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