CHEW ON THIS
More than a decade after Noma’s opening, Copenhagen is still the capital of mind-blowing culinary experiences. But have restaurants that aim to provoke gone too far?
I have visited thousands of restaurants in my lifetime, but over the summer I got an early peek at the strangest one I’ve ever seen. This happened in Copenhagen. The Danish city has been a vortex of culinary innovation for about 15 years now, thanks to the ripple effect of chef René Redzepi’s Noma. But nothing could have prepared me for Alchemist.
I met 28-year-old chef Rasmus Munk outside what appeared to be a warehouse. We stepped inside and beheld a Roy Lichtenstein–style tableau of New York City street scenes from graffiti artist Lady Aiko. Then
we moved into a wine cellar that looked like something out of The Matrix—8,000 bottles stacked three stories high in glass towers with transparent glass floors. Then we ambled into what resembled the interior of an observatory. Diners at Alchemist sit in darkness, at places illuminated by tiny lamps, and gaze upon a domed vista of a sky filled with stars. Munk told me that when the dome was completed, he instructed the designer to go back to the drawing board because he felt that his panorama of the aurora borealis and floating jellyfish was slightly askew.
That must’ve been an expensive redo, but, hey, erecting Alchemist is said to have cost around $15 million anyway, and a meal with wine will set you back $600 (more if you want a bottle of Pétrus). There are performers to pay—not just servers but also trained thespians who interact with you, à la mariachis and mimes—and dishes that force you to confront the issues of the day, from climate change to racism to avarice to pollution to African water shortages to oceanic debris. There is a course that’s meant to mimic a clot of plastic polluting the sea. There is also a lamb brain, crimson from cherry juice, sliced by your side. That’s meant to shock you with the reality of how much food goes to waste. Munk calls that one “Think Outside the Box.”
Toto, we’re not in Noma anymore.
No need to slap a category on all of this. Munk has already done so. He calls it “holistic cuisine.” “In the same way as the ancient alchemists sought to fuse philosophy, natural science, religion and the arts to create a new understanding of the world order, the aim of Holistic Cuisine is to redefine and broaden our understanding of the concept of dining,” the Alchemist site tells you. (The ancient alchemists were con men, but whatever.)
Look, I like to think of myself as an ally of risk-takers and envelopepushers, and it would be all too easy to mock an enterprise that appears to edge perilously close to the restaurant in Always Be My Maybe, the one at which Keanu Reeves, in headphones, sheds tears for the animal that has died so that he can be fed. But I’d be lying if I told you that I want to eat at Alchemist. I care deeply about climate change, yet I don’t necessarily go to a restaurant to worry about it even more. I go to a restaurant to get away from the awful news for a few hours.
That’s an antiquated perspective, though. We are experiencing a surge of restaurants that give paying customers the opportunity to experiment with their own discomfort— especially (ironically) at the high end. In Houston, at Indigo, chef Jonny Rhodes invites you to contemplate, via tasting menu, the odious history of slavery, racial oppression, and mass incarceration; in Los Angeles, at Vespertine, chef Jordan Kahn ushers you into a veritable spaceship, where everything from gelatinous bites to repeated loops of music is meant to foster as much disorientation as pleasure.
Does this represent the future of fine dining, or is it a decline-of-the-Roman-Empire sign of its imminent demise? I will only say that I spied a different vision of restaurant bliss right down the street from Alchemist in the once-abandoned Refshaleøen area of Copenhagen. This was a place called La Banchina. It’s a shack overlooking the harbor where you can order some anchovies and a glass of wine. There’s swimming in the summer, a sauna in the winter.
You won’t think much about the sorry state of the planet at La Banchina, but you will come away feeling better. And that, my friends, is its own form of alchemy.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON FOIE FOAM At Copenhagen’s Alchemist, dishes like “Food for Thought” (foie gras topped with aerated foie gras foam) are meant to make you, uh, think. It’s made from the livers of geese that haven’t been force-fed.
1 2 3 4 5 6 1. Slurp 2. Apollo Bar & Kantine 3. IIuka 4. Alchemist 5. La Banchina 6. Noma
HAVE A THINK This is lamb brain. The red coloration comes from cherry juice. It’s sliced tableside at Alchemist.