In the annals of culinary renaissance, the name Claus Meyer will rank as one of those visionaries who have succeeded in changing attitudes towards the raw materials, tastes and gastronomic sensuality we bypass – simply because grandma didn’t know they existed. Meyer’s success in introducing the New Nordic Kitchen led to an attempt to explore the universality of the manifesto by seeing if you could leave the word Nordic out of the Nordic cuisine manifesto. Roll on Bolivia.
By Julian Isherwood
‘Dad, can I have some liquorice,’ asked the pretty young girl. ‘Daaad! Can-I-have-some-of-this-liquorice,’ she repeated impatiently as the tall man, mobile to his ear, walked the floor of a goodies-packed kitchen. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ he nodded in between sentences rapidly delivered down the phone, and with a cursory glance towards the dark-brown jar in her hand.
I have always found it interesting to visit a master chef’s own private family kitchen. To see whether it’s packed with difficult-to-find all sorts, or pristinely organised with everything to hand. Or just a kitchen like many others. Sitting at the Meyer kitchen-table office and surrounded by wares such as Agaricus, Gotland mustard, dehydrated lychees and, yes, Mr 57’s ecological tomato ketchup, the wood-surfaced kitchen itself thankfully resembled that of many others.
But it was in here, along with wife Christina, three children and two small white dogs scuttling around, that a movement was born that is rapidly going global, and has already shown that it can change attitudes to the purpose, preparation and presentation of gastronomy across the world.
It was back in 2003 that now 50-year-old Claus Meyer embarked on a crusade to rejuvenate, rethink and reformulate a vision for Denmark’s food culture. Bored with and tired of a cuisine that had remained seemingly unchanged for decades, and lacked the sensuality and novelty he believed was necessary and possible, work began on what has now become a household word in the world of gastronomy – The New Nordic Kitchen Food Manifesto.
“As Nordic chefs we find that the time has now come for us to create a New Nordic Kitchen, which in virtue of its good taste and special character compares favourably with the standard of the greatest kitchens of the world,” the manifesto’s preamble trumpeted.
The 10-point manifesto that emerged was less of an indication of how food should be made, or a recipe on how to run a restaurant, but in essence a declaration of intent on how to foster a strong, sensual food culture to be proud of and which breaks with decades of static cuisine.
“The New Nordic Kitchen was and is about how to create an ideal, admirable and aesthetic cuisine that most people in the world will love and admire, want to find inspiration in and imitate,” says Meyer.
From nature to table, using raw materials that are responsibly produced and with an eye to welfare and health at both ends of the food chain; “The chefs who adhere to the new food culture are willing to shoulder a major responsibility for such things as ecology, animal welfare, biodiversity and health. It is an entire concept,” he adds.
Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that has become an icon of the manifesto as expressed by the Claus Meyer-René Redzepi tandem, has taken the food buffs by storm. Erupting onto the Michelin empire, the restaurant has repeatedly been dubbed the world’s best.
“But the important thing to note is that the manifesto is not attempting to standardise the culinary experience. Quite the opposite. Noma’s food has its own distinct taste. But neither the taste nor the methods are dictated by the manifesto. All of the chefs encompassed by the manifesto have their own expression and their own methods. But we all seem to move forward according to the values and ideals represented in the manifesto,” Meyer says.A convincing strategy
With the food revolution that he has engendered in Denmark well under way, and a passel of in outlets to his name, Meyer began to consider whether the Copenhagen experience could be transferred elsewhere, and not least to help raise the food culture in another country and introduce his theme of ‘nature expressed through man’.
“I felt that it should be possible to draw from the experience with the New Nordic Kitchen as a tool to further development in a less privileged country – both from an explicitly philanthropic point of view and as a local business plan to revolutionise the food concept, and set up a restaurant” he adds. Prepared to donate several million kroner of his own funds, his search began.
“We looked for fertile soil. A country that was just developed enough that there was a middle class that we could attract as customers into the restaurant, but also a society where people would not feel that it was unethical in itself to work with an innovative cuisine,” he says.
In choosing Bolivia, Meyer studied not only the country’s economics and relations, but most importantly Bolivia’s vast and relatively unique biodiversity.
Known as one of the eight richest countries in the world in biodiversity, Bolivia has more than 20,000 species of higher plants and over 2,900 species of vertebrates.
A recent report for the United States Agency for International Development said South America is particularly important as the centre of origin of many cultivated species, such as potato, quinoa, amaranth, tomato, peanut, cacao, and pineapple.
“Wild relatives of many of these domesticated species are found in Bolivia. The genetic diversity of these wild relatives of crop plants is resources that can help ensure the viability of these crops in the face of evolving crop pests and diseases and global climate change,” the USAID report added.
That biodiversity was clearly vital in considering where a manifesto-based restaurant could be successful.
“The foundation for an agenda-setting food culture is a diversity of raw materials. That is something that Bolivia certainly has. With four different climates, Bolivia is possibly the country in the world with the biggest treasury of raw materials, many of which are unknown outside the country,” he says.
But before opening Gustu, the restaurant that in 2014 was chosen as South America’s best by Comosur.com, the leading food news feed for the Southern Cone, much work had to be done to ensure that as many stakeholders as possible were prepared to further the idea and become engaged in a process of change.
“If I think why, for example we created the New Nordic Kitchen, it was because I was sick to the back teeth with the existing Danish kitchen. We threw out 95 per cent of Danish food out and built new food traditions up around the same raw materials that my parents had access to. But that sort of change requires most stakeholders to be on board,” Meyer says.
“In Bolivia, we travelled the country and met chefs, tourist organisations, farmers, schoolteachers, winemakers, local councils, and others engaged in the foodstuff industry or food scene in Bolivia. We needed to get their buy-in, and not least to find the young poor people we wanted to give an education. We would be the catalysts, in opening their eyes to the enormous potential in the country,” he adds.
“In 2012, in La Paz, prior to the first edition of the Bolivian Food Festival Tambo, we convened delegations from Bolivia’s eco-regions in order to agree on a Bolivian manifesto. Miraculously we succeeded and everyone signed up. For us, it was a question of creating maximum ownership and co-endorsement from all regions and all relevant stakeholders. Their job was to do something active to bring the movement to life, and it worked,” he says.
With Restaurant Gustu on the drawing board, Meyer began looking for those 30 less privileged young people who would be interested in an education, and who would help him build and run the restaurant in close collaboration with the two head chefs Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari. 18 months later only eight remained from the first team and a further 22 had to be enlisted.
Given Gustu’s success, the overall project continues, with plans for schools that are not restaurants but where some of the best from Gustu can go and educate those who go to the schools.
“That’s the next project we are working with. So the foundation started the manifest, and then came Gustu. Then the Danish embassy helped start the Tambo food festival. That in turn resulted in the setting up of El Movimiento de Integración Gastronómica – or MIGA – which has been held twice to establish the food movement. That in turn is built upon the Bolivian food manifesto. The fourth leg is an attempt to set up these schools that will be able to educate some 200 people,” says Claus Meyer.What now?
With successes in Denmark and now Bolivia under his belt and a plethora of food outlets and activities on the go, one may have thought that Meyer would be resting on his laurels and taking a bit of time off. Not so.
But with an enigmatic concluding smile, Denmark’s Claus Meyer kept mum on his future plans, saying only that in the winter time, his favourite dish was probably some form of pork, apple, cabbage and horseradish.