The days are ticking down to the opening of Claus Meyer's Agern restaurant in New York's Grand Central Terminal - the start of ambitious projects that include a food hall at the train station, a bakery and a cooking school.
The Danish restaurateur, who created the four-time winner of World's Best Restaurant Noma with chef Rene Redzepi, looks relaxed as he settles in for lunch at Hoppers in London to discuss also his new book, The Nordic Kitchen. The New York restaurant is planned for the end of the month, quickly followed by the 5,000 square-foot food Great Northern Food Hall at the station.
He's moved his family to New York and is planning five separate pavilions in the terminal's Vanderbilt Hall: Sweet and savory porridges at the Grain Bar; salads, juices and bites at Almanak; coffee from Brownsville Roasters; baked goods at Meyers Bageri; and Smørrebrød sandwiches at Open Rye.
"The New York food scene is extremely vibrant," he says. "But it was my wife and my oldest daughter who convinced me to do it. I was having a good time in Denmark, and Copenhagen is very, very good for food these days. I never thought about going outside Denmark before but I'm drawn to projects that are spectacular."
While Grand Central is about as high-profile as it gets in New York, Meyer, 52, appears almost more excited by the philanthropic enterprise he's planning in the deprived Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. The culinary school will come with a local restaurant, echoing a project he founded in La Paz, where young Bolivians are trained to cook and serve their nation's produce at a restaurant called Gustu. Details on the cooking school are still under wraps.
"I was very happy with the way Bolivia worked out and I got the idea that maybe something down that alley could also work in New York," Meyer says. "I needed something that was larger than just building a food hall. We want to do something great in Brownsville. "
In his book, Meyer describes Denmark in the 1960s as a gastronomic wasteland. Religious traditions of austerity meant the nation was ripe for canned meatballs and powdered mashed potato when changes in society meant more women went out to work and spent less time cooking at home.
Meyer's eureka moment came as an au pair in Agen, France, where at 20 he discovered great food. He returned to Denmark as a champion of French cuisine, making hundreds of TV shows and becoming a celebrity. He opened Noma in 2003, with Redzepi in charge.
The two got together with other chefs the following year to develop the idea of New Nordic Cuisine, focusing on fish, meat, herbs and vegetables from across the region, while shunning olive oil, foie gras and other imports.
Noma has been at the forefront of that revolution, but Meyer later handed control to Redzepi to focus on other projects, including restaurants, bakeries, an orchard and even a vinegar factory.
"Rene wanted so much to be the only captain on the ship," Meyer says. "It felt the right thing to do. If you live your life according to the idea that you should own everything you've created, then a painter would own all his paintings."
The Nordic Kitchen contains seasonal recipes that Meyer developed for cooking at home. They are mostly simple, generally using ingredients you can obtain without foraging. Here are some recipes to try.
Pan-Fried Plaice With Browned Butter, Parsley, New Potatoes
Plain flour, for dusting
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons elderflower vinegar
1 handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
1kg new potatoes, boiled to serve
- Check that plaice is fresh, with beautiful clear, bulging eyes and a smell of the sea, not of the harbour. Clean the plaice, cutting off the head and fins, and remove the skin, then rinse the fish thoroughly in cold water, cleaning off all the blood and guts (or get your fishmonger to do all the work for you).
- Cut an incision all the way down the line that the plaice naturally has down the middle, which will prevent the super-fresh fish from contracting too much and arching during cooking. This cut has a second important function – while frying, you can spoon some of the hot butter from the pan on to the thick end of the plaice (where the head was) so that it penetrates the flesh and enables both the thick and thin parts to be cooked evenly in the same time rather than the thinner part drying out before the thicker part is properly cooked.
- Dust the plaice with flour and season with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a hot frying pan and let it bubble, then fry the plaice for about 3–4 minutes on each side or until they are beautifully golden on both sides. You can probably only fit a single plaice in the pan at a time, unless you have a very large frying pan, so it may be a good idea to use 2 pans at a time. A good trick to check whether the plaice are done is to find the pointed bone that sits just below where the head has been cut off. If it can be pulled out effortlessly, the plaice are finished; if not, they need a little more time in the pan.
- Serve the plaice with the butter from the pan flavoured with the vinegar and chopped parsley, along with the boiled potatoes. This dish is simple and exceptionally good.
Spinach Tart With Cottage Cheese
100g Öland or organic wholegrain wheat flour, plus extra for dusting
50g oat flour
50g rye flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons standard rapeseed oil, plus extra for greasing
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon salt
250g low-fat natural yogurt
350g cottage cheese
200ml semi-skimmed milk
3 organic eggs
3 gratings of nutmeg
sea salt flakes and freshly ground pepper
500g fresh spinach leaves, washed and drained
35g hard cheese, grated
1 handful of fresh herbs, such as sweet woodruff, chervil and sweet cicely
a few drops of cider vinegar
a few drops of cold-pressed rapeseed oil
- First make the pastry. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl to make a dough.
- Wrap the dough in clingfilm and leave to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Mix the cottage cheese, milk, eggs, nutmeg, salt and pepper together in a bowl to a smooth paste.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan and briefly sauté the spinach, just until it starts to collapse and releases its liquid. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the spinach into a sieve and strain off the liquid.
- Roll the pastry dough out into a thin layer on a floured work surface, then transfer it to a 24–26cm diameter, 3cm deep, tart dish oiled with rapeseed oil. Press the dough firmly into the dish and trim the excess dough from around the edges.
- Put the drained spinach into the pastry case and cover with the cottage cheese paste. Peel and slice the shallot into very thin rings, then spread over the top of the paste. Lastly, sprinkle the grated cheese over the tart.
- Bake the tart on the bottom shelf of a preheated oven at 170°–180°C/350°F for 30–35 minutes until the filling has set. The tart should be light golden on the top and the pastry baked through. Just before serving, peel and cut the other shallot into thin rings, then toss with the freshly torn herbs in the vinegar and rapeseed oil, just to give them a bit of shine. Arrange the shallot and herb mixture on top of the tart and serve warm. If you want more greenery, serve with a small salad on the side. You can also choose to make the tart a day ahead and serve it cold for lunch or as an accompaniment to a main course.
Almond and Chocolate Cake With Strawberries and Lightly Whipped Cream
130g whole blanched almonds
2 organic egg whites, about 70–80g
130g icing sugar
100g good-quality dark chocolate, such as Valrhona Manjari 64%
300g fresh strawberries
20ml whipping cream, lightly whipped
a few lemon balm tips
- For the meringue, spread the almonds on a baking sheet lined with baking paper and roast them in a preheated oven at 160°C/ 325°F for 8–10 minutes or until golden and fragrant. Leave the almonds to cool, then chop them in a food processor or with a knife.
- Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then whisk in the icing sugar a little at a time and beat until you have a glossy and smooth meringue mixture. Chop the chocolate roughly and fold into the meringue along with the chopped almonds.
- Draw 2 circles, each about 26cm in diameter, on a piece of baking paper on a baking tray and spread the meringue mixture over them using a spatula for a neat result. Bake in a preheated oven at 170ºC/350°F for about 15 minutes until crisp and golden on the outside but still slightly soft in the center.
- Leave the meringue layers to cool, then carefully remove them from the baking paper and place them on a cake plate.
- For the filling, rinse the strawberries only if necessary and then hull.
- Cut them in half and spread them out on the meringue layers, decorating with lightly whipped cream and a lemon balm tips. You can either make 2 open cakes or place the layers on top of each other so that you have a single cake. Serve immediately while the meringue is still lovely and crisp.
The Nordic Kitchen, One year of family cooking will be published by Mitchell Beazley on April 7 at £25/$29.99.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.