Each year, hundreds of chefs, restaurateurs, servers and writers gather for a prestigious two-day symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, to discuss ways to make sustainable change in restaurants and their communities. This year, three members of the Louisville restaurant scene were among the 600 people from around the world invited to attend.
Restaurateurs Edward Lee and Ryan Rogers and 610 Magnolia’s general manager, Lindsey Ofcacek, told Insider Louisville what they heard, learned and experienced at the MAD Symposium, an event created by chef René Redzepi who founded the fine dining restaurant Noma, which four times was named the best restaurant in the world. People must apply and be invited to attend.
“This year, I guess I finally had enough clout to get my foot in the door,” said Rogers, whose applied to attend the eight-year-old event a few times before. Rogers is the owner of HiCotton Hospitality, a restaurant company that includes Bar Vetti, Feast BBQ and Royals Hot Chicken.
He said the symposium helped him reaffirm that HiCotton Hospitality is on the right track with several initiatives, including providing equitable pay and helping employees with the cost of health insurance, and he realized that national recognition is no longer what he’s striving for.
“I realized that is not really important to my own personal goals for the restaurants anymore. I don’t care if we get national recognition. … We are making a much bigger impact in Louisville and in the lives of our employees,” Rogers said.
Lee and Ofcacek are co-founders of the LEE Initiative, which aims to bring more diversity and equity into the restaurant industry. Lee owns three local restaurants — 610 Magnolia, MilkWood and Whiskey Dry — and Succotash in Washington, D.C. In addition to managing 610 Magnolia, Ofcacek is the managing director of the LEE Initiative.
Ofcacek told Insider in a phone interview that she had read about the gathering before but never expected that she’d be able to attend. Ofcacek was invited by Lee to attend the symposium with him after organizers extended an invitation.
“I felt honored that he invited me,” she said.
Ofcacek said the breakout sessions, which included 20 people or less, were “the most amazing part” of the MAD Symposium.
One of the sessions Ofcacek attended, “Gender Troubled: The Influence of Media on Power and Identity in the Kitchen,” was the highlight of the entire event for her, she said. Ofcacek recounted one woman’s story of being interviewed by national media where the interview revolved not around the speaker’s culinary talent but rather her gender.
“A group of people, probably 50/50 men and women, from chefs and restaurateurs to interns and journalists spent the better part of an hour truly digging deep to figure out what role we could play in changing this narrative,” she said in an email. “The incredible thing about MAD is that for the most part, everyone puts their ego aside. There are some ugly truths about this industry. This conversation was when I realized that I was sitting on a small island in Copenhagen with 600 other people that not only know those truths but want to confront them head-on and create a more equitable industry.”
In the follow-up phone interview, Ofcacek said that men in attendance were encouraged to ask media how many women they are speaking to when asked for an interview or to ask event organizers if they are including female chefs or restaurateurs in panel discussions.
Rogers attended a breakout session related to health and equity to listen to San Francisco-based restaurateur Daniel Patterson, who together with Roy Choi opened a concept called Locol that aimed to provide healthy and low-cost food in food deserts. The concept that once had four locations now has none.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds to provide for a community, to pay your employees well and provide high-quality food. It is frustrating to hear they don’t have it figured out but also comforting,” Rogers said, adding that Patterson indicated that they are still trying to find a way to make the idea behind Locol work.
The speech that stood out the most to Rogers, however, was given by a former head chef at Noma who oversaw the restaurant’s kitchen during three of the years it was named best restaurant in the world.
The chef, Dan Giusti, left the restaurant to lead a children’s school lunch program in the United States and faced multiple barriers, including U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, a low budget and kids’ taste buds, Rogers told Insider, recalling the speech.
“He said he had this revelation: ‘Here I am trying to push on these kids this really healthy food … How do I take the food they know what it is and they want to eat it but just make it better for them?’ ” Rogers said.
Giusti told the crowd at MAD Symposium that he was more content in his job trying to feed children approachable but healthy food than he was while working in the highest echelon of fine dining.
“I thought that was really an important thing to take away because we talked about a lot of high-level ideas at these restaurants,” Rogers said. “That’s all well and good, but you are making a really potentially small impact. … We can also be making an impact, and our success might look different.”
Lee attended a breakout session on mental health and depression among employees, but the most memorable experience for him was listening to The New York Times food writer Kim Severson and pastry chef and writer Lisa Donovan talk about the climate of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.
“After all that has been said about it, it seems like everyone has had their say, but in fact, there is still so much to sort out and resolve,” Lee said in an email. “For all of us in the restaurant business today, it is our responsibility to figure this out so that it does not continue. It is our generation’s biggest fight, and it was clear in Copenhagen that we haven’t even begun to unravel all of it.”
Lee added that he and Ofcacek went to MAD Symposium in support of the LEE Initiative.
“We want to understand the global issues of gender and diversity inequality in the restaurant industry and try to implement programs to point the industry in the right direction,” he wrote. “We aren’t going to solve all the issues and certainly not overnight, but Lindsey and I feel like we have an opportunity to do some good and to set an example of how we can create a lasting impact on equality.”
Both Ofcacek and Rogers said they were shocked when visiting Copenhagen that a city slightly smaller than Louisville could support the quantity of fine dining and Michelin star restaurants that it has.
“They have some really exciting chefs and restaurateurs,” Rogers said, noting that people there are willing to support high-end, higher-priced establishments. He added that restaurant employees in Copenhagen are paid a living wage that allows them to raise families.
Both also agreed that Louisville isn’t quite there.
“Copenhagen is a very special place. Louisville has an incredible food scene, but I don’t think we are to the point where you could support that many Michelin star restaurants,” said Ofcacek, who noted that many of the restaurants got their ingredients from gardens on the same property or farms not far away.