Eric Levin / October 2012
Food Arts presents the October 2012 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Claus Meyer, whose advocacy of New Nordic cuisine and co-founding of Noma in 2003 with chef René Redzepi comprise just the celebrated tip of an iceberg of achievements aimed at empowering people—chefs, farmers, home cooks, even prison inmates—to rediscover their native foods and apply them contemporarily for better health, taste, and pleasure.
Meyer, 48, grew up in a Danish food culture he has called “antihedonistic” and “imperialized” by fast-food companies and mass production. At 19, as an au pair in France, he spent time with a fourth-generation pastry chef in Gascony. Struck by the chef’s reverence for the techniques and principles handed down to him, Meyer returned to Denmark convinced, as he puts it, “that by creating a great food culture at home, I could also create a society with an abundance of love.”
Settling in Copenhagen in the mid-1980s, he earned a business degree in entrepreneurship, then created a catering firm (which he still owns), and in 1991 launched a Danish television series, Meyers Kokken (Meyer’s Kitchen), that made him Denmark’s most famous food personality. Soon he began writing cookbooks—now numbering 14—most a plunge into some aspect of native cuisine, although others delve into nonnative, like his treatise on chocolate. The TV series took him all over Scandinavia, where he was dazzled by the richness and variety of its native larder. That led to a leap of faith and the birth of Noma: “If you could create a brand, or virus, or something that could be acknowledged internationally as great, then maybe it could open the eyes of our own people.” In 2004, Meyer convened a meeting of chefs from the Nordic lands that led to the adoption of the Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen, one of the more influential culinary documents of the last decade (see “Northern Lights,” Food Arts, July/August 2008).
An idea machine, he already had created a chocolate company, a coffee company, and a cooking school before Noma. With Noma thriving under Redzepi, he opened a deli and bakeries to “democratize access to luxury” by making artisanal breads from heritage Nordic grains. In 2011, Meyer and a former Noma chef opened Radio, a Copenhagen restaurant whose New Nordic menu is simpler and much less expensive than Noma’s. He bought an orchard and began producing high-quality vinegars, which he regards as fundamental flavor enhancers in Nordic cooking. In 2007, he hosted a season of New Scandinavian Cooking, televised internationally, including on PBS. And he established the charitable Melting Pot foundation, whose projects have included teaching inmates in one Danish prison cooking skills to help them find meaningful work upon release.
This May in Copenhagen, Meyer debuted Namnam, a 190 seat restaurant updating fiery Singaporean street food and the legendary home cooking of Peranakan (Chinese-Indonesian) women. Far more ambitious is a partnership between Meyer’s Melting Pot foundation and an international development organization called IBIS to foster a grass-roots gastronomic renaissance in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, which will include a cooking school, a bistro, a bakery, and a fine dining restaurant in La Paz. Can Noma-level lightning strike in the land of the Andes and the Amazon? Meyer says he doesn’t know, but he has faith in a larger point. “Instead of just sending them another wagon of milk powder,” he says, “let’s help them create something great, from within. That’s what really inspires me at the moment.”