By Patrick Hieger
Last night in La Paz, after the first-ever graduation of Gustu and their non-profit foundation Melting Pot, we had a chance to sit down with Claus Meyer. He was beaming, grinning ear to ear with excitement and emotion, overcome by what his dream three years in the making had become. He was also ready to gush, full of nothing but excitement about Bolivia, and where it can head.
In this open, and super honest interview, Meyer talks about the differences between what he developed at Noma, and how Gustu is radically different. He offers nothing but praise for his chefs Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari. And he offers some pretty serious hints that Colombia could be next for a project of this kind. It’s a long interview, but full of amazing quotes and worth a complete read. Meyer’s passion for what he’s doing in South America is intoxicating, and it seems to have caught on.
Meyer, still beaming after the graduation ceremony, didn’t even need prompting
It’s unbelievable how everything can be executed with such refinement. It’s something that could never happen if Kamilla and Michelangelo didn’t have their capacities, but also the whole team that surrounds them. Pilar, Sumaya, I mean the way people cooperate, it’s unbelievable.
You’re sitting now in a restaurant that is #32 in Latin America, and you just celebrate your first graduating class. Did you think, three years ago, that this was going to happen?
Yes and no. I mean, this was what I dreamed of, so if you asked me to describe what I saw in front of my eyes when I closed them, three or four years out in the future, it was kind of this. But if you had asked me to explain how we would get there, I wouldn’t have a clue.
Now that the restaurant is a year in, how do you feel everything is progressing?
We’ve only been open since April of last year, and for me, this is only in my whole life, in the case of Noma, that I’ve seen anything like this. A team of people that is bigger because, this is not about us, it’s about that the whole DNA of this project is generosity. About giving, not about taking. With Noma, we wanted to win the champions’ league. This is about giving something, and I can feel that there’s a very big difference. That result is much more emotional. It’s not about celebrating ourselves.
One thing is Gustu, but the really beautiful thing is that apparently, the whole surrounding, from the stake holders, and even the people in El Alto seem to understand what it’s all about. And to be able, without even speaking the language–I don’t speak Spanish–to meet people like that… The other day I was at Manq’a and I could see them with tears in their eyes, and feel that they have deep faith in what we’re doing.
So, when you ask me if I’m satisfied with the progress, I’m speechless. If you ask me to characterize the performance of Kamilla and Michelangelo, I would be speechless, I don’t have words to describe what they’ve achieved. And I don’t think they can understand it either themselves because they’ve been sort of absorbed by the whole thing and they are not able to make distance between themselves and the project. They are integrated more than they can even explain.
When we met them last year, they didn’t know how long they’d stay in Bolivia, but now it seems like they’re really willing to stay.
They’ve preserved this special feeling, because once you have felt what you feel with something like this, you don’t want to go down. You want to remain. You want to have these emotions. You want to feel like crying all the way to next year.
You’re obviously very emotional from the graduation. But how does the Latin America’s 50 Best award feel?
Well, I know the importance for the whole project, and a lot of people do not believe in what we’re doing. Getting on that list is a way of sort of proving to all those people that would doubt that this is good, this is the right thing, that this is possible. For Gustu’s capacity to become a bridge to the next project, and the next initiative, and for Gustu’s capacity to release energy in the whole Bolivian society, the fact that the world says this is fucking fantastic, that you are number thirty two after one year…for the goal of the project to turn the Bolivian manifesto into a reality, you cannot overemphasize the impact of reaching that fucking list.
It’s a ridiculous list also. For the kids, when I think of what it means, they’re going to tell their friends, their going to tell their mother and father, now we’re on the team. I mean, two years ago, they might not have had much hope for a great future, they would never get an education. So, for all those reasons, I think it’s fantastic that we succeeded.
I don’t know if we entered because of compassion, because this is a very emotional project. But I don’t really care, because what is hospitality, what is good food, how can you measure that? So, if compassion for the project brought us there that quickly, that’s fine with me.
With Noma you said it was win, win, win. With South America do you think your vision has changed, that those numbers don’t necessarily matter?
This is an NGO. This is a charity project. The more fame we earn, the more we can give back. If we fill up the restaurant with happy guests, then there will be a profit, and that profit by law and by nature will be redirected into Bolivia, and will be invested in society.
Do you think you’ll do more projects like this in South America or in Bolivia?
That’s a very delicate question, and I don’t really have the answer right now as to what to do next. With Noma also, it was extremely difficult, and for ten years we didn’t do anything. We just tried to preserve that special thing. With projects like this I will always talk with my key colleagues, so it would be as relevant to ask what Kamilla and Michelangelo want to do. But I think that we all would love not to dilute this thing. So, Gustu will be Gustu and there will be only one Gustu.
Of course, if it’s better for Colombia that we find a way to bring ourselves to Colombia, than if Colombian people could just learn from the structures… this is not rocket science. We’ve just run around with a little bit of money in our pocket and believed in what we’re doing, and tried to behave as good human beings. It is not rocket science.
What I feel is that if you do the right thing for the right reasons, at the right moment, then you feel that it all comes to you. This is one of the easiest projects I have executed in my entire life. Of course there have been hard moments, but never have I smiled so much or doubted so little about what to do tomorrow. So, I think that any good person in Colombia could do what we’re doing here. We wouldn’t mind taking Manq’a or the idea of having this model going to another Latin American country, but we also wouldn’t mind if someone else would do the same.
What I love about Kamilla and Michelangelo is that they must be impressed. I told them when we started that maybe this could be a shortcut in their career. “I can’t promise it, but don’t just consider that I’d send you to the end of the fucking world and you will just rot there. There is a chance that you’ll consider this to be a shortcut.” And I’ll think they’ll say I was right, that this is a shortcut, but what I love about them is that they, compared to all other top chefs that I’ve worked with and met, the balance in between what’s in it for me and what’s in it for the neighborhood, is a very beautiful balance. If they can preserve that–I’ve seen many chefs not be able–I would love for them to preserve this beautiful attitude for what they’re doing.
They’ve changed quite a bit in the last year since we met them.
Imagine how it is for me. Michelangelo was a young chef who was cooking bread for a Danish chef and now he’s some sort of a Messiah for South America. If he can preserve that purity and not fall in love too much with himself, then I think he can create miracles.
I just wrote a couple of headlines as to what we should strive for, what we should try to achieve, with the educational part. With Manq’a I was a little ashamed that we would have only 30 students and we spent so much money, and we’re traveling here and so on, so the investment and output was a little bit shaky. But I wanted to teach more people the virtues from Gustu, but I had never imagined that it couldn’t be executed as well as I saw up there, especially the way in which they’ve sold the idea to the community.
We see Manq’a in the press all the time, and it’s amazing to see how the community has taken to it.
It’s about doing the right thing at the right time, and now I can see why we chose Bolivia, and maybe we’ll do something in another country, but at least Bolivia has been a very good place to do what we’re doing.