World-renowned chefs get a Yale education on food-related issues

World-renowned chef René Redzepi leaned over a 17th-century volume in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library and studied a recipe for pickling an “old, fat goose.”

Redzepi snapped a couple of photos of the page with his smartphone. Around the room, other distinguished chefs from across the globe perused some of the earliest cookbooks known to exist — all housed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.     

As Redzepi examined the goose recipe, Paul Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, pointed out a book from 17th-century Italy with the page opened to a dish called “marzipan tortellini.”

“If we see any references in the food magazines to the awesome marzipan tortellini being served in one of your restaurants, we’ll know where it came from,” Freedman said.

“Chefs today wield unprece-dented global influence, which creates an opportunity for them to be effective advocates on issues that affect society far beyond the walls of their restaurants.”

— Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program.

The chefs were on campus for the inaugural MAD Yale Leadership Summit, a week-long gathering held June 13-17 that exposed participants to experiences, ideas, and principles intended to help them think creatively and critically about systemic issues that all tie in with food, including sustainable agriculture, labor rights, climate change, obesity, under-nutrition, rural flight, and environmental stewardship, to name a few.

A collaboration between Yale and MAD, a Danish non-profit dedicated to improving food culture founded by Redzepi, the summit included seminars, lectures, field trips, and, as one might expect, delicious meals.

Leading chefs from six countries participated, including Alex Atala, April Bloomfield, David Chang, Jessica Koslow, Kylie Kwong, Olivier Roellinger, Rosio Sanchez, and Michel Troisgros. They were joined by Yale College student associates, who served as hosts and research assistants while enjoying the opportunity to study alongside celebrated chefs.

The chefs visited the library on the summit’s first full day.

Redzepi is chef and co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, which is widely considered one of the world’s most influential restaurants. He was struck by the straightforward names of the recipes in that 17th-century text, such as “to keep green peas until Christmas,” or “an excellent way to cream chicken,” or the recipe that acknowledged the aged nature of the goose getting pickled.

“They were to the point and evocative in a way you don’t see today,” he said, flipping through images on his phone. “It shows that the people who wrote these recipes were excited about them. That they were personal and useful to them.”

After viewing the Beinecke materials, the chefs visited the Yale Babylonian Collection on the library’s third floor where they handled 3,700-year-old clay tablets bearing the oldest recorded recipes known to exist.

Michel Troisgros, whose family’s restaurant, La Maison Troisgros in France’s Loire Valley has earned three Michelin stars annually since 1968, relished the chance to handle an ancient tablet containing seven distinct recipes in cuneiform.

“This is magical,” said Troisgros.

Following their encounter with ancient Babylonia, the chef’s enjoyed a brief performance by Yale Women’s Slavic Chorus beside the Women’s Table sculpture in front of the library. Then they retreated to their hotel to rest before the evening session.

A unique collaboration

The partnership between MAD (“Mad” is Danish for “food.”) and Yale began when Redzepi visited campus in 2011 and met Freedman and Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program. They developed a program, modeled after Yale’s liberal arts curriculum, which challenged participants to take principled action on the issues of sustainability, ethics, and justice.

“Chefs today wield unprecedented global influence, which creates an opportunity for them to be effective advocates on issues that affect society far beyond the walls of their restaurants,” Bomford said. “We brought together two disparate worlds — academia and the kitchen — to start a new dialogue on strengthening the world’s food systems.” 

Chef René Redzepi, founder of MAD, takes a photo of an ancient recipe that is part of Yale’s Babylonian Ciollection. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Designed around the themes of “taste,” “society,” and “science,” with an emphasis on leadership development, the program brought scholars and experts from Yale and beyond to speak on a range of topics, such as serving justice; the science and politics of taste and flavor; the ethnic restaurateur and the American city; and women, food and culture.

The week began with a dinner at the Yale Farm prepared by Chef Jason Sobocinski of Caseus Fromagerie Bistro in New Haven.

Speakers included Smita Narula, an international legal scholar and food sovereignty activist; James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology; Michael Miller, co-founder and director of New York Meditation Center, and Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group includes The Modern, Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café and other celebrated establishments.  Freedman and Bomford gave lectures on the summit’s final day.

Prioritizing student voices

Student involvement was a critical component to the summit, said Bomford.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings featured a salon-style workshop led by a pair of students focused on a specific topic.

David Rico ’16 and Angel Osorio Pizarro ’19 led the Tuesday salon on indigenous food sovereignty, which was held in the penthouse at The Study on Chapel Street.

Rico, a member of the Choctaw Nation, began his portion of the talk by singing a tribal “honor song” to welcome the esteemed chefs.

“In order to begin moving forward talking about using indigenous food responsibly, we have to acknowledge that we are already using indigenous foods on a daily basis,” Rico said.

Rico described the importance of ingredients like corn, pumpkin, and watermelon to his tribe’s heritage and culture. He showed examples of products — pumpkin spice lattes and watermelon margaritas — that treat these revered ingredients lightly.

“We forget that what we’re eating is very old and powerful food,” said Rico, who graduated from Yale in May with a degree in the history of science, medicine, and public health.

Rico, who was wearing a ceremonial shirt, pointed out that corn, widely considered a common “plain Jane” ingredient, is divine to Choctaws. 

“Food is not just what’s on the plate. Food is context. Food is story. Food is social norms. Food is a lot more than what you taste.”

— David Rico ’16, a member of the Choctaw Nation

“This thing that we use so lightly has a very strong and rich cultural legacy to people in this world, and if we want to further our understanding of cooking, we should further our understanding of the ingredients we’re using and the ways they were given to us,” Rico said.

Osorio Pizarro guided the chefs through three case studies showing how indigenous food has been portrayed and appropriated in Peru, Indonesia, and Mexico.

He asked the chefs to consider that “food is not just what’s on the plate. Food is context. Food is story. Food is social norms. Food is a lot more than what you taste.”

His case study in Mexico focused on the use of food festivals and contests there to highlight regional and local food. He pointed out that people from outside Mexico often judge the competitions and the winners tend to be the participants who wear the most colorful costumes, presenting aesthetically pleasing and easy to produce food. This provides a limited view of indigenous cuisine and culture — one meant to appeal to consumers, he said.  

He urged the chefs to portray indigenous food as a source of pride and not simply as something exotic that attempts to condense an entire culture to a single bite.

Osorio Pizarro and Rico corresponded with chef Kylie Kwong, whose restaurant Billy Kwong in the suburbs of Sydney incorporates indigenous Australian ingredients into Cantonese cuisine. They invited Kwong to speak about her experience.

Kwong said using the indigenous ingredients in Cantonese-style dishes, such as using Botany Bay spinach in place of English spinach in vegetable dumplings, was like “discovering a whole new culinary language.”

“If I was a painter, it would be like discovering a whole new color wheel,” she said.

Kwong, a third-generation Australian, provided a vital link between her ancestry in China and the country of her birth.

Osorio Pizarro and Rico were grateful for the opportunity to share their ideas with a roomful of culinary masters.

“One of the reasons why I love being here is experiences like this,” Osorio Pizarro said. “It’s why I love the Yale experience.”

Rico said he appreciated the opportunity to teach the chefs about his tribe.

“For René Redzepi to prioritize our voices is amazing,” he said.

The other two student-led research salons focused on food justice and labor, and gender in the kitchen.

An eye-opening experience

The summit’s organizers intend to continue the program in 2017 and annually beyond, perhaps with several more chefs.

April Bloomfield, executive chef and co-owner of The Spotted Pig and The Breslin Bar and Dining Room in Manhattan, along with several other restaurants, called the summit “eye opening.”

“It’s really made me think about what I do and how what I do affects the world,” Bloomfield said. “It’s nice to get other people’s perspectives.”

She said the students were “superb.”

“They’re obviously intelligent and very inspiring,” she said.

During their visit to campus, the chefs were treated to dinner at the Yale Farm. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The chefs enjoy dinner at the Yale Farm. See related slide show.

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