Howard Chua-Eoan travels to Copenhagen to the world’s most fearless food festival.
The instructions were mysterious. “It is essential you bring your passport… It is essential not to bring containers holding more than 100ml of liquid… It is useful to bring a swimsuit.” It was also essential to be on time and downstairs by 10:40 a.m. at the fortress-like Admiral hotel, which despite its high-ranking name never really had any role in naval warfare, being two old granaries on Copenhagen’s harbor combined for martial effect. The hotel was play-acting. Copenhagen would pull other tricks on me.
Having lucked into the invitation to this mysterious gathering, I followed the instructions carefully and got to the appointed meeting place 10 minutes early. But I was far from the first person to get there. Nadine Levy Redzepi, who is the person you must go through for a reservation at Noma (and who happens to be married to the chef), was in charge of mustering the 120 people expected on the trip and many were already there, as eager and curious as I was about our destination. She handed me a boarding pass for a flight to a place I did not recognize: Bornholm. I asked if I had time to get breakfast. Nope. Get ready to board the buses across the street.
I stepped outside and into a gray Copenhagen Saturday, not very promising for a picnic. But the fare, at least, promised to be fabulous, if only because of the hands likely to be working on the food. I was in Denmark to cover the third annual MAD Symposium, a culinary convention that is part Comic-con, part Burning Man, attended by many of the best chefs in the world and by those who want to be them one day. It was begun by Rene Redzepi, whose restaurant helped turn the Danish capital and Scandinavia into objects of global gastronomic pilgrimage. (MAD is not an acronym, but the Danish word for “food”.) My former TIME colleague Lisa Abend, who knows everyone in the food world, squeezed me into this exclusive warm-up for the symposium, which would begin the next day. Everyone along for the trip was either a Noma staffer working on organizing the symposium or a presenter. And so I assumed all the attendees of the picnic—except for the occasional journalist like Lisa or me—were either chefs or part of the restaurant or food industries.
Thus, when David Chang of Momofuku introduced me to his pal David Choe, I presumed to know who he was.
“And so you do the food trucks?” I asked.
“No, you’re thinking of Roy Choi,” Choe said politely. About two minutes after my faux pas but soon enough to be almost on cue, who should appear but the real Roy Choi, whose Twitter-fueled Kogi BBQ food trucks revolutionized the way gourmet food is delivered to customers. (As @kogibbq’s Twitter profile page declares, “Yea, tha original muh-f*ckin Korean bbq taco truck”). There we were, all waiting to get on the bus for this mysterious picnic: Chang, Choi, Choe and Chua. But who was this Choe?
MOHSENI HAD CALLED HIM A ‘PUSSY’ FOR NOT WANTING TO VISIT KABUL
He said he was a painter and, as we talked, provided dribs of several recent adventures, all of which I titrated in my head to come up with a solution to the mystery of David Choe. He said he had recently met Saad Mohseni, the Afghan media mogul, in Dubai and Mohseni had called him a “pussy” for not wanting to visit Kabul. And so he jumped into Mohseni’s plane and they flew into the Afghan capital. Choe was impressed by Mohseni’s operations and may even decide to shoot a TV series there. Then Choe said that a few people were interested in making a movie or book out of his life and the time he was in prison in Japan. I said “What?” in my head and tried not to make the word bulge out of my eyes.
To compound my ignorance, he later told me that a New Yorker writer at the symposium had asked to do the definitive profile of him; and Choe talked about his belligerent experience being interviewed by Barbara Walters. Why had I never heard of him before?
Since I couldn’t google him as we conversed, I decided to ask a weaselly question: so why is everyone so interested in you right now? He responded by saying that in 2012 he became the highest paid living artist in the world. This was getting too hard for me. We were separated as we got into the two buses. The mysterious David Choe would remain a mystery for a little while longer; in the meantime, our destination was explained to us by Peter Kreiner, the Managing Director of Noma.
FRESH VEGETABLES AND ROOT CROPS WERE DISPLAYED ON GENEROUS HEAPS ON TABLES
We were headed for Kadeau, the original of a Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant, situated on the southern coast of the island of Bornholm, a Danish territory in the middle of the Baltic Sea. We would have to fly there, leap-frogging over Sweden—otherwise taking a boat over would take a couple of days. The flight would require less than half-an-hour. Still, it would be another 20 minutes on more buses, across farmland that rolled downward toward the sea, before we reached a branch of a road called Braunevej and a pavilion perched over a beach and the cold waters of the Baltic. It was a magnificent and beautiful tableau.
A large black cloud loomed over us and I worried that I hadn’t brought enough of the right kind of clothing. But inside the pavilion was a sight to warm almost any heart—and certainly those of the chefs among us. Fresh vegetables and root crops were displayed in generous heaps on tables and, in a separate spread in the middle of the room, there were ample carcasses of a pig and a lamb. We snacked on pulled pork sandwiches as the chefs (Chang and Choi as well as Pascal Barbot of Astrance in Paris, David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California; Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco; Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese; Alex Atala of D.O.M. in Sao Paulo; among others) worked with Kadeau’s owner Rasmus Kofoed and his team to prepare a multi-course dinner that would be set out in the terrace buffet-style.
HE EXPLAINED THAT HE WAS A DESCENDENT OF BUTCHERS, THEN HE EXPERTLY GUTTED THE ANIMAL
Among those who waited patiently, often walking up to the large shack set up next to Kadeau’s glass-paneled pavilion to check on the progress of the cooks, was an eccentrically dressed Italian, clad in a leather jacket and bright red trousers. His theatricality would be in perfect display the next day when he opened the symposium by striding up to a dead pig hanging from its hindquarters in the middle of the scarlet MAD tent, explaining his descent from a long line of master butchers and then using his set of tools to expertly and efficiently gut the animal, spilling its guts from its huge internal cavity before placing the intestines, large and small, on a tree stump the size of a butcher’s table. He began his performance to the strains of Metallica; he ended it by reciting from the fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno, the one with Paolo and Francesa—adulterous lovers—spinning in hellspace, entwined together for eternity, their punishment for giving in to illicit desire.
If you think that sounds more like Sweeney Todd than Babette’s Feast, you are right. MAD’s theme this year was “Guts”—both literal and figurative, courage in a general sense (to set up a new restaurant, to leave an old master, to attempt a new culinary style, to opt for sustainability over convenience) as well as the bravery to look into the hidden and terrifying world of digestion, the mystery and art of how we extract life by digesting dead animals and vegetables.
THE VOICES TO KILL OVERPOWERED ALL OPPOSITION
The presentations would end early Monday evening with a parallel performance to Cecchini’s: a spectacle called “Death Happen$,” Alex Atala’s public execution of a chicken—after a bloody video showing the close-up slaughter of fish and mammals. Like Cecchini’s, it was a reminder of the butcher’s and the chef’s ritualistic, almost priestly role, in dealing with death and turning its remains into the means of sustenance for those of us who go on living. Holding the still living hen in one arm, Atala raised the other to a fist with a thumb sticking out horizontally, the ancient signal of Roman emperors polling the circus crowd to decide whether a gladiator lives or dies. Thumbs up or thumbs down. The voices to kill overpowered all opposition. “No guts, no glory,” Atala said, holding the chicken by its neck as it flapped its wings, swinging it down on the butcher table-tree trunk where the pig entrails once lay, and swiftly slicing off the bird’s head. Hours later, the scape-chicken would be plucked and cooked by the Brazilian star chef at MAD’s after-party beneath one of Copenhagen’s atmospheric bridges.
All that, the pig and the chicken and the meditations on mortality, were in the future as we enjoyed the sun on Bornholm. Most of us had no idea what was planned. Atala sat with us on the beach, his shirt removed, showing off his torso and tattoos. Indeed, there were so many tattoos on display throughout the weekend that one could imagine collating them all into a Sistine of skin—a grizzly representation of the modern chef’s love of ink. The mood was carefree on the beach and even Atala simply smiled when Rene Redzepi came rushing down from the makeshift kitchen saying “your pig is on fire.” It was not cataclysmic. (If it had been worse, the local fire department was ready; it had positioned a truck in Kadeau’s parking lot for just that kind of potential emergency.)
THE ORIGINAL RECIPE OF MARGARINE-BUTTERMILK EMULSIFIED WITH ANIMAL FAT
We feasted on astonishing salads and fish and pork and lamb; on Barbot’s amazing concoction—a miraculous hummus that tasted like butter; on the creamy marvels of the “Butter Viking” Patrik Johansson of Sweden: one that took no prisoners and showed why he has his nickname; and the original recipe of margarine—buttermilk emulsified with an animal fat, in this case, lard from the available pig. We ate, drank and made merry. We took a group portrait, everyone smiling. As we got on our plane to return to Copenhagen, we were handed gifts of chocolate and caramel from a local Bornholm confectioner, Karamel Kompagniet, that had heard the MAD cooks and their friends were going on excursion to the island.
Dave Choe happily ate and made merry through all of this (he can’t drink, impossibly allergic to alcohol). He was pondering what he was going to say when he made his presentation on Sunday. He knew he was supposed to be the palate cleanser; the non-foodie to provide comic relief via a stand-up routine. But it wasn’t a routine. He didn’t know what restaurant people were like or what they’d like. He felt out of place. When he was picked up at the Copenhagen airport and told he was being taken to eat at Noma, he said he thought he heard “Nobu,” surprised that the Los Angeles restaurant had a branch in Denmark.
So just how did David Choe become the highest paid living painter in the world? He is a street artist with a cult following that adores his extraordinarily detailed, deeply resonant graffiti art, full of overt sexuality and colorful nihilism, executed swiftly yet with a calculated spontaneity that makes it dirty, naughty, complex and irresistible. (Obviously, I’ve now had a chance to do my homework.) In 2005 and 2007, he painted murals on the walls of the offices of Facebook; and though he did not think much of Mark Zuckerberg’s business plan, Choe—who says he has weaned himself away from the worst of a gambling addiction—asked to be paid in stock. When Facebook went public early in 2012, Choe was reportedly worth an estimated $200 million.
BARBARA WALTERS WANTED JUST ENOUGH MATERIAL TO PAINT HIM AS A ‘DOUCHEBAG’
He speaks his mind and doesn’t mind his tongue. The words are choice and often four-lettered. His interview with Barbara Walters, pegged to the revelation of his Facebook windfall, doesn’t begin to show the vituperative nature of their encounter. It is famously known—well, except for me until I googled it—for the moment when Choe spray paints Walters, who is dressed in white. He says that she had reneged on it even though it had been part of his original demand for the interview. At one point during the taping, as he recalled it, she motioned for the camera to stop in order to lecture Choe on how to give her his answers. Make it short and to the point in order for her to tell the get-rich-quick-graffiti artist story. He felt that she wanted just enough material to paint him as a “douchebag.” He told her as much. They went on. He spray-painted her. Smiling tightly, she appeared delighted when she related her experience to George Stephanopoulos.
As the Mohseni episode showed, Dave Choe doesn’t like being called a pussy. He has hitchhiked through China for Vice; and, after his Scandinavian journey is over, he may be headed out to Central America to hang out with a legendarily dangerous gang. But, on Saturday, he still did not know what he was going to talk about and that worried his friend David Chang. On Sunday, Chang introduced Choe with a warning to the audience, telling them if they were sensitive to swearing they’d best think of leaving. Or if they had kids with them, it might be best to exit the tent. That may have been advisable. But those of us who chose to remain would see one of the most memorable performances at MAD.
A video preamble wasn’t very helpful. Its barely clad bimbos and Choe dressed as a latter-day Hugh Hefner (with a touch of gangsta) seemed too studied and insincere in its scripted lack of sincerity. It was unspontaneous. But that just allowed us all to be surprised—and shocked by what came after. All the high talk of digestion and death and art and culinary bravery was wonderful. But, taking the stage, Choe quickly got down to the shit.
CHOE FOCUSED ON HIS IRRITABLE BOWL SYNDROME AND HIS NEED TO CONSTANTLY RUN TO THE BATHROOM
He is strikingly charismatic and, despite his f-bombs—or because of them—charming. The stand-up as confessional worked perfectly to establish his personality with the audience and then to bring us all to that achingly Too Much Information moment before taking everyone on the plunge with first nervous then uncontrollable hilarity. He told tales of growing up Korean-American and with a mother and grandmother who farted unapologetically (one day, his grandmother let one go that “blew my hair back,” he recalled); he recalled loving Garfield who loved lasagna which meant that he had to have lasagna too. Which is a problem for lactose intolerant Asians. But that allowed Choe to focus on defecation, its inevitability no matter how fine the stuff you ate, and his own problems with it—specifically Irritable Bowel Syndrome and his need to constantly run to the bathroom several times a day to take dumps. He talked about shitting in his pants and how he became a recluse because he was afraid to leave the house, afraid of meeting girls because of what may happen in the course of an encounter. His performance is impossible to replicate simply as words: but it was a brilliant reminder of where every culinary masterpiece ends up after it is eaten. The way of all flesh—and vegetable and cake and grape. Perfect for the most fearless food conference in the world.
The attendees were still talking about Choe’s performance the next day. And as a tribute, Rene Redzepi flashed on to the symposium screen a sign posted in one of the stalls at MAD’s impeccably clean lavatory trailers: “Toilet Reserved for David Choe.”
But Choe would have the last word. Among the highlights of the Symposium was a conversation with Alain Ducasse, the greatest living chef in the classic style, a master of every secret culinary trick to pull flavor from food. If the bad boys of modern gastronomy evinced any sort of reverence at MAD3, it was for Ducasse (even though Redzepi introduced him by saying “fucking Alain Ducasse is in the house”—that would be completely within the panegyric range of the versatile f-word).
Choe chose another route. On one of his many Instagram accounts, he posted a picture of the graffitied over sign that was posted on his personalized stall, the handwriting declaring, “Alain Ducasse wuz here… Fuck David Choe.” Commenting on his own Instagram, Choe wrote: “Doing stump up in front of hundreds of the greatest chefs in the world gave me the royal nervous scared turtle shits. I feel blessed and honored to have received my own toilet at @madsymposium only to have that fucker Alain ducasse shit all over my shit! Curse you Alain Ducasse.”