“This isn’t one of our regular talks,” Ann Mossop tells the crowd, with no small amount of exaggeration.
The Sydney Opera House – at which Mossop is head of Talks and Ideas – has joined forces with Noma frontman René Redzepi to present MADSYD. It’s the first Australian instalment of Redzepi’s freewheeling MAD food think-tank.
While the event doesn’t take the food discussion to the same extremes as previous symposiums – one suspects the Opera House has a zero tolerance policy towards preparing pig offal on stage, even if it’s done while reciting Dante – the afternoon still features plenty of vigorous discussion as speakers dwell on the question: what will tomorrow’s meal look like?
With chefs making up much of the MADSYD lineup – Redzepi is joined by presenters such as David Chang from the New York-Toronto-Sydney-based Momofuku group, Massimo Bottura of Italy’s Osteria Francescana and Sydney’s Kylie Kwong – restaurants are, unsurprising, a key part of the discussion. Just don’t expect the restaurants of tomorrow to be the same as the restaurants of today.
“Smaller casual dining is going to become more fractured," predicts Chang. "You’re going to have more single-item stores, not so different to what you see in Singapore or Malaysia. I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening at the high end. I think the future of the world is going to be less delicious in order for it to be more sustainable."
While Redzepi acknowledges the planet’s food has never tasted better, he laments the monkey-see-monkey-do attitudes of chefs and restaurateurs.
“Even though we eat better and there's so much more quality, it feels like we're eating the same,” he says. “We used to have a bigger sense of seasonality and a bigger appreciation for the fruits of nature. I think we've lost that. We’re disconnected from where our food comes from.”
MADYSYD has been kicked off with a Welcome to Country by Gadigal Elder Charles “Chicka” Madden. Continuing where Noma’s 10-week pop-up at Barangaroo left off, there’s much acknowledgement throughout the day of Indigenous tucker. Bush-food supplier Outback Pride provides guests with goodie bags. Chef Clayton Donovan of Jaaning Tree in Nambucca Heads – who’s a fierce advocate for native ingredients – says he believes everyone has a job to play in popularising saltbush, finger limes and the like.
“It’s Australian, so we should be proud of what we have,” he says. “You don’t need to be a chef. You can be a teacher. You can be a mum and dad, placing these foods in your everyday diet. The more we do, the more the younger generation gets to understand.”
The sustainability issue, meanwhile, is no longer just limited to farms and farmers.
“We talk about nurturing our customers all the time,” says Rockpool’s Neil Perry. “We need to start talking about it about ourselves. In the past, hospitality meant killing yourself for the industry. It’s not really about that, but getting through intact, growing stronger and older and growing everyone around you.”
In New York, Chang is taking a radical approach to running restaurants by changing his business model.
“The goal at Nishi was to reverse-engineer our prices,” he tells the audience. “What do we want to pay our chefs, dishwashers and servers? We’ll figure everything else from that,”
As well as making a strong argument for more statisticians presenting at food talks, social researcher Rebecca Huntley paints a picture of Australia’s food culture, from the imbalance in food distribution (on average, the price of food in remote areas is 26 per cent higher than in the city) to the real cost of food.
“There’s no such thing as cheap food,” she notes. “Somebody is paying for it. That seven-dollar pad Thai you’re buying, the restaurant owner might not be able to pay workers, and let’s not even start on the farmers that grow the food. One of the ways to get us to value food and get away from this idea that food should be cheap is for all of us to spend some time growing it and to spend some time cooking it.”
Just as she was at MAD2 in 2012, Zimbabwean farmer Chido Govera is the highlight of the event. Her transformation from AIDS orphan to activist teaching villages how to grow mushrooms for a living isn’t just inspiring, but a timely reminder that now is the time to start planning for the meal of tomorrow.
“Tomorrow’s meal should create a platform to facilitate learning,” she says. “Not just in disadvantaged people, but all of us. Not just about food, but about our environment and the different cultures and how to fuse them to create something stronger. We can’t sit and just have a conversation. There’s enough people talking. How about doing something?”