Digging Deeper: Seven Questions with Claus Meyer

by Jane Black

There are many labels that apply to Claus Meyer: chef, philosopher, TV star, philanthropist. But the one Meyer likes best—and the one that encompasses his boundless interests—is culinary entrepreneur.

No wonder. The 51-year-old Dane is always looking for ways to use food to change the world around him. He built 10 companies in Denmark before, in 2003, co-founding the renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma. The following year, he was the principal architect of the Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine that crystalized Noma’s philosophy—embrace regional and traditional foods, support transparent, sustainable sourcing, create healthy but still-delicious food—and transformed Scandinavia from a culinary backwater into a global destination.

Since 2010, Meyer has been investigating how to apply these principals around the world. His foundation, Melting Pot, opened a fine-dining restaurant Gustu in Bolivia in 2013. This fall, he arrived in New York with an ambitious project that aims to transform one of Brooklyn’s most dangerous neighborhoods through food. Jane Black spoke to Meyer about his efforts to spur community development through food and how culinary innovation supports biodiversity. Edited excerpts follow:

Black: You launched Melting Pot in 2010 because you have said “the strength of the New Nordic Cuisine phenomenon made it too important to keep it to yourselves.” What do you mean by that?

Meyer: For the first 15 years of my career, I fought like a maniac to improve our food culture in Denmark from the bottom up, but with a rather limited impact. With the New Nordic Cuisine, a very different top-down approach, it was almost too easy; it spread like a benign virus. Within one and a half years, the Nordic Cuisine Manifesto, which was formally adopted by the Nordic Council of Ministers, became a sort of a guiding light that connected chefs, farmers, butchers, fishermen, bakers, researchers, small and big food companies, policy makers and food journalists in the process of social change. Also within less than five years, at Noma, we suddenly found ourselves amongst the best restaurants in the world.

I always try to find the bigger picture, the larger purpose. The more I saw the Danish embassies and the Danish food industries trying to capitalize on the New Nordic Cuisine, the more I was reminded that the idea from the outset was about educating ourselves and raising the level of consciousness within our own food culture. I hated to see the vision taken as a hostage in a marketing or branding initiative.

Then, one day I had an old friend call me up. He told me he had reread the manifesto and he said, you can take out the word Nordic. I said: It’s impossible. It’s the new Nordic cuisine. And he said, read it again. You can take out the word Nordic. Suddenly I got it; maybe there was something in this for the world. I wanted to explore that idea.

Black: And then you went on to mesh culinary innovation with a social mission?

Meyer: Yes. In 2010 I established the Melting Pot Foundation with the idea to empower vulnerable and marginalized people through food, food craft and entrepreneurship.

The first project was to open and operate food schools in Denmark in a strategic alliance with the prison service. This was one of the most personally rewarding journeys I have ever embarked on.

In 2011, we decided to establish a fine-dining restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia, and to try to be an enzyme that releases the true potential of the Bolivian food culture. We helped people from a large number of regions and indigenous tribes write a national Bolivian food manifesto; we also formed the food movement, MIGA [Movimiento de Integración Gastronómico Boliviano], and established a food festival, Tambo. Initially, we naively thought we could create a stellar restaurant with a staff composed solely of youngsters exposed to violence in their families in the slums, El Alto. We soon realized that at least some of the students had to come from a more robust background.

And so in 2014, we began to work with a Dutch NGO, ICCO. We ended up building 13 cafeterias, called Manqas, directly in the slums, where we are training 2,500 kids over a two-year period that ends in 2016. These cafeterias also provide the local communities with a healthy lunch made from local produce for $1. We recently opened a new Manqa in Bogota, Colombia.

Black: I love that you are not afraid of failing. Because it would be pretty difficult for someone from Denmark, even with lots of success and experience and vision, to go into a country and have it work out perfectly.

Meyer: Well, what we do in Bolivia is not perfect, but the beautiful thing about this kind of work is that even when you fail, your effort will always have benefitted someone. Che Guevara only lasted three weeks in Bolivia before he was kicked out. We are still there after three years.

Black: There’s an environmental component too in this.

Meyer: Everything we do—and it was written in stone in the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto—is about diversity, about reconnecting to the land and people exactly where you are. We need to teach people that a carrot is not a carrot. There are hundreds of varieties of carrots. And if you treat them in one way, they’ll produce one type of flavor. But if you harvest them young, if you bury them in the ground for two years, if you give them more fertilizer or less fertilizer or another fertilizer, or have onions growing beside them, they will be different.

What we do is to create sensitivity and attention and compassion for everything edible from nature. The Nordic cuisine philosophy celebrates the concept of terroir. Terroir is too important to be a privilege of France because it gives a voice to the landscape.

One of the reasons why we chose Bolivia is that the country encompasses four different climate zones and probably has the largest unexplored biological diversity on the planet. At Gustu we use 100 percent Bolivian produce. Even the wine list is 100 percent Bolivian. The Tacana community in the Bolivan Amazon is one of our great partners, and we buy alligator, Amazonian fish and cacao from them. Because of Gustu’s position, we see that whenever we start to re-appreciate a forgotten Bolivian resource or a new supplier, other restaurants follow in our footsteps.

Black: You recently moved to New York City with your family. Your main commercial project is to build a Nordic food hall and a restaurant in Grand Central Station. But you’re also working on a fascinating project in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Tell me about it.

Meyer: It’s hard to make an impact in New York City. You have everything here, so many competent people, so many great ideas and initiatives. But then you also have sad things, like homelessness, poverty and communities that kind of have been let down by society. I asked myself: What can I do that would really mean something to someone? We all know that food matters beyond pleasure, and I did not want to come over here and spend my professional life just on the business side of food.

I found the answer in a queue in front of Scratch Bread bakery in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This stranger approached me and said, welcome to our neighborhood. And we started talking and I told him I was moving to New York. And I asked him: What could someone with my background—someone who had the fortune to be able to open a major food project in Manhattan—what could I do if I wanted to do something truly great? This young man in front of me, Lucas Denton, happened to be a sociologist employed by the new city council. He was studying gentrification, and he came up with some very clever answers.

Black: Right on the spot?

Meyer: Right on the spot. And I said: Can we talk when I go home? He never expected me to follow up. But I e-mailed him, and the conversation went on. I liked the idea of us meeting there. Most importantly I liked Lucas, his incredible background and our exchange of ideas and perspectives, so eventually I went on to hire him to lead the project.

Black: And the project in Brownsville?

Meyer: Melting Pot is converting a warehouse in Brownsville into a not-for-profit bakery, coffee bar, restaurant and a community center. We will operate the whole thing as a food school where Brownsville students can learn the virtues of cooking, baking, entrepreneurship and hospitality in an apprenticeship model that they are being paid to attend. We expect to have between 45 and 60 students by late 2016.

How do you do that in Brownsville? We know we will not move anyone or fix anything by cooking lasagna, New Nordic or Bolivian soups. Brownsville is predominantly an African-American and African-Caribbean neighborhood, so we will take the apprentices on a journey to the food their great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers ate and see what we can get out of that. Also, unlike Noma and Gustu, the idea here is to feed Brownsville, not to built a destination restaurant. At least not in the beginning. Ultimately we hope we can become a catalyst in a process of change that goes far beyond the walls of our physical premises.