To change the world through food
It’s his commercial successes that are depicted in the media. In 2016, particularly in Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, his Nordic food Mecca Great Northern Food Hall and Agern restaurant have taken New Yorkers by storm. But for Claus Meyer, the many projects and companies he has started since the end of the 1980s, have been subject to a greater common goal - to change the world a little for the better.
“I have a fundamental sense of when the food isn’t right, then something is else wrong. If the food is okay, there’s a chance that the love is also okay.”
And the love Claus Meyer is talking about is the one that fills the atmosphere in an environment, whether it’s behind the four walls of the home, in an urban area or in a subculture. Something which should bring meaning and context to the individual person. For Claus Meyer, this dogma has steered him towards environments where the food could use improvement. It’s here that he sets to work with food schools, training programmes and restaurants for the benefit of people who are at the edge of existence.
THE MELTING POT
The doctrine derives from the raw material Claus Meyer is made of, which is stored at the root of the tree that he has climbed up higher and higher through his life. In line with this, the outlook has opened up even more and at the same time stretched the horizon further out into the world. And even though most of his initiatives in the commercial world are saturated with social responsibility, it was in 2010 that he went all-in with his first significant
“It was in 2010 that my business actually began to make money. I had this image of myself that I was flying in a hot air balloon with an increasing dead weight – I thought that I would fly easier if I threw something overboard,” says Meyer, and continues: “For a long time I had the desire to explicitly help people that I had no relation to. Now I also had the opportunity. The trick was to find a way where it would seriously mean something, even though the resources I could find were limited,” he explains about what led up to him establishing The Melting Pot Foundation in 2010. A foundation whose purpose is to help vulnerable and marginalised people through projects that have food and culinary craftsmanship and entrepreneurship as recurring elements. The first project Claus Meyer dived into was in 2011, where offenders in Vridsløselille State Prison were reintegrated in a food school. The gourmet restaurant GUSTU in Bolivia saw the light of day in 2013, and 2017 will be the year when the Brownsville Community Culinary Center in Brooklyn, New York opens its doors to local citizens.
“First of all, it was the desire to work philanthropically. I was inspired by Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen (Ed. a training programme for unemployed youngsters and a restaurant of the same name) and I visited his head office. I thought that if he can do it, then so could I. Secondly, I was curious as to whether you could use the power of the Nordic kitchen for something other than creating a new regional kitchen, whether there was a greater meaning in what we had created. It started with Jan Kragh Jacobsen, who is co-author of The Nordic Kitchen Manifesto and a former President of the Danish Gastronomical Academy, who called me one day and shared the perspective that the word “Nordic” could be removed from the manifesto. From this came the idea of using the same approach, only in one of the world’s poorest communities. Because wouldn’t it be great if what we had learned about creating a food movement, which released the dormant potentials of a food culture and promoted growth and job creation, if you could do the same in a poor country and then just give it away. That’s why I set up the foundation,” says Meyer. The reintegration project at Vridsløselille State Prison was the first project he launched under the auspices of The Melting Pot. Claus Meyer had previously had a conversation with the former prison director, Kim Tobberup Andersen, about what a difficult job it is to reintegrate the inmates, so that they return to society and not back to prison:
“During this conversation I had the idea that perhaps food could solve it. You could expose these people to totally amazing food and at the same time teach them not only the craft, but also about hosting. Could we bring them into a situation where they make wonderful food themselves, together and for some others, perhaps their families or officers, so maybe they would be seen and they would see themselves as giving, creative people. Perhaps it would mean something."
A major report from the University of Southern Denmark subsequently determined that the project was a significant success: “That very project is relatively well documented. There were almost 233 inmates who began the Vocational Education and Training (VET) course (Ed. a 20-week vocational training course) ’Food for People’ in the period 2012 to 2015 in prison. The average mark for the inmates who took the course, was overall, 10.0. Far above the national average. So the success specifically results in a skilled worker certificate. And yes, we employed the first five ourselves. And it was also calmer in the hallways,” answers Meyer, to what extent the success is measurable, where it’s not about generating a financial profit.
FOOD WITH HERITAGE AND EMOTIONAL CONNECTIONS
In 2012, he went to La Paz in Bolivia, South America’s poorest capital, to establish the gourmet restaurant GUSTU and the affiliated food school, which trains socially vulnerable boys and girls. Claus Meyer takes his starting point in the Bolivian ingredients: “In Bolivia other countries and an entire generation had forgotten its food history. If you’re a poor country, you can start by eating what you grow yourself, or what grows wild.”
BUT WHAT CAN FOOD DO, WHEN IT’S ABOUT CREATING CHANGE?
“Everybody has to eat and most people do, of course, like food. And as we’ve seen with noma and GUSTU in Bolivia, the project can have a huge narrative impact when the timing is right, and the real purpose is relevant to everyone. The story can achieve an almost incomprehensible momentum. Something noone can calculate in a spreadsheet,” he says.
In Brownsville, it’s the story of Africa and the Caribbean, where many of the grandparents of the youngsters in the program come from, and the food they once ate, which is currently untold. “They are part of the heritage, they have emotional connections to a past, and we want to make projects that connect people with their roots, not by us coming and making all the recipes, but by us as an enzyme, setting a process in motion that makes the youngsters begin to renew the kitchen themselves that they have inherited from their parents,” says Claus Meyer, who is the man behind both projects, but also the one who consistently invests himself in people and their stories.
TO PROMISE TOO LITTLE AND ACHIEVE TOO MUCH
To tell the story through food is Meyer’s metier. With noma he explored the Nordic kitchen’s ingredient basis and played a prominent role in the development of a new culinary language. The project and its ideas spread to most of the world, also to the more remote corners of the Nordic countries.
According to Meyer, the rules of the game in the social projects are fundamentally different: “It’s absolutely crucial that you read the dynamics that are present, including keeping your mouth shut and listening a long way along the road, and, above all, we must understand that it takes a lot more than you think before you win the respect that is a prerequisite for getting started in the first place. At Vridsløselille, it took two-to-three weeks full-time before anyone would take us seriously, but fortunately we learned a lot in a hurry. For example, something as simple as one does not fail. To promise too little and achieve too much,” he explains and emphasises: “People are naturally vulnerable, through most of their life, after having been subjected to various kinds of failure.”
“I hate to disappoint, in general. And who am I if I launch a collaboration with vulnerable people, which ignites a lot of hope to then just give up when it gets difficult. Hell, no, I would throw up over myself. I’m prepared to go that bit further for the social projects than for my companies, because here it’s about people who don’t have very much to fight for.
It’s clear that this is something that can take you far. We’re ready to fight more and find some extra money, do irrational things, send our best people, and use all of the resources we have,” he explains and highlights how the pitfalls sharpen focus:
“So, basically, I’m not particularly good at utilising a tailwind, but I’m very, very good at fighting against a headstrong one. I don’t like to give up.”
BETWEEN BUSINESS AND PHILANTHROPY
Claus Meyer is a businessman, entrepreneur and benefactor. He is driven by setting up companies that find themselves in the interface between what is profitable and what is good for others. He works towards commercial companies enriching the communities in which they exist, and the philanthropic initiatives should develop into self-sustaining projects.
“It’s perhaps easy for me to say, but I would rather work on projects in the commercial world that create much greater value for the employees, for our customers and for the outside world than they create for the company itself. And when I do philanthropy, then I would rather achieve great results with as little money as possible. The trick is also to educate people in the projects that money doesn’t just drop from the sky,” he explains and as an example of how business and philanthropy merge together”, he explains:
“In New York, we have introduced an initiative that each and every employee has two days a year where we pay them to do charitable work and they choose the cause themselves.”
It’s clear to everyone that philanthropy is dear to him. And it’s equally clear that Claus Meyer works hard at what he does and you might ask yourself whether the man ever sleeps? Over time, he has established more than 25 companies and has rarely left them completely. However, he points out that the objective is always to take himself out of the equation, so on a daily basis the projects can exist without his presence.
WHAT DRIVES YOU?
“I’ve always experienced that I get a lot back from the world. I actually try to just be a fairly decent human being, and if there’s a point to my life, then I will try to find it, it’s not a quick fix. And it’s also about finding a balance between taking care of yourself and enjoying the life you have for a short period of time, and to be for the benefit and enjoyment of other people as much as we can.”
The Melting pot
In 2010, Claus Meyer established The Melting Pot Foundation
with the mission to create social change through food, traditions and entrepreneurship. The Melting Pot Foundation has the non-profit and charitable purpose to increase the quality of life and improve the prospects of vulnerable people.
VRIDSLØSELILLE STATE PRISON
In 2011, a reintegration programme for inmates was introduced in a collaboration between The Melting Pot, Meyers Madhus, the Danish Prison and Probation Service and the state prison at Vridsløselille. The aim was to start a debate on reintegration and to investigate to what extent food education could mobilise the resources of the inmates. Through the food schools, which takes place in collaboration with the technical colleges, it was possible to implement the theoretical part (20-week Vocational Education and Training (VET) course) of chefs training in prison. The reintegration programme turned out to be a success and it was transferred to other Danish prisons. The offer still exists at Jyderup State Prison. Meyers Madhus supports education and holds restaurant evenings.
MANQ’A FOOD SCHOOLS
The Melting Pot establishes food schools in the slums of El Alto in La Paz in Bolivia. The schools will also act as local cafeterias. Manq’a intends to train about 3,000 youngsters over the course of three years. The training builds on experience from GUSTU.
GUSTU AND MANQ’A IN BOLIVIA
In 2013, Claus Meyers opened gourmet restaurant GUSTU in La Paz in Bolivia, South America’s poorest capital, in collaboration with IBIS and IFU. In addition to positioning itself as the culinary flagship, GUSTU has the aim of educating youngsters, poor Bolivians, primarily of Indian descent, to be food entrepreneurs.
BROWNSVILLE COMMUNITY CULINARY CENTER IN NEW YORK CITY
In the eastern part of New York City in Brownsville, Brooklyn, The Melting Pot is in the process of setting up a food school, bakery and a local dining and drop-in centre for youngsters. Brownsville is an underserved area, which lacks access to the basic nutritional elements comprising healthy diets. The intention is to train about 40 youngsters a year at the food school and that the youngsters acquire skills, so that they can subsequently take jobs in the restaurant and food industry.
Published by HOUNÖ
Text: Journalist Lousin Hartmann
Photography: Rasmus Bluhme, Moment Studio and Signe Birck
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