UPSOUND: Breakfast sounds
It’s breakfast time on a Monday morning in Copenhagen.
In a former gunpowder warehouse, twenty-five strangers are getting to know one other over Ethiopian coffee, Danish pastries, and heaping bowls of honey granola.
If it feels like the first day of school, well, that’s because it is.
UPSOUND: CLAP CLAP CLAP
Welcome to the MAD Academy — a new type of hospitality school conceived by Noma’s René Redzepi and headquartered in the heart of the Danish capital.
UPSOUND: Melina and Magnus
A familiar figure draws the focus of the room.
It’s Magnus Nilsson, the acclaimed Swedish chef who is now the director of the MAD Academy.
And to his right is Melina Shannon-DiPietro, the executive director of MAD, the Academy’s nonprofit parent organisation.
Nilsson, of course, needs little introduction.
For years, he ran Fåviken, a Michelin-starred restaurant in northern Sweden that became a byword for destination dining, and starred in season one of the Netflix show “Chef’s Table”.
To start the week, Nilsson poses a suitably inspirational question.
UPSOUND: “So, why are you here? Think about that now.”
Well, I know why I am.
I want to learn more about the MAD Academy.
What little I do know is that MAD began as a symposium in 2011, gathering internationally renowned chefs for thought-provoking conversations around food — and that the MAD Academy launched in 2019.
But I’d also heard that its ambition was to change the hospitality industry — and I wanted to find out how.
So for this episode of The Recipe, I dusted down my satchel, sharpened my pencils, and went back to school.
UPSOUND Ed Romein’s class in progress
The course kicked off with a session run by the Academy’s programme director Ed Romein…
… followed by a card game based on the definition of words related to sustainability — an exercise designed as an ice breaker for the mostly young, mostly international students.
UPSOUND from the card game
While they did that, I took a peek at the curriculum and noted that the students would soon be learning, among other things, about sustainable food systems, stakeholder mapping, and how to communicate their sustainability goals.
And when the next class started, I tracked down Melina Shannon-DiPietro and asked her to explain the method in the madness.
Melina: “The programming is born out of the belief that everyone in hospitality can and should dare to make a difference for the world, to help with our biggest challenges. And MAD, as a word, you know, if you're living in Denmark, you expect us to say “mad”, which is the Danish word for food, but we say it MAD, even though we know the right pronunciation, but what we’re after is that feeling of mad in the English language — that we’re wildly passionate about something, that we are also a little bit fed up with the status quo — and so these programmes are about making change. They’re about transforming the food system. They’re about transforming hospitality.”
Superb: “How does that translate into kind of the structure of the courses? What are the courses and how does it operate as an academy?”
Melina: “You know, to make change, I feel that everyone needs tools. They need skills. They need knowledge. And they need a network, right? They need a group of people who are working with them. And so what we do here is gather the relevant information and develop approaches that are best-in-class for the hospitality industry and create five-day intensive programmes, first in environment and sustainability and the other in business and leadership, to help these students, people with seven to 10 years of experience in the industry — or in our more senior programmes, 15 to 20 years experience in the industry — we gather them together to give them that relevant knowledge so they can go feel empowered and make change.”
UPSOUND: Douglas McMaster’s class in progress
As you might expect, MAD has little trouble attracting talented and influential speakers.
The week I visited, the guest lecturers were Princeton research scholar Timothy Searchinger and Douglas McMaster, the British chef and founder of Silo — the world’s first zero-waste restaurant.
UPSOUND: Douglas’s class in progress
I sat in on Douglas’s class, which covered everything from composting to cooking with invasive species, and after class, I asked him about his role at the MAD Academy.
Douglas: “I’ve been part of their curriculum for the last couple of years and I talk about innovation and the ups and downs of that innovation and how we can, as individuals, be disruptive in slightly negative food systems and apply ourselves to innovate and make the food system better. It’s like a metacognition. It’s like, if we and everything we were aware of was in a bubble, it’s to be outside of the bubble and see all of the other bubbles’ perspective. It’s seeing the world differently so they can interpret it in a much more sophisticated, more educated way. Again, if you don't know a problem exists, then you can't innovate on it, you can’t do it. And this is giving them a perspective in the same way so they can design their lives, their careers, their businesses, their systems, around a greater perspective.”
UPSOUND: Douglas’s class in progress
It was clear how different the course was for a hospitality school, so I wanted to find out more about the kind of students the Academy is trying to attract.
According to Melina, it currently runs courses 16 times a year, with places for 25 people on each course. Given MAD’s ties to Noma, I imagine the application process is rather competitive.
Melina: “It is competitive. You know, the very first time we announced the programme for that pilot in 2019, we had 3,000 applications for 20 spots. We haven’t even yet been able to provide seats for those 3,000 people and every day we receive new applications. That said, I want the people listening to your podcast to apply. We know there’s a need and a demand. And, you know, you might be the person we’re looking for.”
Superb: “It's not just about teaching knowledge and facts so much as getting conversations going and having competing dynamics, I guess, over the course of the week and having people from different sectors within the hospitality industry come together and share ideas, so are you trying to evaluate not just the individual, but how the dynamics of a particular 20-person course is going to run? How do you decide who’s going to attend?”
Melina: “Good question. Well, since, since you’re British and I’m American, I will share that we’ve discovered in every group there should be a few Brits or a few Americans, or some combination of those, to start the week off with some energy. You know, our people are fearless about talking…”
Melina: “Opinionated, that’s right. I said we shouldn’t have all Brits and all Americans. That’s right, that’s right. So when we’re evaluating, I mean, one, they do have to be working actively in hospitality and that it would surprise you how many applications we get from, for example, former Microsoft engineers wanting to make a career change. I'm glad those people are interested in food systems. They’re not our target. Second, we’re looking for that track record. That doesn’t mean the fanciest restaurants. What that does mean is you’ve continually shown that you're committed to your workplaces, that you're pushing hard in your job, and that in your application you share with us some of what gets you fired up about the work and about making change in this industry. On top of all that, yes, we are looking for a really important balance in our groups. We want there to be good representation from front and back of house. We think that communication bridge, that respect on both sides of kitchen and dining room, is essential for the future of the industry. We’re looking for a good mix of geographic backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds, and we’re looking for a good mix of men and women. We’ve got to start somewhere in correcting for how few women we have in senior leadership positions and one way is, right away, from the beginning of people’s careers, to give them the skills for leadership and the ability to talk about those challenges.”
Superb: “And then tell me about the pedagogical structure. I was just in a classroom, but I don't imagine for one minute that, in this industry, with this academy, they’re in there for terribly long.”
Melina: “You’re right. You know, over and over again, people have said to me, “Look, no one wants to sit in a classroom all day” or they’ve said people who work in hospitality don’t want to sit in a classroom all day. And, you know, I grew up in traditional institutions and I didn’t want to sit in a classroom all day. I think some of our best learning happens through our hands. It happens through our hearts. It happens through seeing change in action. And so the curriculum is both experimental and highly practical. So students are experiencing a variety of field trips, lectures, workshops, case studies that get them thinking and demanding, putting the pressure on them to make changes, in imaginary restaurants.”
Indeed, the week I visited, the students were taken to an organic pig farm, to a nearby waste-to-energy plant, and to a dense forest outside Copenhagen, where they foraged for wild plants.
But they also popped up the road to Matt Orlando’s renowned restaurant Amass.
UPSOUND: Matt Orlando talking to students.
There, Matt and Amass’s R&D chef, Maximilian Bogenman, introduced the students to about a dozen novel ingredients cooked up at Amass — from cacao-free chocolate to tomato garum to pumpkin seed oil and vinegars.
UPSOUND: Matt on giving up citrus
What was clear afterwards was that it wasn’t so much the ingredients themselves that had impressed the students as the mindset behind them.
Klas Lindberg: “I’m so, so inspired. This was something extra.”
That’s Klas Lindberg, who runs a contemporary Swedish restaurant in central Stockholm.
On the short walk back to the MAD Academy, he told me how he’d found the week so far.
Klas: “This is something really good. And there’s so much information packed into one week. It’s fantastic. You know, getting home every night, I'm exhausted because there’s been so much information just shoved into you. It’s fantastic. It’s so nice to meet people with the same values and same ideas and we’re pushing each other, and it's so inspirational to hear what the other people in our class are doing because they’re working hard with their stuff back home. So this is a great opportunity to make change.”
Of course, another Swede who knows all about change is Magnus Nilsson, the MAD Academy’s director.
For years, he enjoyed success as the chef at Fåviken. But for all the awards and accolades, it was how he improved the working conditions at the restaurant that meant the most to him. And it’s a story he likes to tell on the first morning of the Academy’s leadership and business course.
Magnus: “I started Fåviken when I was 24. Perhaps too young, definitely too immature and too inexperienced for that type of responsibility of running a team and that kind of restaurant. I never really reflected on it back then, but it wasn’t a nice place to work. We worked too many hours. It was not a particularly supportive environment. I mean, we didn’t even make staff food back in the very beginning. It was, like, “If you’re hungry, there’s yoghurt in the fridge and let’s get back to work”. It was that type of environment and, little by little, that just started feeling very strange. And we came to a point where I felt that I couldn’t work that way anymore. I couldn’t work 70, 80 hours a week. All these things that, in many lines of business are taken for granted, and quite frankly should be taken for granted. And I spoke to my sort of closest coworkers at the time and we all felt the same and we decided that we were going to try to change that somehow. We started by addressing work time. And we decided that we were going to have 40-hour work weeks scheduled with a 10-hour absolute cap on overtime and that all overtime was going to be fully paid. And this sounds very normal to someone who doesn’t work in restaurants, but it’s not. It’s very unusual in restaurants. So to force ourselves to do this, we actually unionised the restaurant on the initiative of us, the restaurateurs, which is a very — I mean, let’s say they're very, very surprised when I called the local restaurant workers’ union and asked if we could, you know, I said, “I have this restaurant and I would like to unionise it.” Soon enough, we got to the point where people actually did work 40 hours per week and, on occasion, someone worked a few extra hours and then they were fully paid, and it made such a huge difference. And while this was going on, we also started addressing the sort of less easily defined things that we perceive as issues or problems — how people behave with one another, whether we were actually a supportive work environment for our team — but we started trying to figure out how we were going to be the place where we wished that we had worked when we worked in someone else’s restaurant, essentially. It was a gradual change of course, and what made us want to continue was that very quickly I saw results. You know, when people started working less and when we started being better at treating one other well, taking care of our team and taking care of one another, people stopped leaving. And going from this place where if you stayed for, I don’t know, nine months, you were basically a superhero, to a place where people just didn’t want to leave, unless they got a really, really cool offer somewhere else maybe — that was very encouraging. To see that the things we did actually had that kind of effect. And when I did the last payroll, I really understood how impactful these changes had been because there were a lot of people who had worked here for seven, eight, or even nine years. And there was almost no one that had worked here for less than two, two-and-a-half years. I think it was really a wonderful confirmation of the fact that it does work and it's not that difficult. It’s about deciding that this is important and it's not just important to me, it’s important to the general trajectory of development in the whole hospitality industry. And for us, what I also saw was that the restaurant was more profitable after these changes had been put in place. The restaurant was a much nicer place to work — and for everyone, including me as the restaurateur and manager of it. I regret that we didn’t do it earlier, to be honest.”
To the disappointment of many diners who had Fåviken on their bucket list, Magnus closed the restaurant in late 2019 and planned to take some time off.
But René Redzepi and Melina Shannon-DiPietro had other ideas.
They invited him to lecture at the MAD Academy — and that soon morphed into a role as its director.
Magnus: “When we have students, part of what I do is interact with them and one of the things that I know that I can offer is sort of the real-life experience of having run a restaurant for quite a long time. And then on a kind of bigger level, the strategic thinking about what MAD Academy should be and how we should achieve that is largely what I do.”
Superb: “Tell me what you think makes the MAD Academy so special.”
Magnus: “I think that what makes the MAD Academy special, more so than anywhere else, is that this education is meant for those who actively work in hospitality. Most higher education for people in hospitality is kind of designed for those who don’t want to be in hospitality anymore. If you look at most hospitality colleges and you look at the people who go to those, not that many of them ever go back to working actively in kitchens and dining halls again, and I think that’s fine because they might do other great things and they might sort of fast-track directly into higher management, for example. But we also need to equip those who actively work, the people who actually pick up the phone and order produce and the people who actually do the payroll or hire — we need to educate those on making better choices.”
UPSOUND: Deborah Mattsson-Clarke’s class in progress
Indeed, at the MAD Academy, students learn how to reduce waste, plan for the kind of crisis that could ruin a restaurant, and be better leaders.
A case in point is the class taught by consultant Deborah Mattsson-Clarke.
Deborah: “My work is about helping people to achieve things they didn’t think they could, and whether that’s as individuals or as leaders or as teams, or even as organisations, it’s helping them get clear about who they want to be, where they want to be, how they want to be, and then taking them on the journey to get there. And particularly the hospitality industry has never given itself the luxury or the time out to do that sort of work, and they allow things to happen that wouldn’t be acceptable in other industries.”
UPSOUND: Deborah’s class
In Deborah’s class, which is given as part of the leadership and business course, she leads students through a series of workshops designed to get them thinking about group dynamics, communication styles and effective leadership.
Deborah: “What we're hoping for is that it, the more people that do it, the more there becomes this sort of pressure within the industry for change. A lot of change management specialists think that change has to come from the top, but I’ve seen fantastic changes coming when you get a sort of tidal wave coming up from the bottom. That doesn’t mean it has to be a revolution, but just not accepting the traditional way of doing things. One of the nicest quotes we had, which was quite a recent one, was from a woman who said that she came in in the morning thinking that this was a luxury and she left at the end of the day thinking this is essential.”
On the strength of what I heard and saw, I don’t think there’s any doubting the necessity of the MAD Academy. The question is, how does it know it’s having any impact?
Magnus Nilsson again.
Magnus: “It’s actually quite difficult and there are two ways of seeing it. And one is that in the same way as when you run a restaurant, you can feel the room and you can see whether you reach people and you can kind of gauge whether they're having a good time or perceiving that they’re getting something out of something. And that’s easy. And that’s just about being present when you’re here. But the more difficult thing is to measure the actual impact and that’s difficult. And something that we are trying to actively do here, but that’s also like it’s a bit too soon because we’ve had students for about two years now. We are now for the first time beginning to see that we can collect actual data that shows that what we are teaching here actually makes a difference.”
Melina picks up the thread.
“The data is coming. I’m impatient for it, of course. What I hope we’ll see is that these restaurants are more financially viable, that people stay at them longer, that turnover is lower, that the people retiring out of them have better lives going forward. And of course that, on every front, their practices are more sustainable — better water taps, different energy-efficient appliances in their kitchens, purchasing from the right farmers nearby.”
An example of this kind of impact can be found almost 300 kilometres away, in a small town called Hantsholm.
Emilie: “My vision is how can we change the food culture so we stop importing produce from everywhere from around the world, how can we start eating what’s produced right next to us.”
That’s Emilie Qvist — the owner of Medvind, a small fish restaurant on the west coast of Denmark.
After stints at Relæ and Amass, she was working at Dan Barber’s restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, when she heard about the MAD Academy and applied for its environment and sustainability course.
Emilie: “What I learned the most from MAD was how everything is connected. So it’s not just important that you think about the suppliers for the greens. You also have to think about the electricity, the experience, and also the staff of course.”
Not long after attending MAD, Emilie launched Medvind — and hopes it can inspire others.
Emilie: “What change do you want to see in the world? Be the change. And my dream as well is that more places like Medvind will open and not by me, but by everyone else who sees this as an, as a great example.”
In that respect, Emilie’s restaurant epitomises the ambition of the MAD Academy.
Melina: “So when I think about a young person coming through our doors, they have their entire career ahead of them. If we can change their mind, or their mindset, and the skills they have to address these challenges, not only do they make changes in every working day of their life, but they influence their colleagues, they influence their customers. So I think there’s a big ripple effect.”
UPSOUND: Douglas’s class
Douglas McMaster is similarly adamant about the Academy’s ability to change ways of thinking.
In his class, he tells students that it wasn’t until he was working in what calls a “dungeon” of a kitchen that he realised the food system was broken.
Douglas: “I do what I do because I had an understanding – I was going to say vision – but I had an understanding of why waste exists and it's a symptom of a broken system. And when you realise that something’s wrong, it becomes hard to ignore.”
And he maintains that had he been able to attend the MAD Academy earlier in his career, it would have set him down the right path much sooner.
Douglas: “It’s so typical to follow pathways that are formed by society. As a chef, you aspire to have Michelin stars because all the other restaurants have Michelin stars or are aspiring to have Michelin stars, but there is another thing to aspire to be. This is a new pathway and the MAD Academy forges new pathways — or it doesn’t forge them, it makes the students aware that those new pathways can be forged.”
Of course, there are some who suspect that the MAD Academy is something of a branding exercise for Noma — a smokescreen for any criticism of the restaurant.
Magnus Nilsson counters this by describing the broad church of hospitality workers the Academy is trying to attract as part of its bona fide mission to change the industry.
Magnus: “We’ve really been very careful to set up the classes in such a way that we have a distribution of where people come from. So some people might think that it’s mostly going to be super-motivated people working in the most ambitious fine-dining restaurants from various countries, which is not the case. There’s going to be, in a class of 25, three or four of those and then there’s going to be someone who manages the food in a really big hospital somewhere and then there’s going to be someone who works in the canteen and someone who manages their own the coffee shop. It is a real mix of people with different backgrounds and, yeah, they're all motivated and perhaps they know more than the average because they’re choosing to come here. We want to be the place that teaches those who wouldn’t necessarily get access to that knowledge if they didn’t come to MAD. And, most importantly, I think that maybe half of what people get out of MAD Academy is directly from our programming — it’s what we can teach them. And then the other half is that we connect them to one another — so that someone who works at one of the world's most ambitious restaurants in some country somewhere can spend five days doing a case study together with someone who runs the food and beverage operation in a large hospital in an entirely different country. And I think that’s the main thing really.”
MAD's diversity is impressive, but it should also be noted that with courses costing 37,000 Danish kroner — about 5,000 US dollars — many would-be students must struggle to afford their place, much less take five off work.
Then again, thanks to MAD’s funding model, more than half of the spots on every course are given to scholarship students, which means that each year MAD covers the full tuition for more than 200 people.
Here’s Melina again.
Melina: “I would love it if we can give every student who wanted a scholarship one of those, and we're super-fortunate there’s a set of generous donors and grantors like the Ministry of Food in Denmark who believe in hospitality’s potential to accelerate the green transition and who also see that many of the industry’s practices when it comes to wellbeing, sustainability, finance are antiquated and they want to make those changes, and they love the pleasure of a dining experience, so they see us as one vehicle for making that change.”
UPSOUND: Chef from Baka d’Busk speaking
Speaking of dining, there is — as you would expect — great food served at the MAD Academy.
The week I was there, chefs from a string of acclaimed local restaurants swung by to serve lunch — including the Mexican cantina Sanchez, the ramen joint Slurp, and the veggie bistro Baka d’Busk.
UPSOUND: Applause for the chef from Baka d’Busk
There’s no doubting, then, that the MAD Academy is nourishing its students in every possible way — and with every class it runs, it is slowly but surely helping to change the hospitality industry.
The only question is… how big can it get?
Magnus: “It can be huge because, you know, there is a need everywhere where people give hospitality and run hospitality-related businesses.”
Melina: “Right now we’re running programmes every other week, so we could double the size right away. Of course, we have dreams of doing some programming online and our MAD Mondays and our symposium, which bring groups together, either in different cities or larger groups right here in Copenhagen — those are activities I want to consider. Everyone in hospitality could be part of this. There are 8 million people working in hospitality in Europe. It’s a big number.”
You’ve been listening to The Recipe.
This episode was written, produced and hosted by me, James Clasper, for Superb.
You can find out more about the MAD Academy by visiting madfeed.co.
Head over to superbexperience.com for many more podcast episodes, interviews and blog posts about the industry.
And stay tuned to The Recipe next month for an extended interview with Douglas McMaster.
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Many thanks for joining me, I’ll see you next time.