Claus Meyer: food for social change from Denmark to New York City
Claus Meyer: food for social change from Denmark to New York City

By Edmund L. Andrews

This post originally appeared on the Institute for Business & Social Impact Blog.

For more than 30 years, the Danish food entrepreneur Claus Meyer has been preoccupied with the idea that healthy and delicious cuisine can be both an instrument of social change and a viable business.

Meyer is one of the architects of New Nordic Cuisine – Scandinavia’s farm-to-table movement – as well as a prolific food entrepreneur, television personality and food activist.   Like Alice Waters, who founded Chez Panisse and pioneered California Cuisine, Meyer has been a champion of making exquisite food  from organic, locally-grown ingredients and drawing inspiration from local culinary history.

He co-founded the internationally-acclaimed Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen, and his empire now includes restaurants and bakeries, a culinary school, a vinegar factory, a coffee roastery and a line of gourmet food products.

But that barely hints at the scope of Meyer’s social entrepreneurship. In 2010, he launched the Melting Pot Foundation, which developed a culinary arts program for prison inmates that now operates in three Danish prisons.

In 2012, he and the Melting Pot Foundation took the principle of building on local produce and culinary history – basically the learnings from Noma and the Nordic cuisine movement — to La Paz, Bolivia. There, as a social project, he established the food school and restaurant Gustu, which draws on and expands the idea of Andean cuisine and has become celebrated its own right.

Meyer is now a Social Impact Fellow at the Berkeley-Haas Institute for Business and Social Impact. On Oct. 29, he will join Alice Waters at a Haas panel on Sustainable Food Entrepreneurship – part of the Center for Responsible Business’s flagship Peterson speaker series. Click here for details.

Meyer’s biggest new project, however, is to import his distinctive sense of food and social entrepreneurship to New York City.

Early next spring, he plans to open a sprawling New Nordic Cuisine food hall in Grand Central Station.

With the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto as a guiding light, the unpretentious food hall will offer simple, accessible, wholesome and seasonal preparations that are predominantly based on produce sourced locally in New York State. The restaurant will apply ancient techniques that are common to Scandinavia – such as salting, fermenting, pickling and smoking — across a modern vegetable-oriented menu.  Omnivores won’t be left out: Meyer and head chef Gunnar Karl Gislason plan an offering under the working title “The Viking Feast.”

Perhaps more startling, The Melting Pot Foundation is also moving into one of New York City’s most under-invested neighborhoods: Brownsville, just up the subway line from Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Brownsville has one of New York City’s highest incarceration rates, highest poverty rates and highest obesity rates. But, Meyer says, “it definitely also has a potential.”  So he is establishing a community culinary center that features a training program, a restaurant and a bakery

Meyer has raised $1 million for the project and The Melting Pot Foundation has just leased a warehouse to house the operations. Led by Lucas Denton, a community activist Meyer met in front of a local bakery two years ago, the center will collect local recipes from senior citizens who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.  It will then have the recipes prepared for community gatherings at a senior center in the Van Dyke public housing complex, after which Meyer plans to exchange ideas with the attendants about new dishes rooted in those traditions and ingredients.

In a way, that’s the essence of what both Meyer and Alice Waters have championed for years: seeing food as a community enterprise that can build the capacities of all the stakeholders and lift them up simultaneously.

The plan calls for hiring and training about 30 local young people to operate the restaurant. Meyer hopes to begin the training in January 2016, while the warehouse is being rebuilt, and to have them ready for a start in March or April.

He describes the initiative as an “enzyme,” a catalyst to help people find opportunities within their own heritage. “You have to come with the attitude of bringing vital resources, so that people can solve problems themselves,” he says.

“When we started Noma, we challenged the rules of fine dining,” Meyer continues. “In the past, fine dining had been only about maximizing a pleasure for the few. We wanted to redefine luxury and to democratize the culinary scene. Why couldn’t fine dining chefs also do street food? Why couldn’t Michelin-starred chefs take a responsibility for bridging delicious meals with sustainability and healthiness? We had the feeling that if we seized the moment, we could change the world together. We could teach the kids to teach their parents to cook.  We could engage in a new way with farmers and fishermen, and we could share knowledge and insight with vulnerable or marginalized people.”

For Meyer, it’s all about investigating how food can be used as an instrument to create a better world for the many and about understanding what it means to “do your best.” Having started in Denmark with New Nordic Cuisine and then moved to Bolivia, he is ready to find out if he can make a difference in New York City.

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