By Cristina Castellanos Stephens
Translated by Suzanne Stephens Waller
Claus Meyer, the co-founder and coowner of Noma, the world’s best restaurant, according to Pellegrino, is the author of a dozen cookbooks, a media-savvy chef and a food entrepreneur.
When René Redzepi and Claus Meyer founded Noma, they wanted to redefine luxury. They emphasized seasonality and attempted to replace the missing link between cooking and nature. They wanted food to be compatible with what was healthy and tried to find a place for it on the map of Scandinavian cuisine. They were on what they called a suicide mission, which has turned out to be a lot less suicidal than they feared.
It is always a pleasant surprise to listen to Meyer’s talk. He began by describing the food in his hometown. He grew up in a part of the world where the Puritan doctors and priests led an anti-hedonistic crusade, during which they railed against the pleasures of food for three hundred years. For centuries, this philosophy was successfully conveyed by these killjoys, who explained that if you wanted to live a long, healthy life on earth, avoid hell and guarantee yourself a comfortable position in heaven, all you had to do was eat food that tasted mediocre, preferably as quickly as possible. Claus Meyer was raised in a middle-class family during the 1960s during the darkest moment of Danish food.
His mother belonged to the first generation of women to work outside the home. It was the era of canned meatballs, instant mashed potatoes, gravy browning, and stock cubes. Meyer was brought up on a diet of the cheapest, fattiest meat and the worst- quality frozen vegetables, boiled years earlier in Kazakhstan and stored in freezers in his parents’ basement. Most of the meat was dipped in breadcrumbs three or four times before being deep fried in butter, and what was left over was used as a dip. “At 15, no wonder I was one of the three fattest teenagers in Denmark weighing in at ninety-four kilos.”
Meyer explained that during his childhood, eating was more about efficiency than achieving wellness and beauty. Food was supposed to be cooked and gobbled up in less than half an hour.
When Claus left Denmark to work as an au pair in France with a family where the head of the family was a baker, his eyes were opened to a new world of cooking, the act of eating and doing business. Inspired, he returned home, ready to challenge the culinary traditions of his country, together with attitudes towards agriculture and food production. He became the guiding force behind the new Nordic cooking philosophy, involving the quest for purity in food, simplicity and freshness using seasonal products that take advantage of the climate in the region, the water and changes in the soil.
Claus Meyer has become an active entrepreneur, who has set up a wide range of food businesses. For over twenty years, he has pointed out the shortcomings and possibilities within the culture of Danish and Scandinavian cuisine, through food policies, lectures, his television programs and cookbooks and public debates on food. He has tried to point the way towards better quality products and food.
One of this food entrepreneur’s priorities has been to take on major food corporations and convey the ideas in the New Nordic Kitchen Movement to the rest of the world. Claus has revolutionized the image of Scandinavian food worldwide, and raised it to the level of haute cuisine through Noma.
“If your dreams match others, this becomes a source of energy. I work in a field where my dreams are part of a much larger vision. Many entrepreneurs spend a lot of time thinking how to make more money for themselves, but I think it is more important and useful to ask how and where I can help bring about change with ideas and my company. Where can I really make a difference? I have learned a lot about the power of food and how what is delicious can serve as a point of inflection.”
Claus Meyer and his team have formed a strategic partnership with high security prisons in Denmark, where they have set up cooking schools. They have employees who teach them cooking techniques and they have organized a therapeutic program for prisoners, who are given a profession, a diploma and jobs. They encourage them to talk about their dreams and learn how they can become someone different tomorrow. These measures have successfully changed the lives of several inmates.
Claus also spoke about diversity and the importance of having influential people such as chefs and entrepreneurs with different approaches defend diversity. If a single ingredient or product dominates all the others, it kills diversity to the detriment of other key features in our lives such as independence, health, diversity in markets, various philosophies regarding products and access to land. Although large international corporations manufacture products many people like, focusing on a single product acts like a tsunami, wiping out everything else. Claus Meyer stressed the value of teaching new generations about taste and quality because they go hand in hand. If nothing is done about this, since new parents have forgotten how to cook and schools do not know how to deal with food, future generations will only want what is sweet, salty or greasy. It is essential to bring back an appreciation of more complex flavors such as acidity and bitterness. He tries to create large teams and good partners and colleagues, so as to bring out the best in them. ¨I would not be satisfied if I did not get up every morning with the idea that I wanted to be a better version of me.¨
At first Claus explains that all he thought was, “This is Scandinavia’s moment-it’s our time to shine.” And suddenly, Noma was number 1 and it had a huge impact but he could not help thinking that after that, there had to be something else. What about the poor? What about Africa? And what about everyday food? This was too elitist and focused solely on one region. ¨We were now the best and then what? I wanted to find a greater purpose. Originally the purpose was indeed larger: the aim was to change a whole region, but with this project, there is an even greater purpose. It’s like a magic box that contains another one, and when you open it, you find another one inside it, and then another.¨
Claus Meyer, together with a great team, has created the Melting Pot Foundation in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. They have used their passion to create something that goes beyond elite cuisine and set up a cooking school for disadvantaged youngsters in La Paz, together with a restaurant, a bistro and a social reintegration project for former inmates run by young Danish chef Kamilia Siedler. This project is part of an ongoing search for territories and challenges where there is a basis for creating a movement. “It is important for us to try and make a difference in the world. I am not particularly religious but I do believe that there is a greater purpose beyond the fact that we are here. I still do not know what it is and I am on my way to discovering it.”