Even if you're not a committed vegetarian, you'll be seduced by the riot of color on the walls, the ceiling and on your plate at Mesa Verde in Luxembourg City. (The menu includes salmon teriyaki, curried tofu, and a mixed salad with tempura prawns) Almost every surface of the interior is adorned with colorful murals, including one displaying myriad fanciful sea creatures. Many hued butterflies flit across the ceiling and paper lanterns in all shapes and sizes glow from their lofty perches. One resembles a hot air balloon, another a pumpkin. In the back of the restaurant, a mosaic sculpture with a likeness to tree roots stands near a lantern shaped like an insect pupa with wings.
Quite a curious décor, but no more curious than the owner's resume. Lucien Elsen is a world traveler, trained chef, party planner and professional clown. And I was lucky to spend an hour with him one morning at his favorite cafe in Luxembourg City where we sipped lattes and nibbled on warm croissants.
It seems that you're a major multitasker. You have a lot going on. How do you get inspired?
I was born on a beautiful farm and I would go out into the forest to discover things. Now, every day I go into the forest. It's like brushing my teeth. I camp, I get ideas, and I ground myself.
How did you become interested in cooking?
Cooking was my first passion. I wanted to be a macrobiotic chef. So I traveled the world. I'd hitchhike around and worked for room and board. I was a dishwasher for a year in Japan but you learn by watching.
Your staff has been with you for awhile. Why are they so dedicated?
At Mesa Verde, I was originally the cook and I trained everyone there. The people who work there feel it's our restaurant. I met the manager in India. And when I go back there, I see his family's house, which is there because of my restaurant. It's all connected.
I'm told that you organize some amazing parties, including street parties. How did that come about?
I had lived in San Francisco where I did food styling. But I couldn't continue to do that job. It was so fake. They threw away so much food. (I would give it to the homeless.) But, when I returned to Luxembourg City, I found it a bit boring. I had a club because I wanted to bring people together. (It was one of the best clubs in town.) I also like street life – open air events – because I like when energy comes together. So I also organized an outdoor party, and 100 people showed up. The police said I couldn't do that. But I held it again the following year and this time 1,500 people showed up. And the mayor liked it. Each year it grew. It was a way for me to do something for everyone. Four times a year I hold a big party in Mesa Verde, including on New Years and National Day. Every Saturday next to Mesa Verde I have outdoor music. It's free. It becomes a meeting place with good music. I'm a connector.
You certainly have a diverse background. But how does being a clown figure into this whole picture?
I went to Berlin to learn script writing but someone told me about a clown school in Ibiza. That's where I also studied to be a healer. A clown is about truth. People are afraid of clowns because the clown goes to the truth and people don't want to hear that. My current play is about an apocalypse. At the end of it, kids are laughing, the women are crying, and the men say what the f*** just happened. Cooking is something you do with your heart and you transmit those feelings to people. A cook touches them with emotions. But so does a clown, and that's the connection.
Mesa Verde radiates an appealing sense of vibrancy. How do you achieve that?
At Mesa Verde, I bring my energy to the restaurant, which is a micro-cosmos. Aside from making love, cooking is the most intimate experience you can have with a person. I can look at a sandwich somewhere and I see that there's no love in that sandwich. I believe you should treat a salad like a flower you would offer a loved one. You care for it. Every leaf has a different texture. It's like painting. You're making a picture.