The best ideas are usually the ones that, at first, sound ridiculous and implausible. In 2004, when Claus Meyer and René Redzepi first opened the doors to their restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, they had trouble convincing people to eat there. Frightened by the concept of a new cuisine that challenged the conventions of food and cooking, people were tentative to put their trust in a restaurant that used only local, seasonal produce. Of course, as the best ideas always do, the duo’s philosophy of New Nordic Cuisine began to gain momentum, and Noma was not only named the world’s best restaurant three years in a row, but helped redefine a new global culinary movement.
The invention of the microwave, according to Claus Meyer, was the primary reason for the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. But we’ll get to that later.
First we’ll go back to Claus’s childhood, which itself was an idyllic one, spent enjoying the peaceful freedom of a small town in southern Denmark. Life at home, however, was not so rosy. Claus’s dream was to become Elvis, Tarzan or Muhammad Ali – not because he admired the men himself, but because they were the three people his own father revered more than anyone. “He devoted much more attention to them than he did to me,” Claus recalls. “So at some level I dreamt about doing something heroic, because I could see my father crying with happiness when he watched Tarzan or Muhammad Ali, or listened to Elvis. He never looked at me with that kind of devotion.”
The other thing that Claus remembers about his childhood was the dire state of its food. Referring to it as the darkest period in Danish food history, he recalls his plate being graced with various culinary vulgarities such as canned meatballs, powdered potato, cheap fatty meat and frozen vegetables “preboiled years before in Kazakhstan”. Not surprisingly, Claus weighed 94 kg by the age of 15.
But his culinary perspective was turned on its end when, at age 19, he travelled to Paris. “The food in France surpassed any expectation I ever had,” he says. “It was amazing to eat my first baguette and croissant, my first confit de canard and boeuf bourguignon. It was like being in paradise and I instantly fell in love with everything that French food was about.”
He soon found himself in the south-western French region of Gascony, living and working with a baker, Guy, and his wife Elizabeth. The couple had never been able to have children, but had always yearned for a son. Claus’s parents had divorced when he was 14, leaving him with an absent father and an alcoholic mother. In Guy, Claus found what he refers to as his ‘spiritual father’, learning from him many lessons about both cooking and life. “To this day he is the most generous person I have ever met,” he says. “He was a little bit conservative in his approach to cooking and he just made things that his grandfather had been baking 60 years before. His bakery represented a golden age of French culinary craftsmanship, and so I got a glimpse into that period of French gastronomy and it was totally mind-blowing.”
Guy also gave Claus room to use his own imagination in his cooking. “He let me invent things and he created a space where, when I wasn’t helping him with his work, I could do whatever I wanted to do with the materials. I don’t know why he gave me that opportunity, but he basically told me to make whatever I wanted and he would be my coach. He was very positive and constructive and he was very proud of teaching me to do something on my own. So, as opposed to my own father, who never missed an opportunity to tell me that I was wrong, Guy never missed an opportunity to tell me that I was great.”
Reflecting, Claus says the key thing that he took away from his experience in Gascony was that good food is the basis of life, love and community. “When you have wonderful meals that people enjoy for many hours every night, where people are passionate about cooking and they are full of gratitude towards the vegetables growing in our fields, that’s when people feel love for everyone.” And it’s here that his microwave theory comes in. “In my family, we got a microwave in 1974 and my parents divorced in 1977. When you have a culture with microwaves and parents who don’t want to cook, like I did, then often they end up divorcing and are not capable of loving their own kids. So I saw a difference in the perception of time between the two cultures. Guy and his wife had patience with everything and my parents were the opposite. It gave me a chance to look at modern civilisation in a very critical way.”
Claus returned to Denmark, driven by the idea that if he could change the food culture of his own country, he could really make an impact. In 2001, he saw that an opportunity existed to create what he saw as a ‘new world cuisine’. “At different points in time, cultures like France, Spain, Morocco and Rome had the opportunity to define a new food culture that was considered the most refined and outstanding in the whole world. So that became my vision: to create a great cuisine. I knew that the one thing I could have control over myself in that respect would be a restaurant that could become one of the best in the world and be defined by only using local produce from our landscapes. To me, it was also the perfect time to try to start a movement.”
Claus approached a friend of his, also a chef, to join him in starting the restaurant. While his friend wasn’t able to commit to the project, he did give Claus a list of the chefs in Copenhagen who he thought could best help the vision come to life. One of them was a young chef who had trained at elBulli and French Laundry: René Redzepi. And so began Noma.
On Noma’s very first menu, the duo wrote a sentence that was to define its culinary mission. “With this restaurant we want to create a new Nordic cuisine that embraces the Arctic and brightens the world by virtue of its great taste and unique character,” it said, also defining what would become known as the New Nordic Cuisine Movement.
The ensuing success of Noma and the Nordic movement is well documented, and is a great source of pride for Claus – not least because it allows him to work on other world-changing ideas. In 2011, he created the Melting Pot Foundation, focused on improving the opportunities for marginalised populations through food entrepreneurship. Its first project is the GUSTU food school and restaurant in Bolivia, which each year trains around 30 low-income young Bolivians to become cooks, waiters and bakers and to develop an entrepreneurial mentality.
Stemming from the critical influence of his father, Claus has always been driven to improve upon the imperfections that he sees in the world. And when turning the lens on himself, he thinks that he has a long way to go. “I believe that I’m as imperfect as most other people,” he laughs. “I am an imperfect friend, businessman, father and husband, but I’m learning every day how to become a better version of myself. I recognise that I’ve done some pretty great things, but I think it’s your obligation to try to get the best out of everything you can and that there’s always vast room for improvement.”
An eternal optimist, Claus says the road has been hard, but well worth the journey. “On one hand, there have been so many challenges, but on the other it’s always been fun to overcome those challenges. I feel like I’ve always done everything with a smile on my face.”