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New Nordic: an interview with Noma co-founder Claus Meyer

New Nordic: an interview with Noma co-founder Claus Meyer

by Tom Shingler 04 April 2016

As Claus Meyer releases his fifteenth cookbook, the godfather of new Nordic cuisine and brains behind the legendary Noma restaurant talks about how Scandinavian food has evolved over the past few decades.

Tom Shingler is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

With a library of cookbooks, several TV shows, a catering company, a cookery school, several social projects and all sorts of food businesses under his belt, Claus Meyer is certainly an important person in his native Denmark. Add that to his status as the founder of ‘new Nordic’ cuisine and the co-founder of Noma, one of the world’s best restaurants, and it’s clear that he’s already secured himself a place in the Scandinavian culinary hall of fame.

While there’s been more than a bit of buzz around new Nordic for the past few years, it’s difficult to actually pinpoint what it is and how it started, while Noma (which will be closing at the end of this year to reopen as a farm) grabs the headlines for serving things like live ants and moss. But how did it all begin? We caught up with Claus and discovered the astonishing history behind one of the twenty-first century’s most important culinary movements.

Then and now

Claus’ early years were not full of worldly gastronomic delights. ‘Scandinavian cooking in the 1990s was a culinary darkness, a ‘food desert’,’ says Claus. ‘In the 1960s, our evening meal would take my mother no more than thirty minutes to assemble from semi-prepared food and a maximum of ten minutes to eat. It was the era of canned meatballs, powdered potatoes, sauce colouring and stock cubes.’ It wasn’t until he moved to France to work as an au pair that he realised how incredible food could be. He returned to Denmark with a completely new approach to eating, bringing back what he’d experienced abroad. Working as a chef over the years, Claus realised that all his imported luxury ingredients weren’t required – he had exactly what he needed at home. It was the opening of Noma that gave him a base of operations to explore Scandinavia’s native ingredients.

‘I wanted to start a vegetable-focused restaurant that reconnected food with nature,’ he explains. ‘The focus was entirely on seasonality and place, with the aim of inspiring great chefs to see themselves as role models. I tried to hire British chef Paul Cunningham to lead Noma but he declined, recommending René Redzepi instead.’ René accepted the job, and the duo began to develop their iconic way of cooking.

In the 1960s, our evening meal would take my mother no more than thirty minutes to assemble from semi-prepared food and a maximum of ten minutes to eat. It was the era of canned meatballs, powdered potatoes, sauce colouring and stock cubes.

Claus Meyer

In 2004, Claus and René invited the best and brightest chefs from across Scandinavia to Noma to create something called The Nordic Kitchen Manifesto, which essentially began the new Nordic culinary movement we know of today. But why did Claus decide to enlist the help of other chefs? ‘The whole idea was the change the food culture of our country – Noma was just an instrument to aid this,’ he explains. ‘We wanted to explore the potential of Nordic produce that would stand out internationally, to identify a common regional culinary identity and engage as many stakeholders as possible in the process of change.’

Making waves

What started out as a call to arms soon became a worldwide phenomenon. Instead of relying on the dishes and ingredients of more foodie countries (Spanish was particularly popular at the time), Denmark – and the rest of Scandinavia – was creating its own. The movement soon picked up speed, and earned its own title: new Nordic. ‘New Nordic was a utopian idea that turned into a popular movement which impacted our food culture dramatically – for the better,’ says Claus. ‘We launched the idea that even though we were in a ‘food desert’ we had the right to dream of one day passing down a food culture to our children that would be counted amongst the most delicious and admirable in the world.

‘We asked ourselves what it would take to get there,’ he continues. ‘The food had to be closer to nature and more vegetable driven that the dominating Spanish cuisine. We placed an emphasis on time and place, seasonality, and ‘local’ (to the extreme) ingredients. Food was lighter, fresher, focused on texture, juicier and less fatty than classical cuisines.’

 

Set in stone

 
 
I believe we should all eat fresh, local produce, more whole grains, food from the wild and a variety of fruits and vegetables, avoiding things like endangered fish species.

Claus Meyer

It’s taken just twelve years since that iconic meeting at Noma for new Nordic to become an established and highly respected cuisine. It’s not only changed Denmark’s attitude to food; the ripples can be felt across the international culinary landscape, with a smattering of talented young chefs crediting Claus and René as inspiration. But with a manifesto dedicated to exploring the native ingredients of Denmark, how are international chefs interpreting it on their own turf?

‘Anyone living in the northern hemisphere can cook Nordic food and follow the seasons,’ says Claus. ‘‘Wild’ ingredients are not the most important thing – what’s more important are the techniques you use to prepare them. By focusing on limiting the amount of fats, using an abundance of vegetables and implementing innovative approaches, bright flavours and great textures to a dish, the cuisine translates very well.

‘We have four distinct seasons and a large number of wild and cultivated foods that are unique to each,’ he continues. ‘I believe we should all eat fresh, local produce, more whole grains, food from the wild and a variety of fruits and vegetables, avoiding things like endangered fish species.’

Claus has just released his latest cookbook – The Nordic Kitchen: One Year of Family Cooking – which he hopes will help get new Nordic into more homes instead of just professional kitchens. ‘It’s based on my book called ALMANAK, a bestseller in Denmark filled with unique, simple, seasonal dishes for every single day of the year,’ he tells us. ‘It’s the book I hope my kids will cook from, and is a sort of testimony of the new Nordic cuisine – the democratic, simplified version that looks at the core of the whole thing.

‘I hope that, if it’s not already there, new Nordic will slowly grow to become one of the great cuisines of the world,’ adds Claus. ‘But I also hope that it will end up becoming larger than the idea of promoting progress in our own region.’ With chefs like Robin Gill and Agnar Sverrisson turning out incredible plates of Nordic-inspired food using local ingredients all the way over in London, it seems like the evolution of Claus’ philosophy has already begun.

 
 

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