalance — consumers. The expectations, pressure, pace, pricing, reviews, and so on. Not helping.
We have to understand the importance of perspective, support and respect, too.
For all the changes we hope the restaurant industry will make for us, we collaborators for positive change (ie any human who cares) have a responsibility to support those endeavouring to fix the future through food, to champion their risks and experiments, to encourage innovation, to understand their value, to pay our way, to cut some slack, and develop a more empathetic consumer culture which meets these strong efforts half-way.