Noma’s Claus Meyer Tells Chefs Not to Take Dope

noma chef

When restaurateur Claus Meyer opened Noma – the double michelin starred restaurant in Copenhagen, voted best in the world in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – he wasn’t thinking just about food, he was thinking about changing the world. Founding his New Nordic Cuisine movement with Renee Redzepi, Meyer forever changed how the food world functions in the Nordic region; extending to everyone from farmers to chefs to restaurateurs. We’re fans of Meyer for a lot of reasons, one being that he sees success in the food industry as merely a platform, rather than an end goal. What is food? Meyer gives us a number of definitions…

TNP:  From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?

CM: Why not have breakfast in San Francisco, with Chad Robertson of Tartine? I think that’d be nice. For lunch I would have vegetables or a nice soup. I’m just dreaming of some farm lady, picking out the vegetables, cleaning them, rinsing them, and then turning them into the brightest and most vibrant, freshest salad in the world with herbs and raw roots and beautiful leaves. Skye Gyngell could be that woman. I’m pretty sure I would end up in Singapore in the street food scene for the later meal. I would have different sorts of shellfish in different ginger, chili, and tamarind marinades. I will reserve a little bit of my appetite for some Roti prata in India. I love Roti prata. I think I would eat so much of that, that I couldn’t have dessert afterwards.

TNP: In terms of new Nordic cuisine, what are you trying to do with it? What’s your vision? 

CM: The vision of course is to make an impact in the world, to find out what is the meaning of your own life, and to try and do the right thing. If there is a meaning to one’s life, I think it is to be the best possible version of yourself – and it’s a little bit difficult to figure out what that is. If you listen throughout your life and learn as you go along, then you probably will be better at doing the right thing at the right moment.

For me in the beginning, I thought that new Nordic cuisine was the quintessence of what I had always wanted to do. That materialized as Noma the restaurant and Nordic cuisine the movement. It works so well. It’s about our landscapes, our history, our future, and our progress.

Then, I learned from the project that it was even larger than that. I came to the conclusion that I had to do something more, so I went to Bolivia. Now the Melting Pot Foundation is a very efficient instrument against poverty, and that is what we actually live and experience in Bolivia. With very little money, we have gained the opportunity to train so many people that will be able to sustain their families and inspire other people in Bolivia. We have a gem down there.

I’ve learned that I want to use the insight that I have, and also the track record that I have acquired, in the best possible way. I don’t need more money in my life. I want to be surrounded by people and projects that I feel like make a fucking difference. Because I have felt in my life that I can achieve more than I have ever dreamed of, and so I have an obligation. It’s one thing to satisfy your investors, to help the people that you have some sort of tactical or legal relationship with, but when you help people or reach out to people that you don’t owe anything to, it’s totally different. It grows on you.

TNP: Are there still gaps in the Danish food culture? What are they?

CM: There are actually many gaps; that’s a wonderful question. When I started my journey back in 1984, the whole country of Denmark was a food desert. Now it certainly is different. There are so many great chefs, entrepreneurs, and project leaders, innovating from all areas. Even the big supermarkets are really finding the reasons for their existence; they want to team up with more producers. Of course, I’ve been in so many industries. I’ve transformed coffee; I’ve done great things within baking and in grains; I’ve inspired people to ferment fruits; We’ve done fruit wines and vinegars. But I think really making a difference in my own country has come from the fact that I hate to do something that other people have done. I really like the idea of doing the things that nobody else will do, for many reasons. I think it’s more and more difficult to find those projects because there is an abundance of great people who have seen the light within this New Nordic cuisine – this local cuisine, and farm-to-table. Of course, we have lots of things to do. Everyday-life food in the province sucks. Children eat lousy food; nobody gives them a chance to grow up with a great food culture. But there are so many organizations that are moving through that battlefield, with a lot of energy and a lot of talent. So I think that Denmark is fine. I have done what I should there.

TNP: Do you think it’s important for restaurants and education to go hand in hand? 

CM: Yes. It’s important for gastronomy and nutrition to talk together. Chefs alone can make nice food, but the whole point of the Nordic cuisine manifesto – and actually the whole movement – was that I could see that chefs had the potential to become role models in society, as great as rockstars. Especially, and maybe only, if they behaved in a responsible way. If chefs lived their lives as spoiled kids, with affluent clients, just serving foie gras, taking dope, going out and having cocktails at night and then getting up to work at 8 o’clock, they would be lousy rockstars. My idea was to inspire the chefs to stand up for something larger than their own personal success. My dream was never to own the best restaurant in the world, but to change the food culture of my country. I was sure there was a win-win potential. I could realize my dream, I could figure out how to impact my country’s food culture, and I could help the chefs live a more wonderful life with a purpose. So it was a win-win scenario.

TNP: That’s amazing. In terms of your own restaurants, how do you approach the food for Meyer Canteens differently than for Noma?

CM: They both, with or without realizing the depth of it, cook according to the principles embodied in the Nordic cuisine manifesto. The chef in the canteen, and René Redzepi at Noma, have a form of freedom to serve whatever they want to serve. Of course, within the canteens, the format is a little bit more narrow. There is a budget, and there is a client for whom one cooks in that canteen. There are lot of raw materials that are the same – less meat, less fish, less lobster, more grains, more cabbage, more onion, more bread – from our own landscapes, and organically grown.

TNP: What would your advice be to young chefs and restaurateurs? 

CM: My advice to young chefs would be to make sure to give back more than is expected of them. Don’t leave other people with expectations that you cannot live up to. You can cook the food, serve nice wine, and open a restaurant, but you have to have a positive attitude towards the people that are working under you. When I do stuff in poor countries and, you know, especially in the charity part of my life, I know that it really doesn’t work if you let people down. People rely on what you promised. I think that counts in life also.

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