What were we thinking? Yesterday we chose a favorite without considering all the evidence. We stand corrected. Here we have a story of a restaurant at the top of the world, and at the pinnacle of how the game is played today, it sounds like. The content of this story is as superb as it is well written, and the theme is much closer to our hearts with regard to our organization’s core values and social enterprise roots:
Can a restaurant for the rich benefit the poor?
BY CAROLYN KORMANN
Look out the windows of Gustu, the most ambitious restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia, and you’ll see the city climbing up toward the looming peaks of the Andes in a lumpy, shimmering mosaic. You might experience a momentary dread, like the one that hits before a steep hike: you’re at the bottom of the bowl. But in La Paz the lower the elevation the better you feel. The city’s average altitude is twelve thousand feet above sea level, which means about a third less oxygen per breath. The lowest-altitude neighborhoods are the most desirable. In the one called Calacoto—where Gustu is situated, at 10,993 feet—quiet cobblestone streets are lined with embassies and the offices of N.G.O.s. Local kids pronounce rico, meaning rich or delicious, as an American would, without rolling the “r”—a Bolivian version of a Brahmin lockjaw. “In the U.S. you pay for the view,” a resident told me. “Here you pay for the oxygen.”
Gustu, housed in an imposing gray concrete cube with a bank of protruding windows, is both a restaurant and an experiment in social uplift. It was opened in 2013 by the Danish food entrepreneur Claus Meyer. At the time, his most widely known venture, Noma, in Copenhagen, had been named the world’s best restaurant for the third year in a row by a jury of international chefs, critics, and restaurateurs. Meyer’s sprawling food company had come to include an apple orchard, a vinegar factory, a coffee roaster, and a salmon smokehouse. “The total group suddenly went from earning a hundred thousand dollars a year to four million a year,” he told me recently. He was surprised, and a little uncomfortable. He had always been more concerned with things like finding “an unseen vinegar-flavor balance” or harvesting the uniquely succulent turnips of the Faeroe Islands.
In recent years, Meyer and René Redzepi, Noma’s head chef, have promoted an influential declaration of gastronomic principles: the “New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto.” The document has ten points, including pleas for using local ingredients (often highly obscure ones) and a call for “purity, freshness, simplicity, and ethics.” Making millions of dollars is not one of the points. “I got to thinking I could give a little bit away, in a nice way, without feeling poor afterwards,” Meyer said. He started a foundation called Melting Pot, which taught prisoners in Denmark how to cook, but that came to seem insufficiently ambitious. He wanted to fight against “McDonaldization,” and see if his philosophy of food could help lift people out of poverty. Maybe, he thought, eating sea buckthorn and gooseberries had “something in it for mankind.”
His first idea was to open an outpost in one of the troubled countries of southeastern Europe—Bulgaria, Greece, Romania—or possibly in Kazakhstan. He wrote to the European commissioner of agriculture to ask “if she thought there would be a poor country in Europe that would maybe benefit.” When she didn’t answer, he started researching other possibilities, looking for a poor (but not too poor) place with exceptional biodiversity and relatively little crime. He developed a ranked list and considered Ghana, Vietnam, and Nepal. Vietnamese cuisine was already too good, Meyer decided; all the great combinations of ingredients had been discovered. Then he hit on Bolivia. Though it is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, it has, Meyer said, “a great undiscovered larder of fantastic products that people could be seduced by.”
Yet when Meyer visited La Paz, he recalled, he was “frustrated and depressed.” The altitude made him so sick that he brought an oxygen tank to meetings. “I would never take my family to live there,” he concluded. “You can’t even drink the water.” The average monthly wage was less than two hundred dollars, and most locals preferred to eat traditional Bolivian dishes sold at sidewalk stalls and markets; soups made with dehydrated potatoes or beef kidneys were popular. The tourist trade catered largely to backpackers looking for cheap hostels and coca tea. Meyer remembered thinking, “This can never happen. There is no market for this. We will have forty employees but no clients.” Then he descended to Calacoto and began to feel better. “We found a place in La Paz that looked as if it had some well-dressed people.”…
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