Inside Copenhagen’s experimental new restaurant where dishes are political statements

Welcome to the restaurant where you can eat quotes and suck dessert through an udder. Clare Vooght has a six-hour dinner

Clare Vooght
Friday 19 July 2019 16:06
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Copenhagen experimental restaurant serves dish with a political statement

A blonde girl with a high ponytail, leaning against part of the scenery, takes out a “passport” like the one my friend and I have just been issued with. Around us, we can hear the sounds of New York, pumped through speakers. Close your eyes and you could be on Broadway, open them and you’re in a graffiti version of NYC, the cartoonish Lady Liberty next to yellow taxis and neon street signs.

The girl removes a rectangle of paper from the passport, with a quote printed on it, tears a piece off and eats it, gesturing to us to do the same. The second the lime and kuzu starch creation hits my tongue, what I thought was a wall slides open and we’re welcomed into another room. Tables are arranged in front of a window to a room filled with high-tech lab equipment where food is being prepared.

We are in Refshaleøen, a watery, ex-industrial edge of Copenhagen, not far from bright, airy Noma. At the end of a stretch of warehouse buildings that used to serve the city’s shipbuilding industry is the city’s, perhaps the world’s, most groundbreaking new restaurant: Alchemist.

While the food here is, technically speaking, up there with the world’s best in fine-dining, that’s only half of its appeal. Chef Rasmus Munk has created a gallery-like performance art space – sealed from natural light, like a theatre – where the dining experience is turned completely on its head in the space of around 50 very tiny but beautifully put-together courses. Food becomes a vehicle for making political statements and Munk pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in the kitchen.

It gives molecular gastronomy a philosophical reboot for a generation that’s conscious of issues like overconsumption. Case in point: a waiter places two bowls, a pre-dinner snack, in front of us, and says, “this is greed”. Spoonfuls of it dissolve, hints of apple pine and citrus verbena lingering for an infuriatingly fleeting second on the tongue, but really it’s as if we’re barely eating anything at all.

Munk, who closed his original 15-seat Alchemist two years ago to make way for this bigger, grander-scale venture, says: “The main idea and ambition for the restaurant is to create a space where you can put the culinary world into a new language and use it as a tool to communicate. It should first be a playground where we could talk about things that we think are important. It needed to be more than just a great meal.”

Edible quote, anyone?

The long list of issues Munk wants to tackle includes immigration – the New York room is designed by Japanese-born Brooklyn-based street artist Lady Aiko – food waste, plastic in the oceans, and how we treat the animals we eat.

The main dining room – act three – is a dreamy planetarium-like space with silhouettes of trees on a starry sky projected above and around you. Later, streaks of aurora borealis appear, and eventually the whole thing transforms into an underwater scene of jellyfish floating alongside plastic bags. This is where we eat most of the courses, or “impressions” (among the many experts hired to finesse the experience, Munk says he asked a food philosopher to choose exactly the right words to describe it).

Plastic Fantastic is an exquisite morsel of cod jaw, topped with edible plastic made from the cod’s skin, which sticks to your lips as you eat, to highlight plastic getting into the oceans and our food supply. It’s served on a glossy plate made from plastic waste collected from Denmark’s western beaches.

The Plastic Fantastic dish highlights the amount of plastic in the ocean

Blood Diamond is a small bowl of cold red liquid, containing red tomato, kombucha and tabasco, poured from vials onto diamond-shaped ice cubes. Food for Thought, served inside a waxwork head, is made with organic, ethically produced (not force-fed) foie gras. Offal features heavily, from lamb’s brain to beef tendon, but vegetarian and vegan versions of all the same dishes are also available. In a very New Nordic way, flavours sometimes jar with each other.

The NYC graffiti wall at Alchemist

A lighter (in every sense of the word) dish is a frozen snowball made from fermented tomatoes but perfectly white, which we eat with thick ski gloves. A hibiscus flower is made from kombucha scoby and a solid, crisp version of a French onion soup plays with a classic culinary format.

Dishes can be surreal, too: a strawberry and edible flower dish Munk made to celebrate his friend surviving tongue cancer has to be eaten, or “kissed”, off a rubber tongue, while a goat’s milk and dulche de leche dessert is sucked through a rubber udder.

The dish ‘blood diamond’

Next up is a dark corridor twinkling with rainbow LEDs, meant to symbolise a sense of isolation associated with coming out. Here a dancer wearing the same LEDs hands us a popsicle shaped like a seahorse, chosen as an LGBT+ representative here since it’s one of many animals that engage in same sex relationships. By the time we emerge and finish our final desserts over a cocktail, six hours have passed.

Apparently some “hardcore foodies” set the record at just over three hours, but I’d advise taking tactical breaks – it’s intense. In one evening I’ve questioned my meat consumption, and felt what it might be like to ingest plastic. I’ve eaten some technically brilliant food, at peak quality, and with flawless service, yet it’s made me flinch, laugh and consider some of the biggest issues we face in society, right down to our place in the world as humans. And in that way, Alchemist is perfectly anarchic.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways, Ryanair, easyJet, Norwegian and SAS fly to Copenhagen from £20 return.

Staying there

Micro-hotel Citizen M offers centrally located, easy luxury with compact-yet-comfortable rooms – that still manage to fit huge beds. Guests have access to buzzy shared spaces with bold art and ultra-fast automated check-in and check-out, as well as weekly yoga and running sessions. Rooms from £85.

Visiting there

See visitdenmark.com for more information.

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