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Claus Meyer at the Great Northern Food Hall in New York. Photo: Mark Wickens
Claus Meyer at the Great Northern Food Hall in New York. Photo: Mark Wickens

For the love of food

Danish chef Claus Meyer stumbled upon his profession almost by accident. A culinary epiphany he had in France, though, has given birth to a whole new outlook on Scandinavian cuisine.

Name: Claus Meyer
Job: Danish food entrepreneur, activist, ­author, professor and chef. Founder of the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy.
Lives: Manhattan, New York
Family: Christina Meyer Bengtsson (spouse) and four daughters
Career: Meyers Køkken, 1991–1998 (TV), New Scandinavian Cooking 2003 to present (TV), Associate Professor, Dept of Food Science, University of Copenhagen (education), Social Impact Fellow, 2015, Haas School of Business, UCLA Berkeley (education)
Restaurants: Noma, Copenhagen, 2003 to 2016 – two Michelin stars and voted Best Restaurant in the World four times. Studio at The Stand­ard, Copenhagen – one Michelin star, Agern, Grand Central, New York City – one Michelin star. ­Norman, Brooklyn, New York. 

When Claus Meyer talks about food and cooking, he also talks about love. When he was 20, the food entrepreneur, activist and author experienced an epiphany when, ­after falling seriously ill in France, he was sent to recover in Gascony, to a couple who treated him like a son.

The man was one of the finest regional chefs of his generation, cooking from recipes that had been handed down from his grandfather. The next six months left an indelible stamp on Meyer.

“Suddenly, everything made sense. There was love,” he says. “My whole career started there. It was a calling. I came from a divorced family and a sick food culture – Denmark, in the late 60s and early 70s – and I felt like if I could get food right, it would make other things right.”

Since then, Meyer’s game-changing trajectory has been well documented. He became well-known as a chef and subsequently hosted a series of cooking shows on Danish and international television. In 2003, he drafted the New Nordic Food Manifesto, which outlined a new way forward for the Scandi­navian countries that supported sustainable, local food sourcing and honored the region’s farming traditions. He invited a dozen other chefs to join him in writing it and establishing Nordic food among the world’s great cuisines. 

The following year, he and René Redzepi opened Noma, the food laboratory and restaurant that would go on to demonstrate the manifesto’s ideas, win two ­Michelin stars and eventually take Restaur­ant Magazine’s annual Best Restaurant in the World award four times. Despite Meyer’s early experience, he describes the cuisine that evolved as decidedly “un-French.” It’s typically crisp and fresh. The balance between vege­tables and meat is different – a beetroot, or an onion, could be the cornerstone of a dish. Sauces have little to no fat; instead, chefs work with vinegars, honey or sour berries to build a flavor profile that typically has more sweetness, acidity or even bitterness.

And the dishes look different. In emphasizing the bright colors of the plant kingdom, a new plating style developed where food was served on wood, stone or ceramics in a manner closer to Japanese cuisine than European. The core tenets of this philosophy spread fast, largely because by emphasizing a strong connection with a local territory, it’s infinitely replicable and relevant. True Nordic ingredient include the ubiquitous pine – with Gunnar Gíslason and Claus Meyer. Photo: Mark Wickens

However, fame and international awards were not Meyer’s end goal. Having seen his manifesto create change in Denmark and further afield, he set up the Melting Pot Foundation, a charitable organization that uses food schools as the vehicle for positive social change. It runs successful programs in Danish prisons and La Paz, Bolivia, and is in the process of launching a new project in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.

The Great Northern Food Hall Photo: Mark Wickens

Meyer and his family moved to the city last year when he opened Agern, his first restaurant on Americansoil, and the Great Northern Food Hall, both in Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall. Both were very well received, with Agern receiving a ­Michelin star and a three-star New York Times review within its first six months. The entrepreneur is stead­ily generating more Stateside ventures including new Greenpoint restaurant Norman (with fellow Scandi Frederik Berselius of Aska), the Meyers Bageri bakery in Willliamsburg and in the future, a coffee-roasting enterprise in Brownsville.  However, he is quick to emphasize that the New Nordic Food Movement was never intended to be a brand. 

“We used the concept of Nordic cuisine to introduce values that were under-represented into the hands and lives of as many people as possible,” he says. 

“For me, as the author of the movement, the point was never for it to persist like Coca-Cola or Starbucks. It was to give regional cuisines all over the world an opportunity to be something that wasn’t undermined by the global fast-food phenomenon. Part of that is the concept of the modern chef who assumes social responsibility and joins the fight for something bigger than a Michelin star, which has also spread from ­Copenhagen to the rest of the world.” 

 

Text: Sam Eichblatt 

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