During the afternoon of the second day of the MAD Symposium last weekend, René Redzepi, David Chang and other members of the organizing team changed their green and white MAD t-shirts to ominous black ones that read “Death Happens.”
No one was sure what they signified but everyone was curious and suspected it might have something to do with what was to come. It did. Little did the audience know that they would be responsible for choosing life or death by the end of the day.
Alex Atala closed this year’s symposium with a climactic video narrated by Redzepi. The crowd inside the circus tent went silent as scenes of animal butchery, blood and death played out on screen. It supercharged the space and fulfilled its intent to remind us that the meat on our plate once had a face, hot blood in its veins and a beating heart.
Alex Atala, the Brazilian chef of D.O.M. that Time magazine recently declared was one of the 100 most influential people in the world, was barely visible in the shadow of the stage, his own “Death Happens” t-shirt thinly illuminated in an anemic blue light.
Once the video stopped rolling a spotlight filled the stage and there stood Atala holding a live chicken. The cinnamon-colored bird looked calm and warm tucked beneath the acclaimed chef’s arm, perfectly oblivious to the fate it would suffer in a few short minutes.
In an interview later, Atala describes the scene: “I put my thumb out parallel to the floor to ask the audience if I should kill the chicken or not. I wanted every person in the room to have a stake in its fate.”
He held his sinewy arm out with his thumb in neutral for several minutes as the crowd screamed wildly for him to kill it. He says, “I was surprised by how loud and insistent they were for me to kill it. I thought they might be sympathetic and request that I spare its life.”
What the audience didn’t know is that Atala had a plan for the bird’s safe refuge: “In the audience was the farmer who raised the bird. Should they have decided to spare its life, my plan was to hand the chicken alive and well back to the farmer.”
The madly enthusiastic call for the bird’s demise made it clear that it was not heading back to the safe confines of a Danish farm. The chanting nearly blew the top off the tent and grew even louder when Atala gave the bird’s death the thumbs up.
The shouting instantly subsided and the darkness filled with anticipatory silence as Atala rung the chicken’s neck in a swift, deft motion.
What happened next was not unexpected for Atala, but based upon the deluge of ensuing tweets that followed, it was clear that several people in the tent had never killed a chicken. Atala says, “The nerves of a chicken continue to fire for a few seconds after it dies and this is why its wings continued to flap when I held it upside down by its feet after killing it.”
Based upon the social media flurry inspired by the dramatic scene it was clear that the phrase “chicken with its head cut off” did not resonate. Atala says, “I was shocked when I heard that people thought I had not killed the chicken properly and held it there to suffer. My message is to remember that we are all connected to the meat we consume, to never forget that to eat meat means that death happened. But this would never mean that I would make an animal suffer in order to consume it. An animal that gives its life for us should die in dignity and with integrity, and this is what I intended to illustrate by killing the chicken. I wanted to remind people that a life always has to end whenever we make the choice to eat an animal.”
Atala plucked, butchered and grilled the chicken at the MAD after-party later that night, and there it was clear to him that not every member of the audience was offended by the bird’s dramatic demise. Atala says, “I only brought a few of those Death Happens t-shirts with me and was surprised by how many people asked me for one after I killed the chicken.”