Cooking up a revolution: The chef who wants to change the world
Heliotropism. It’s a word that Claus Meyer learnt when someone described his way of looking at the world. Chef, restaurateur, entrepreneur and culinary activist, Meyer chooses to look towards the light and trust in it to transform the darkest places.
He is most famous for co-founding Noma, the Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant named best in the world four times. Since he opened Noma in 2003, along with René Redzepi, Meyer has gone on to influence the culinary world in the Nordic region and beyond with a fierce passion and firm belief that you can change lives for the better through food.
I spoke with him at the Tasting India Symposium in Delhi, where Meyer was a special guest. “Noma was to be the highest representation of the Nordic food movement,” says Meyer, one of its main architects. He had the radical idea that this restaurant could be inspired, rather than constrained by the limited produce of the Nordic region. He approached Redzepi, then a 25-year-old sous-chef, and Noma opened with the two of them as partners. It earned its first Michelin star within two years and more accolades were showered upon the restaurant known for its innovative approach and attention to detail, and its use of seasonal ingredients foraged from the coast and forests.
But a single restaurant, no matter how feted, was not Meyer’s ultimate goal. That was to bring about a change in the Nordic food culture of ‘avalanche-like’ proportions.
The desire to seek that change was stirred when Meyer, at the age of 20, went to work for a French master baker and chef, Guy Sverzut, in France. “I came to know for the first time the joy of eating a piece of great cheese or a freshly-baked baguette,” he says.
“It was food that made me weep at the sheer pleasure it yielded.” The effect of these delicious discoveries was all the more pronounced because, Meyer says, that was a time of culinary darkness in Danish history. “Everything we ate was processed, frozen, canned and microwaved,” he remembers. “Perhaps because of its Protestant leanings, Denmark considered sensuality, pleasure and deliciousness amongst the worst sins. But I had realised that everyone can fall in love with delicious food, it’s biological.”
An autodidact, Meyer mastered cooking and ventured into restaurants, first bringing French food to Copenhagen and then realising he wasn’t on the right path for the sort of culinary revolution he was dreaming of. He launched food enterprises to manufacture top-quality vinegars and bread. He also became the host of popular food shows on TV. “I must have done 300 shows and at some point I realised I wasn’t making the endemic change I wanted to,” Meyer says. “It needed a higher consciousness and a different approach.”
That approach would be driven by his belief that good food could make the world a better place.
“I knew that food cooked with low-quality ingredients and without love affects people in ways we do not always comprehend, it has an impact on the well-being of a community,” says Meyer, whose own childhood was lacking in the nurturing quality that good food lends. “It took me 15 years to arrive at this point. I looked deep within and realised what I wanted: a world in which children would not be deprived of meals imbued with love and affection.”
So Meyer went about creating the Nordic Food Manifesto. It would mark a resurgence in Danish food culture, tell stories about food and make people open their hearts to great produce, chocolate, cheese and bread.
“I was convinced deliciousness could change lives for the better and improve the world, too,” Meyer says. “We decided to work top down. It was important to explain the vision and express it in a compelling way. It was to be an inclusive project, with all energy directed to creating a food culture to be proud of, one that was valuable, ethical and delicious. How were we to ignite and create such a movement?”
It wasn’t easy, even in Denmark’s organised, democratic society. “I was on a government committee to improve food culture and some of the members who had no sense of quality or taste assumed the right to set the agenda and I was totally p….d off,” he says. There were other battles to fight. “There were unholy agreements between retailers, for instance,” he says. “And we had to walk a thin line.”
But even in these circumstances, Meyer’s heliotropic attitude came into play. He narrates one incident: “I went to this large dairy manufacturer who was putting horrible products out there. And I asked him, how do you want to be remembered? What is the story you want to tell your grandchildren? I suggested he make one good Danish cheese even in the smallest quantities. He would not have to make any changes to his vast business, but he could still make a fantastic cheese and he did it.”
With such persuasion and persistence, the Nordic food movement assumed power, enveloping in light even the big companies and evil empires. “It was about making everyone spiritually buy into the idea and do something the whole world could embrace,” Meyer says, his eyes shining at the memory. He agrees though that you can never control the process. All you can do is set a direction and hope for the best.
For this driven culinary entrepreneur and thinker, this wasn’t enough. In 2010, he launched the Melting Pot Foundation, an outfit that went beyond CSR and built on ultimate generosity. It works with the underprivileged – Danish prisoners, the poor in La Paz, Bolivia – equipping them with culinary skills and enabling them to rebuild and improve their lives. “It stemmed from the Nordic food movement. I wanted to take elements of it and plant it like a virus in places where it could fight poverty,” Meyer says.
The idea of this foundation emerged from the moments of reflection and questioning Meyer subjects himself to. “Every so often I sit down and think – what is the most generous, outstanding, beautiful thing in the light of Eternity I can do, without losing myself in the process?” he says. And the Melting Pot Foundation was born. He says it has brought a higher level of meaning to his life.
Claus Meyer finds inspiration for his activism everywhere he goes. This was his first trip to India and he spent a few days wandering the streets of Old Delhi, amazed at food businesses that have lasted a century and more. He was smitten by the amazing variety of street food in India. One of his favourite Indian-inspired dishes is a roti prata an Indian friend from Singapore cooked for him. “The spinach, goat cheese, tiny bursts of chilli enfolded in the flaky roti… it was beautiful,” he remembers. His other favourite foods are canelé, the pastry from the Bordeaux region, sensational because of its simplicity, and he can never say no to crayfish.
Meyer’s expanding culinary enterprise has taken him to New York, where he opened Agern at the Grand Central Station. “It’s doing well, but New York is a cynical city,” he says.
He plays tennis and soccer to relax. When he was growing up he watched a lot of boxing, especially featuring Muhammad Ali. “My father loved him. Muhammad Ali was brave and romantic. And while I did not have a great relationship with my father, I think what I am trying to do is to be as brave and courageous as Muhammad Ali was, to win my father’s approval,” he says with disarming candour.
Courage Meyer has in plenty, as also the romanticism to dream of changing the world through food.
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The author is a Bengaluru-based senior writer who specialises in food, travel and lifestyle writing. She has edited several major mainstream publications in the past
From HT Brunch, February 17, 2019
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