The Dudes of Food

Alex Atala of São Paulo, René Redzepi of Copenhagen and David Chang of New York

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Photograph by Martin Schoeller for TIME

On his own, each chef in this trio is demanding, innovative, entertaining and charismatic. They also happen to be close buds, despite the vast distances that separate their restaurants. More important, in their combined iconoclastic approach to fine dining, they have transformed the image of the chef from distant aesthete to in-your-face dude. Atala, who runs D.O.M. in São Paulo, has enough tattoos to illustrate a Sistine kitchen. Chang, whose Momofuku fief in New York City is now a multinational empire, doesn't shy away from choice four-letter words. Redzepi--the creator of an exquisite and daring cuisine at Noma, in Copenhagen--approaches everything with a bracing honesty, including himself. In one another's company, they smile and visibly relax. They are practically goofy together.

Over the past couple of years, they have also become the central trinity of MAD, the annual food symposium that Redzepi stages in the Danish capital. Chang co-curated this year's show, and Atala will be in charge of the content of next year's.

MAD isn't insanity; nor is it an acronym: it's the Danish word for food--and their method for increasing awareness of the joys, discontents and complexities of eating. An intellectual smorgasbord, MAD 2013 was all about guts--both literal intestines and metaphorical courage--and speakers ranged from a master butcher from Italy to a man who could not eat because his digestive system had ceased to function to the French maître Alain Ducasse, whom Redzepi welcomed with a street-smart encomium: "F---ing Alain Ducasse is in the house!"

The three take their jobs seriously but also find fun amid the hard work of feeding and satisfying their customers. Just before this year's MAD bash, at a warm-up picnic on the Danish island of Bornholm, the trio and other participating chefs slaved over grills--and watched one another's back. At one point, Redzepi ran down to the beach to warn Atala, who was taking a break, that the pig he was roasting was on fire. Emergency over, the feasting began and the three amigos walked off into the Baltic sunset.