‘World’s best restaurant’ co-founder uses food for social change

June 24, 2024 | A conversation with Claus Meyer of Noma and the New Nordic Cuisine movement (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON — When Claus Meyer opened Noma with chef René Redzepi more than a decade ago, he didn’t plan on creating the world’s best restaurant but that’s exactly what happened.

At the time, the goal of the entrepreneur and food activist was to build a place where he could put his newly introduced food philosophy, called the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto, into practice.

“It was the simple idea to see if we could create an informal collaboration among a vast array of people and institutions in order to transform the food culture,” Meyer said about the then-revolutionary movement that called for local and seasonal ingredients, sustainable sourcing and an emphasis on the region’s culinary heritage.

“It was the idea of bridging joy with responsibility toward nature and the next generation.”

Noma’s virtuous approach and innovative techniques caught the attention and taste buds of critics around the globe. In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, it was named the best restaurant in the world. Meyer attributes the distinction to a few things.

“The whole world of foodies and food journalism was looking for a new story. They’d been writing about the Spanish cuisine for the last six years and everyone was fed up with [the chefs] they’d been reading about for so many years,” said Meyer, who added that French cuisine was also stagnating.

“The world was looking for the next story.”

This is a March 14, 2012  file photo of Danish restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, got the top spot on Restaurant magazine's annual ranking of the world's 50 best restaurants Monday, beating Noma, Rene Redzepi's daringly innovative Danish restaurant, which fell from first to third place. Wedged between them at No. 2 was Modena, Italy's Osteria Francescana, which had held third place for the past two years. (Jens Dresling/Polfoto via AP, File)  DENMARK OUT.
Noma in Copenhagen was named the world’s best restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. (Jens Dresling/Polfoto via AP, File)

At the same, there was an increased awareness around issues such as climate change, world hunger and collapsing food systems, and those issues were, for the most part, not being mirrored in fine dining.

“We have a responsibility in fine dining; we have to reflect what’s important in the world,” Meyer said. “This discrepancy made our take on cooking extremely interesting for people with a high consciousness about what’s involved in our food.”

With rising fame, however, came a downside. Shortly after Noma topped the charts, Meyer saw tourism businesses and large companies take the idea of the New Nordic Food movement hostage to build their own short-term profits and individual gains. This did not sit well with Meyer.

“I thought there should be more to it. I hoped there was more to the idea than just benefiting an affluent region,” he said.

With the nudge of a friend, Meyer decided to test his philosophy outside of Denmark. He removed the word “Nordic,” inserted “Bolivian,” and flew down to La Paz.

“Maybe it was not a manifesto for the liberation of our cuisine, but maybe it was sort of a defense speech for any ethnic or indigenous cuisine all over the world,” Meyer said.

There, under the name of his new nonprofit, Melting Pot Foundation, he built a restaurant, called Gustu, that served as a social project.

“[We] were basically hiring 60 young Bolivians from the slums of La Paz and training them to cook and wait,” Meyer said about the project.

Gustu opened its doors in 2013, and is now the 14th best restaurant in Latin America. Its head chef was named the best female chef in 2016, and the project is almost cash-flow positive. 

Meyer recently moved to New York to open three concepts: a Nordic food hall, a bakery and a restaurant that just earned one Michelin star. But he felt he could do more.

Now, Melting Pot Foundation is working on a new project in one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods. The plan is to build a restaurant (the neighborhood’s first sit-down establishment) that employs only locals and offers free culinary classes to residents ages 18-34, many of whom are without high school diplomas and/or have experience in the criminal justice system.

According to Melting Pot’s content director, Lucas Denton, the Brownsville Community Culinary Center will open in about a month.

Meyer, who has also implemented culinary programs in Danish prisons, says he’s seen the profound impact food — and more specifically cooking — can have on a person.

“Something magical happens,” Meyer said. “If you teach people who have been beaten up by their parents or by the system … you suddenly teach them to cook a great meal for somebody else, then you bring out enormous emotions in them … and they suddenly see themselves as giving people, caring people.”

Instilling kitchen skills also gives hope for economic success and teaching offers those who have lacked role models a chance to connect with a mentor.

“Food in that way becomes a vehicle for something much larger than the food itself,” Meyer said.

Meyer, who traveled to D.C. to speak at a recent Halcyon Stage program, says his end goal is to “leave the world a slightly better place than it was when I arrived.”

If you missed Meyer and want to catch others who share his creative and socially-conscious mission, Halcyon Stage’s artistic director Septime Webre has a number of events lined up for the current season. Webre explains the program curates figures such as Meyer and Misty Copeland (a previous speaker) “who seek to celebrate and foster a dialogue about the nature of creativity in the 21st century.”

Upcoming events include an evening with filmmaker John Waters and composer Philip Glass. There are also several unique events planned for Union Market.

Visit Halcyon Stage’s website for its calendar of events.

A Very Short Film About the Past, Present and Future of Noma” from Rene Redzepi on Vimeo.

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