Wednesday, April 24, 2019

An ocean of flavours

Claus Meyer, one of the founders of the New Nordic cuisine, gives his impressions about Kerala food, while on a recent visit

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the farm kitchen at the back of CGH Earth’s Marari Beach resort, Corporate Mentor Chef Jose Varkey points at a large green leaf, on a wooden table, and tells Danish culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer, “This is a mango ginger leaf. We wrap fish in it and grill it. Sometime back we came across some people who began using it for cooking purposes. We never knew this could be done.”

Several chefs of the CGH group, in their starched white-and-black uniforms, listened attentively. The tall Claus, dressed casually in a green T-shirt and khaki Bermuda shorts, and brown sandals, says, “So you have to find a way to tell the story about this leaf. You have to tell it, not only with words but also through the food itself. Maybe, you can add some mango and ginger. Instead of using a lot of spices, you could try to retain the fragrance.”

Claus had come on a ten-day vacation to Kerala with his family and took a small break to interact with the local chefs. The Dane had established his reputation internationally when he founded the New Nordic Cuisine along with several Scandinavian chefs. For long, the Danes would ape Spanish, French and other European cuisines. But Claus said that Danish cuisine should consist of local and seasonal vegetables and follow the agrarian traditions of the country. When many chefs adopted this philosophy, a new cuisine was born.

Later Claus, along with chef Rene Redzepi set up a restaurant in London called Noma (short for ‘Nordisk Mad’, the Danish words for Norwegian food). It received two Michelin stars and was voted the best restaurant in the world in 2010-12, and 2014 by Restaurant Magazine.

In Kerala, he has been spending his time tasting the local cuisine. “I enjoyed the fish, placed between banana leaves, dosas, sambar and mud crab dishes,” says Claus. “The crispy puris were wonderful. There were so many delicious items.”

Asked the difference between Nordic and Kerala cuisine, Claus says, “In Kerala, the food is cooked for a very long time. For the most part, it's difficult to distinguish what has gone into the food because it's typically an ocean of flavour in the curry. In the Nordic cuisine, we only have a few elements that go together.”

As for the Kerala-style thali, with its multiple items, Claus is honest enough to say that it can be a bit bland. “There's nothing that stands out,” he says. “I like to think this is about the wonderful chicken or beef or herb. Having said that I enjoyed the thali. I don’t want to come to another country to judge anything.”

But he did suggest that local chefs could try some innovations. “If a young Indian chef went to the Nordic region, it will be an amazing adventure for him,” says Claus. “He could learn a totally different approach to cooking and take that home and figure out what part of it could make sense here.”

Meanwhile, at the international level, life in the culinary business can be very stressful. A few Michelin chefs, when they came to know they might lose a star, have committed suicide. “The pressure is unbelievable,” says Claus. “But at Noma, this is being borne by Rene. You have a critic from ‘The New York Times’ eating at your restaurant. And if you make one error, then you are finished. However, for a single meal at Noma, there are 150 components, like herbs and leaves, reaching the plate. So, it is not easy.”

Claus’s role has been different. He has been the entrepreneur, ideator, visionary, the man who brings in the money and sets up the team. Apart from being an entrepreneur, he has been a successful cookbook author, TV host, associate professor ( Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen), as well as a social worker.

He started a foundation called Melting Pot, in 2010 and set up a restaurant called Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia, and several culinary schools in the country. As for the selection of the South American country, he says, “We picked Bolivia for a combination of factors: it is very poor; there is a large and unexplored biological diversity; and low criminality. I didn't want my staff to go to a place where they could be kidnapped.”

Finally, when asked the reasons behind his success in so many fields, Claus says, “A simple technique that I have used many times in my life is to ask myself a question: what is the most wonderful thing I can do in the world, with the resources I've been given, and the experiences I have had? This simple thought process has led me to the most amazing collaborations and journeys. Any person anywhere in the world can ask himself this question. And wonderful things will ensue.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

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