Nordic cuisine storms New York

Claus Meyer highlights local New York ingredients through Scandinavian cuisine

Photo: Signe Birck Claus Meyer at Great Northern Food Hall.

Photo: Signe Birck
Claus Meyer at Great Northern Food Hall.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Claus Meyer is a foodie in the best sense of the word. The Dane is the co-founder of Noma, nominated four times as the best restaurant in the world, and his connection to food goes far beyond preparing it. Along with 11 other Scandinavian chefs, he wrote the New Nordic Food Manifesto in Copenhagen in 2004 with the purpose of elevating Nordic Cuisine and, more specifically, highlighting “purity, simplicity, and freshness as well as the increased use of seasonal foods.”

Along with his spouse, daughters, and dogs, Meyer recently left his Danish digs and they are now pitching their tent in New York. Why the move across the Atlantic? Meyer had a grand plan for New York’s Grand Central Station: Agern, a restaurant with Icelander Chef Gunnar Gíslason, formerly of Dill in Reykjavík, as the executive chef, and the Great Northern Food Hall.

Meyer explained why the name Agern was chosen for the restaurant. “Agern, meaning acorn in Danish, is the fruit of the Danish national tree, the oak. It connects Agern to Grand Central Terminal. Since ancient times, the fruit of the oak has been a prevalent symbol of life and perseverance, also serving as an attribute of protection in Norse mythology. For Vikings in Scandinavia and indigenous peoples in North America alike, the acorn played a significant role as part of the everyday diet. ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow,’ reads the Vanderbilt family motto. Great things can come from small beginnings. Agern’s approach to food and people is that they love to see things grow.”

Agern is located in a “secret space” that hadn’t been used for many years. Having commuted through Grand Central Station during my college years, I experienced its transformation from an ugly duckling in the ’70s and ’80s to the elegant swan it is today. I couldn’t imagine where a secret space remained in this frenetic structure. I asked Meyer what the space for the restaurant had been used for originally.

Photo: Evan Sung The interior of Agern, tucked away in a “secret space” in Grand Central Station.

Photo: Evan Sung
The interior of Agern, tucked away in a “secret space” in Grand Central Station.

“The 110-seat space is tucked away in what used to be a hairdressing salon and, in the old days, the former men’s waiting room of Grand Central Terminal. The interiors draw lines to a Nordic design esthetic, with a mix of organic shapes and natural elements from sleek, curved mid-century furniture to mosaic tile work and natural wood elements in warm, earthy colors,” explained Meyer. In true Scandinavian fashion, they have created an ambitious restaurant that is casual and cozy, not stuffy.

The Great Northern Food Hall is wondrous, gracing 5,000 square feet in the lovely Vanderbilt Hall with its soaring 48-foot-high ceilings. With five pavilions and a bar, it offers a variety of dining options all day long, including “an expansive in-house bread and pastry program, selections of sweet and savory porridges, an expansive home-roasted coffee program, and a unique varietal of smørrebrød, a traditional open-face sandwich served on wholegrain rye bread,” according to Meyer. “With an emphasis on seasonality, Great Northern Food Hall will celebrate the best available produce in the New York State region while drawing inspiration from its Nordic roots,” he added.

Speaking of roots, I was curious if Meyer was aware of the strong Scandinavian culinary history of New York, and especially Brooklyn, due to the many people who emigrated from the Nordic countries.

As it turns out, he was. “Parts of the city, such as Brooklyn, have had a long history of strong ties to Scandinavia and its culinary heritage. We hope to add to that a modern, culinary immigrant story,” he explains.

“We will bring over the ideas and flavors rooted in our cultures, yet founded in the principles of the New Nordic Cuisine, meaning that we will cook our food in the context of the place we are in, the New York region, with what’s available to us right here, right now, and with the hope that our food will mean something to both Americans and Scandinavians alike.”

In other words, Meyer will definitely be maintaining the tenants of the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto in his new endeavors. This should bring a big boost to the Hudson Valley’s purveyors.

Photo: Signe Birck Brownsville Roasters in the Great Northern Food Hall serves locally roasted coffee.

Photo: Signe Birck
Brownsville Roasters in the Great Northern Food Hall serves locally roasted coffee.

Those involved in Meyer’s projects are bringing more than Nordic food to the States; they are also bringing Scandinavian social sensibilities by providing generous benefits to their employees. According to Meyer, it is “part of the cost of doing business.”

These two dining options opened in the late spring. Prior to their opening, there were several promotional videos, and one on YouTube featuring Meyer was especially terrific. It began with a brief history lesson about smørrebrød, which dates back to the early 1800s. In the video, Meyer explains about the “rediscovered virtues of the open face sandwich,” specifically the kartoffelmad (potato sandwich), and heads out to share some with the frenzied commuters he finds in Grand Central. He encompasses Danish lightness and sense of humor while kissing the manager of Murray’s Cheese Shop, escorting a commuter and wheeling her suitcase as she eats alongside him, and serving a kartoffelmad to a commuting pooch.

Creating a pop-up is another brilliant and trendy way to promote new food, and that is exactly what Meyer did this spring at Margo Patisserie based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Claus and Company offered Danish pastries, their signature buns, and Danish-style rye bread. Eventually, this pop-up shop became Meyers Bageri.

But Meyer’s work does not stop there. In 2010, he founded the Melting Pot Foundation to show how food can serve as a driver for social change. Current projects include a cooking school based in Danish prisons and many culinary training programs in La Paz, Bolivia, as well as the establishment of Gusto, a restaurant that had been recognized as one of the top 50 in Latin America.

In NYC, Meyer is opening a culinary school in Brownsville, a neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn that has been plagued with unemployment. A bakery, cafeteria, and community center will also be realized in the neighborhood. These will certainly bring more than much needed job training and employment: these will also bring hope.

I asked Meyer why he chose New York of all the places in the world to come to.

He responded: “I believe that every restaurateur in this world would be enthusiastic about the idea of opening a food hall in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal. It is a great opportunity for me and my family to get a chance, and reason, to live together abroad—and we are all a little bit in love with NYC. We expect to learn from New York and New Yorkers, meet new friends, learn from both business and charity cultures, learn a new language. Likewise I hope that New Yorkers will also have something to learn from me.”

And with such a lively and generous agenda set by Meyer, I am sure we New Yorkers will learn something. Meyer, bring it on! And Velkommen to New York!

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.