Race, Identity, Power and Food at Soul Summit in Austin

My 2015 Soul Summit Experience…

By Syrena Johnson


First of all it was a complete honor to be invited to not only attend but to cook at the first annual Soul Summit in Austin. I got involved a couple months back attending a Dillard Ray Charles African American material culture event; it was there where I was introduced to Toni Tipton Martin the creator of Soul Summit. From there an invitation was set and I was in search of a sponsor, in whom I didn’t have to look far because my family at the John Besh Foundation offered to cover my whole traveling and food cost which was amazing and totally generous on their end. I am extremely thankful to have them as a support system. This trip was more than just traveling out of town to cook, it was an enlightening three day conference, and a conversation about Race, Identity, Power and food with African American Scholars, Authors, Researchers, and Chefs all under one roof! I took so much from this conference, learned a lot, made some cool contacts, and rocked out in the kitchen with Chefs from all over. As a rising Chef this week has taught me a lot about myself and what I can handle and boosted my confidence as cook. I received good insight on my dish from guests and Chefs which was great to hear - I chose to cook Shrimp Creole because it screamed out New Orleans and I wanted to give the people of Austin a taste of New Orleans to bring home with them and I think it worked out perfectly.


This was the first time since graduating Culinary school in 2012 I got to display my complete cooking skills, that is why I really was on board to do this I knew it would be an amazing event but I also was eager to get my food into people’s stomachs. The reception I received from the Chefs meant a lot more to me because all of them are well established and know how food is supposed to taste so to hear that my Shrimp Creole was amazing was very gratifying and reassured me of what and why I’m doing what I’m doing. All of the knowledge acquired from Michael Twitty and Chef Bryant Terry were priceless, I learned a lot this week about myself, my culture and I became more aware of food justice and interested in making a difference in my community. This is why I push to do things like this that push me to do bigger and better positive things all in the name of food! I am truly honored to have been part of history this week I know the years to come will be even greater special thanks goes out to Toni Tipton-Martin for organizing and planning an amazing event and The John Besh Foundation for sponsoring me. I am extremely grateful!

Notes from Our Chef Across the Pond!

BY SYRENA JOHNSON, LONDON: Words can’t even describe the feeling of being outside of a place you never left since you were born. London is an amazing, beautiful place filled with beautiful buildings and beautiful people. Even though it’s been all work since we been here, just the camaraderie from all the chefs that came down really does not compare. I can honestly say I made a couple of more family members on this trip! Everyone got along really well and came together for a cause I believe all of us believe strongly in: southern food.

I never left the country before and this was my first time getting a passport; all cool new experiences I got to partake in for the first time and it has just been awesome. Everyone I met was very helpful and knowledgeable which made the trip go really well and all the food we put out was remarkable. I’m so grateful and happy my chef let me get to experience this and I know I’ll never forget it. I also had a chance to work at Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s place, which is somewhat similar to the program where I work, Liberty’s kitchen. Fifteen was very enlightening and cool. Overall I had a blast and look forward to seeing my career blossom from this amazing experience with all the knowledge and culture I took out of it.

The MAD Experience

2011 Chefs Move! recipient Syrena Johnson is traveling across the pond again! Syrena was selected as the only American  recipient for the MAD Grant, a program that invites promising, aspiring chefs under the age of 30 to attend the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen.

Before I describe my #MAD4 experience, I want to kind of describe me as a cook or describe my relationship towards the whole culinary world. Before I was sent a link to the MAD Grant application, I never heard of MAD before. I wouldn’t quite call myself a foodie actually - just somebody who truly loves to cook and received an opportunity to go to school for it. I always found myself in a group with people who were so knowledgeable of every best restaurant and chef around the world to the point where I questioned my actual motives. Do I love to cook? Am I in the right place? Of course I do, and yes I am. I just wasn’t one of those kids who idolized chefs or watched the Food Network, but I genuinely loved to cook, just never did my homework on the greats…

Going through with the MAD Grant application process, which to be qualified to receive the grant you have to be under the age of thirty and currently in school, graduated, and/or cooking now along with an application of answering a “what is cooking to you” question and a brief description of your favorite MAD video and why, I didn’t know what to expect, being that I had such a dull sense of the who’s who’s of the industry and that I didn’t see myself as a foodie. I figured I would still turn it in and see what happened. The things I did know were my love and passion for cooking and being in the kitchen, and I knew that would speak volumes to whomever reading it. So I watched a video from a selection of videos, picked an interesting enough one, and began to write not knowing my destiny afterwards.

On July 7th, they announced the first MAD grant recipients - in which I was one of 10 selected out of 500 candidates from all over the world and me being the only American made it so much more unbelievable! I was just excited about leaving the country for a full-paid vacation for a week still unaware of the depth of MAD itself.

 Syrena, bottom second left, with her fellow MAD4 Grant Recipients at Noma  Instagram: @cookingismyoccupation

Syrena, bottom second left, with her fellow MAD4 Grant Recipients at Noma
Instagram: @cookingismyoccupation

On August 19th, I arrived in Copenhagen unfamiliar with the country of Denmark, but eager to see what this whole MAD thing was really all about. I was greeted by the very nice MAD team member, who was really cool and hospitable; he drove me to the hostel where me and the other grantees would be staying for the week up until MAD. This brings me to the “crew” - my new found family since I’ve been in Copenhagen the other grant recipients: Well there is Guadeloupe & Migule, our two grantees from Mexico (staging at Noma for a month - how cool!), Elizabeth and Rahul our two grantees from India (North & South), Kai from Singapore, Chris from China, Kiige from Kenya, Creedence from Canada, Joseph from Egypt, and little ole me from New Orleans. What a diverse group of people selected to share this amazing experience with! It didn’t take long for us to pick each other’s brains about anything from each other’s culture that we can take back home with us; we were no longer strangers we were family. We were now going on a food journey that would forever change our lives from that moment on.

Our itinerary was filled with super cool things to do while in Copenhagen. The first day was visiting Noma for wild mushroom foraging with Leo and eating family meal with the restaurant staff; we also got to sit in on the pre-shift meeting, which was very interesting and informative along with a test kitchen tour and the fermentation lab tour. Some other cool things we did was visit the Carlsburg Brewery for a tour and for some traditional Danish cuisine, go on GoBoats, a solar powered boat, and sailed on Copenhagen’s harbor, had an amazing dinner with great service at Amass with lots of great wine and a bon fire to end the night, plus so much more.

From this whole trip I think I was most surprised at the hospitality from the entire MAD/Noma crew, especially Chef Rene, who made it his mission to make sure we were settled and expressed how important our presence was to him and the MAD crew. Back to my lack of knowledge of high profile chefs and restaurants, my first time even hearing about Chef Rene was when I got to Copenhagen, but I understood the magnitude of his importance from Chef Fulvio Pierangelini’s speech on Day One of #MAD4, when he wrote an emotional and detailed letter to Chef Rene in response to a letter Chef wrote asking why he had shut his successful restaurant down. As I watched Chef Rene sit Indian style on the ground eyes glued on Fulvio like a kid getting read a story by his teacher as Chef Fulvio answered every question open, honestly, and whole heartedly, it was then I said to myself, “This guy must be important to get an explanation from a guy who seemed like he didn’t have to explain his motives to anyone. He must be respected, he must be great…”

Day One of MAD was filled with awesome stories, information, inspiration, and motivation; I took a lot of notes. The opening was 15 minutes of complete silence as Chef Tatsuru Rai handmade Buckwheat ramen in front our eyes; it was very humbling. Just meeting people attending MAD was an amazing experience; I’ve gained so many more role models and idols that I never knew existed until MAD. I also made a lot of interesting contacts that I’m eager to work with. After day one of MAD, I was thinking more; suddenly I had more ideas and questions about everything I wanted to learn more, try things, experiment. I was anxious to see what Day Two had in store for me being that Day One sparked something in me that hadn’t been lit since culinary school. I was now intrigued with the thought of MAD, a complete three sixty from when I first got to Copenhagen; I finally got what the hype was all about.

My top favorite speech from #MAD4 Day Two was hands down Ron Finley, one of those new role models I talked about. His message set the tone for me that day, and I really gained a new respect for farming - so much to where I plan on starting my own little plot back home. It’s those little things that I took and plan to share with my family and friends back home and apply to work that I really appreciate and won’t take for granted because this whole experience was life changing. I felt like this was exactly what I needed to get my creative juices flowing again and my brain thinking again. I consider this MAD trip to me to be my “culinary baptism.”

I want to give a special thank you to our MAD mom Paula Petkova, who played a major part in selecting and hosting all of the grant recipients for the entire time in Copenhagen and throughout the application process, Chef Rene Redzepi, Chef Alex Atala, Chef David Chang, the entire MAD crew, the entire Noma crew, and everybody else who played a part in hosting us and keeping us safe in Copenhagen. I think I speak for all of us when I say thank you from the bottom of our hearts, we truly appreciated everything and we do not take it for granted. Thanks for seeing something in all of us; we will make you proud!

For more photos and stories of Syrena's adventures, please visit her Facebook: facebook.com/ChefSyrena