In September I travelled to Copenhagen to attend the MAD Academy, a week long course with a focus on sustainability within the restaurant industry. As an organisation MAD (Danish for food) was founded in 2011 by René Redzepi, chef and owner of restaurant noma, ‘with the ambition of transforming hospitality and driving change in food systems’, with the recently established academy ‘providing tools for changemakers’ in the industry. To encourage presence and immediacy, the itinerary of our week was revealed on a need to know basis with little indication of the schedule prior. For anyone considering applying, bear this in mind before reading on.
We arrived at the industrial estate not knowing our reason for being there. The warehouses - uniform in colour, structure and ambiguity - were incongruous with our gastronomic expectations. Amid murmurs of confusion the shutters to the unit rose, revealing a storage room equally as unassuming aside from a well-worn wooden sleigh tucked away high on a shelf. We were introduced to JP (Jørgen Peder Steffensen), glaciology professor and host to the biggest collection of ice core samples in the world, an indication towards the purpose of our visit.
JP spent the morning presenting his research, interspersed with insightful anecdotes of his voyages to the East Greenland Ice Core Project to collect the samples. With their frozen air bubbles, ice cores offer insight into climates of the past and through tracking can provide data indicating climatic change over millions of years. For those of us invested in environmental concerns, we are familiar with the hockey stick graph representing a post-industrial increase in temperature and greenhouse gas emissions. The less familiar narrative is climatic data over an extended period of time highlighting the huge temperature fluxes across multiple ice ages with the surprising fact that we are currently in the longest period of sustained temperature in our tracked history. This information may turn heads of the climate skeptics but JP’s argument was that planet earth has sustained, adapted to and survived abrupt climatic change over millions of years. It is the human race with roots laid through cities, agriculture and infrastructure who cannot survive this change with the migration and instability that it induces.
As we concluded the session and the shutters rolled back down, there was tangible awe of JP’s research and the simple sections of ice that provide insight to planet earth far before the imprint of humans. A morning with a seemingly tenuous connection to restaurants, but it was this climatic sentiment that formed the backbone of the course. Our focus was the environmental sustainability of restaurants and for the purpose of clarity, that was understood as reducing CO2 emissions. Our first workshop was a terminology exercise with the intention of demystifying to ensure we shared a basic equality in knowledge. With a sense of trepidation we grappled with the acronymic jargon: CFC, ELE, GRI, ISO 14001, POPs… these terms part of a broader scientific rhetoric that frames the climate crisis.
Again, this dialogue feels disconnected from the practice of working in restaurants, but as the week progressed we met farmers, chefs, foragers and coffee roasters who were all actively engaged with emissions reduction. For the most part, these were conversations rooted in science, expected discussions about carbon analysis with quantitative goals; about biodiversity and native populations; about assessment, strategy and reduction. Yet, what struck me was how the dialogue consistently returned to social considerations. Familiar rhetoric is the common differentiation between the ‘environmental’ and the ‘social’, two separate spheres often presented through binaries such as culture-nature, science-humanities and rural-urban. These dichotomies make it easy to overlook that the environmental crisis is in-fact innately social, in the sense that we, as humans, have pushed the earth to its limits and we must resolve it.
Throughout the week, invited guests recurrently noted conversations that sparked innovation or collaborations that sought mutual vision. We visited acclaimed Danish restaurant Amass, who systematically ran through items commonly wasted in kitchens (lemon pith, egg whites, almond pulp and fish bones) and provided tasters of their by-product creations. Fermentation was central to their operation for turning bulk by-products into ingredients with heightened flavours and extend shelf live. But beyond that, there was an argument that if you understand an ingredient well enough then using its by-products becomes less of a feat. We sampled a lemon curd made from lemon pith and egg white so comfortingly unmistakable that the lack of lemon juice and rind was thoroughly interrogated. A ‘ricotta’ made from almond milk pulp was so delicately textured and flavoured that it became a triumph and far more intriguing than the milk it was born from.
Our tasting went on, sample after sample of how what is deemed waste can often be a springboard into far more interesting sensory territory. This mindset of innovation was instrumental to a collaboration between Amass and bakery Jalm&B to develop a sourdough syrup made from waste bread that is used in ice cream and made on a scale large enough that they’re sold in supermarkets across Copenhagen. The high end restaurant and large commercial bakery is an unassuming partnership, but fruitful to accessing knowledge, facility and market in order to innovate at scale.
Rather than viewing as individual entities, if we consider restaurants, farmers and producers as part of an ecosystem then it becomes possible for cross-industry networks to facilitate positive change towards a better food system.
This cross-industry collaboration was demonstrated on a farm visit to Johanna Schimminhg of Hegnsholt farm one hour from Copenhagen. The farm is home to chickens, sheep and pigs as well as fruit and vegetables with organic principles as standard. However, it is not how she farms but rather what she feeds which is of note. Johanna champions waste-feeding, whereby restaurant food scraps are fed to the animals to provide a varied and nutrient rich diet, as well as reducing waste and the need for industrially produced animal feed. Having overcome the strict regulations attached to this practice, the waste feeding is only made possible through the dynamic relationships she has harnessed with restaurants and cafes in Copenhagen who support a closed loop system for produce and waste.
The legalities of waste-feeding livestock in the UK is more complicated due to the early 2000’s foot and mouth disease, therefore necessitating other food waste strategies such as reduction and redistribution. Championing the ‘zero-waste’ restaurant is Doug McMaster of Silo restaurant who spoke at MAD of the evolution of the restaurant and its principles. Silo was born out of a question posed to Doug by artist and environmental activist Joost Bakker: “Can you not have a bin?”. This prospect initiated the first incarnation of Silo in Melbourne and was seminal to the the philosophy of Silo today. In his publication, Silo: The Zero Waste Blueprint, Doug stresses “Waste is something we created, it’s a symptom of our flawed system… in nature there is no waste.” This sentiment follows Doug through every aspect of the business and from cleaning products to produce he spoke of the relationships he has cultivated through direct trade in order to minimise packaging and integrate the restaurant into closed loop systems.
It was this consistent theme, of cultivating relationships and creating networks that sparked a sense of optimism and opportunity throughout the programme. There was much potential for it to be a week of despondency, focusing on an industry decimated by the pandemic from the perspective of impending climate catastrophe. Yet, MAD curated a course which celebrated community, creativity and collective innovation. To understand climate change as a purely environmental concern overlooks our role as humans as instigators of change in the past, present and future. As social beings, with the power of language and abstract creative thought, we all have at our fingertips the means for change. Honour the simplicity of a conversation, it cultivates ideas and ideas are the silent tools we must nurture in order to navigate towards a better future.