On Monday, July 18, the Hammer Museum in Westwood will play host to MAD Mondays, a TED Talk-style event organized by Noma chef Rene Redzepi’s nonprofit MAD. The event, which is free and open to the public, features numerous Los Angeles restaurants serving food samples to attendees, including Guelaguetza, Luv2eat Thai Bistro, and Bridgetown Roti. But one Los Angeles business owner is questioning whether the event’s compensation was actually fair for the restaurants, street vendors, and pop-up operators invited to participate.
Raul Ortega’s celebrated truck Mariscos Jalisco was invited to serve at the event but did not accept due to what Ortega characterizes as inadequate compensation. Ortega says that Raduno, the creative agency organizing the event on behalf of MAD, offered him $1,000 to serve 200 people. Mariscos Jalisco, a truck that has operated for 21 years in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, is no stranger to catering for celebrities and at high-profile events, from serving model and television personality Chrissy Teigen and record producer Benny Blanco, to catering at the Grammys. “All of these people appreciate us, respect our work, and pay our price, and usually offer even more,” says Ortega.
Ortega says that the MAD offer isn’t sustainable for his food truck operation, which, to him, seems contradictory to the event’s focus on various forms of sustainability in the restaurant industry. Among the participating group of chefs, some accepted Raduno’s initial offer; Thai stalwart Luz2Eat donated its food and time to the event. Bridgetown Roti’s Rashida Holmes was given the option to send a quote to receive fair compensation. “I’ve learned from past experiences that you have to ask because my start-up isn’t making a profit at this point,” says Holmes.
Holmes says that she was asked to send a price for her services and Raduno accepted what she offered. “It’s great to rub elbows and to be associated with a chef like Redzepi, but the pay has to be fair,” she says. According to Ortega, he was only presented with a fixed fee, and perceiving it to be a final offer, he turned it down.
“When I first received the email from MAD, it looked like it would be amazing to be a part of the event, but I didn’t know who [Redzepi] was,” says Ortega. Though he grew more interested after learning about Redzepi’s reputation, Ortega’s excitement faded when the event offered him $5 per serving for 200 attendees. The compensation was below his minimum for catering, which is $3,000 for a mostly seafood menu, and would not have covered the cost of his popular ceviche. “We are not looking for anything for free — we will pay you fairly,” wrote Michelle Biscieglia, a representative for Raduno, in an email to Ortega obtained by Eater. But Ortega says that $1,000 is not enough to cover the cost of ingredients, labor, and transportation.
“It’s not a nice feeling because they are basically asking for anything they can get from us. We work really hard and we can’t just give away food,” he says. “Redzepi knows what it takes to run a food truck and he should know better. Maybe the person that contacted me didn’t know.”
In Los Angeles, street vendors have endured years of harassment by the health department, inaction by Los Angeles regulators to protect their businesses, price inflation on staple ingredients, and the still-lingering pandemic. These operators, some of the most vulnerable members of the food industry, often have to consider how increasing costs could alienate their neighborhood customers. Catering and event opportunities can act as a boon for food trucks and other street operations, but sometimes, vendors don’t feel they have the resourcing or leverage to address inadequate compensation.
There are many reasons for restaurants to participate in events like MAD Mondays. When an organization helmed by the chef of the World’s Best Restaurant comes to town, local operators and chefs will sign on for personal and promotional reasons. It’s not uncommon for vendors to take a loss to network with industry professionals and serve their food to new audiences. In these cases, operators can control costs by making smaller samples or simplifying the dish being served. Guelaguetza will be serving its tamal de mole this evening, which is priced at $9 on its menu.
MAD, an organization Redzepi founded in 2011, aims to “create lasting change in restaurants and communities around the world.” The MAD Mondays talk will focus on “sustainability and commitment to driving positive change,” with a keynote address from Douglas McMaster, the chef of Silo London which is known as the world’s first zero-waste restaurant. In a press release for the event, executive director of MAD Melissa Shannon di Pietro said that the organization seeks to build better working conditions and more inclusive kitchens. In addition to MAD Mondays, Noma is hosting pop-ups from July 17 to July 19 in Los Angeles.
“The five Mad Mondays LA restaurants are an integral focus of the event and were asked to make a key dish they wanted to showcase to the public, and to charge market rate for their services,” says Irene Edwards, head of communications for MAD. “In keeping with MAD Mondays tradition, they are being recognized in front of the audience and also promoted in our event collateral and on MAD’s social channels.” Some chefs who signed on to MAD Mondays understand the costs and benefits and are willing to take a potential financial loss to support the event’s mission. “It’s a nonprofit event, so we turned down the money, and are donating our food,” says Fern Kaewtathip of Luv2Eat Thai Bistro. “We are not rich but we want to give back if we can.”
As for Ortega, he notes that while Mariscos Jalisco has come out of the pandemic largely intact, not having to close any of its trucks or its Pomona store, he still feels that businesses like his are sometimes considered differently by fine dining chefs and event operators. “We really respect chefs, we love having them come to our truck, but we are the same as them — street vendors are on their level,” he says.