Powerhouse women convened for one of the most highly-anticipated seminars at MAD5, the international food symposium in Copenhagen in August. Yet its speaker, chef Iliana Regan, hadn’t prepared a word. And then, off the cuff, she nailed two hot-button issues chefs face: gender roles in the kitchen and the industry’s mental health. “I know my business, my craft, but I can barely some days get out of bed,” Regan said. “It’s the topic I don’t want to talk about, but it’s necessary. Why am I having the best year of my life and still taking Wellbutrin?”
This kind of gravitas is what Noma’s Rene Redzepi intended when he founded MAD (Danish for “food”) with Momofuku’s David Chang. “Typical food festivals are about the now of your menu and showing your marvels,” he said. “But MAD is about community- building, problem-solving.” Now in its fifth year, MAD aims to improve the global state of food, empower the industry’s people, and connect communities to their seasons and landscapes. To do this, MAD reduces its 1,500 global applicants to an essential 350 chefs, scholars, brewers, investors, writers, waiters, farmers and foragers from 43 countries who made the pilgrimage to Denmark and vowed not to sit idly by.
I had first learned that Regan was no idler nearly a year earlier, during a progression of nine courses at her restaurant in Chicago that added up to the second-greatest meal of my life. At Restaurant Elizabeth, the 24 seats are booked in advance like theater tickets. In lieu of the shock and awe we had experienced at a famous Michelin three-star the night before, Restaurant Elizabeth simply fed and nourished us: mushroom soup, roasted carrots, smoked rabbit. Regan, named one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs this year, touched every dish and ran her brigade with quiet authority.
MAD5’s theme was “Tomorrow’s kitchen: What do we hope our kitchens will be like in the future? And what can we do today to make those dreams a reality?” After Regan’s talk (“The Wolf Pack: Alpha Female & Leadership”), the conversation continued in such sessions as “Building Kitchens Conscious of Race and Identity” and “Why Fun Matters: Ambition, Creativity, Sex and the Work/Life Balance.”
From under MAD’s signature red circus tent, Redzepi implored attendees not just to soak up and tweet the inspired vibe, but to shepherd its momentum back home and into action. For two days, that tent was a church and the circus was a revival meeting. Lucky Peach magazine co-founder Chris Ying urged the congregation to “treat your goals as necessities. . . . Let’s talk today about closing the distance between what we do for a living and the way we want to live.”
Regan and other women are torchbearers for this notion of a compassionate kitchen. “More than being a good chef, it’s about being a good person. It’s easier to yell at your team, but there are so many other ways to reach them and teach them,” said Aisha Ibrahim, executive chef of the historic Harbor House Inn on the Mendocino Coast in California.
Progress aside, women say they’re tired of being the most outspoken advocates and want men — who dominate Michelin stars and top restaurants — to shift, too, because empathy isn’t gender-specific. Chef Alex Atala is taking the challenge to heart. “There’s a responsibility of being in the spotlight,” said Atala, who runs D.O.M. in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which has cracked the coveted top five on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “The culture is asking chefs how to live. Food is the cross-line between nature and culture. As chefs, we have the strongest voice in the food chain, but we must share with the whole chain, shed light and give back.”
For Australian star chef Kylie Kwong, sharing means integrating meditation and mindfulness into her workflow. She talked about being “efficient with personal energy” and how “leisure can enhance business and sustainability.” Still, it’s not for everyone. And sometimes optimism gets trumped by realism.
“I tried to do yoga class before service,” said chef April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig in New York City. “One person showed up.”
At least one speaker encouraged the chefs to get back to basics. The legendary Jacques Pepin opened MAD5 with a clinic on “glove-boning” a chicken and making the perfect omelet, all while delivering a Vince Lombardi-like pep talk on discipline, structure and respect for the cook’s trade. “Be first a craftsman,” he said. “Half of yourself is craft; half is talent. Once you have craft and talent, then you can be an artist. Master the classics and don’t torture yourself to be different. You can run a good restaurant just by being a good technician.”
Two weeks after MAD ended, I wondered how reality was or wasn’t eroding Regan’s optimism. On Instagram, I saw a perfect chicken ballotine on Regan’s feed. “At MAD, it was all puppies and rainbows,” she said by phone from Chicago. “Here, I have to be boss, mom, nurturer, manager and the chef. We’re trying to sort it all out, but micromanagement is taking me down. I told my staff, ‘You guys are cooking at a Michelin one-star and you haven’t deboned a chicken?’ Some went home and YouTubed Jacques Pepin. . . . Now we work on these things every week.”
Meanwhile, Regan is opening a new restaurant, Kitsune, in early 2017. She has designated an executive chef and already spoken with him about anxiety and depression as expressly as food philosophy. “He’s going to Copenhagen for a week to eat and experience,” she said. “I feel good about this trajectory.” And she’s hired a martial-arts instructor to come in once a week and lead a class. “We push all the tables to the front of the restaurant and do it in the dining room. Afterwards, everyone’s laughing and talking.”
Instead of being in a panic every day, afraid to step out of her kitchen for an hour, Regan is finding “people that I can turn my back on,” as she put it, so that she can devote herself to farmers, ingredients, textures and growing as both cook and human being. Fortunately, besides a jackknife dive into existentialism, MAD5 also meant somersaults on the taste buds. Inspired by that week of Nordic flavors and a 17-course meal at Noma, Regan is sharpening her use of acid, oils, flowers and local vegetables. “I’m making more misos and pushing fermentation a little bit further, too.”
Post-MAD5, Regan says she is working with purpose, focus and speed. Recently, she went from yelling at her staff to sitting on a Chicago Taste Talks panel called “The Even Tempered Kitchen.”
“I am at the cliff’s edge of insanity and burnout, and then I go to MAD and a lot of other people are experiencing the same exact thing,” she said. “These days, I’m more energetic, happier. I’m telling staff, ‘I can tell by how you shut that door how much you care in that moment.’ The thing they’re struggling with outside of work is the same thing I’m struggling with.”
Tesauro is a Richmond-based sommelier, writer and speaker. He is the author of “The Modern Gentleman.”