A courageous attempt to extend the scope of gastronomy
THE LONG READ: Almost one-third of all the negative impact on our living environment, including the deteriorating climate, originates from our food system. This is why gastronomy has to address issues beyond itself. The Nordics' most buzz-worthy restaurant, Alchemist in Copenhagen, raises some very relevant questions, loudly manifested in a 50-course extravaganza with plenty of hi-tech high-jinx and a fair amount of pranks.
By Lars Peder Hedberg
An ocean filled with life is chaotic, crowded and dangerous: eat or be eaten. That was yesterday. An ocean with only jellyfish and plastic, if that is tomorrow, what is that going to be like?
The first impression is bewildering and slightly embarrassing—it looks enchantingly attractive. Fairy-like medusas moving slowly, majestically through an antiseptic blue interspersed with delicately fluttering pieces of plastic, everything transparent and peaceful, each swim stroke like a respiration—tremendously scary in its beauty. This is far from an unrealistic scenario for our acidifying seas which, given time, will be crowded with nothing other than organisms that do not need to grow shells, skeletons or other calcium-based structures. First we can bid adieu to the coral reefs, we’re nearly already there. Then it is goodbye to oysters and lobster, and after that farewell to turbot, cod and herring. A terrifying sequence of events, not least for gourmets. But of course jellyfish can be consumed. The Chinese do it happily with a dash of vinegar.
We are offered both plastic and jellyfish. We’re at Alchemist in Copenhagen; currently the most talked about restaurant in the Nordics, and possibly the most heavily invested outside Abu Dhabi; costing roughly 15 million USD to build, which is almost twice as much as Restaurant Frantzén in Stockholm. We ogle the big blue from below, sitting in an unparalleled techno bubble; the Planetarium Dome. Spectacular moving images are projected on the very concave ceiling cupola, a mega-million pixelated journey through the aurora borealis, via cherry blossoms, fireflies and the dying oceans, this as Rasmus Munk and his brigade serve high tech wonders designed to sometimes scare and always surprise, in total close to 50 bites. This is act 3 of 5, the main part of the show, in other words. And it is not wrong to call them acts as we are offered a highly ambitiously staged, all-encompassing experience, packed with showstoppers.
Food for thought
The restaurant is situated on Refshaleøen, in a converted industrial edifice with an exacting legacy; it was previously used to build stages for Copenhagen’s Royal Theater. As if by wizardry, a magnificent, 4-meter high, sculpted brass door opens to let waiting parties in one by one. Once inside, we are briefed on what is to come in a rundown that includes choice catchwords such as migration, environment and diversity. There is little doubt that this will be quite an exploration. With a ticket case in hand, we are then ushered into the first room, named New York. And so the ride begins, initially almost an LSD trip. The neon bright scenography is pop art with a 1970’s vibe, painted by the Japanese street artist Lady AIKO, twisting the perspectives of space and time; a dancer on a stone block, possibly a reference to the Statue of Liberty. The ticket case contains a quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt, noting that all American citizens hail from revolutionaries and immigrants. Take a bite out of that! Yes, literally. The piece of paper is a communion wafer and the evening’s first serving. Just like our laughter, it gets stuck in our throats. And thus the evening’s main theme is established: food for thought.
What is gastronomy really about? The question begs answering. Here it hangs over us, over the course of a five-hour migration in as many acts. By the time we are tossed back out into the night, through a trapdoor, from a room full of butterflies, that question has only grown more convoluted.
Magic tricks with textures
Act 2 takes place in the architecturally captivating lounge; at one end, 10 000 bottles of wine behind a glass wall that reaches across three stories, at the other, the “lab kitchen” with its frosted glass wall where Munk and some of his 30 cooks perfect Alchemist’s version of molecular cooking, rebranded as “Holistic Cuisine”. It is a mix of gastronomy, theater, science and fine arts, spiced with a bit of politics and current moralities. The idea is to take in the show while using all senses—and reflect upon it—even if this is not so easy when dishes arrive in the numbers and speed they do here.
Act 2 has its focus on the marvels of physics, often created via advanced cryogenics, i.e. manipulating textures at extremely low temperatures, occasionally verging on collapse. Stealing this scene is “Greed”, a frozen foam that dissipates into nothingness the moment one touches it, leaving behind an aromatic echo of tart green, as volatile as the lesson to be learned by its name. The real masterpiece, however, is “The Omelet”, an exercise in technical complexity and precision which surely impressed also Ferran Adrià who visited recently: an elastic, condom-like egg yolk membrane filled with buttery egg cream and Comté, topped with an ethereally thin strip of lardo and truffle sprinkles in a brilliantly balanced exhibit of textures and flavors.
Aromas kept on a short leash
Advanced, innovative techniques dazzle in all presentations, just like the textural finesses do, though the flavors sometimes fall short. Primarily, I believe Munk does not give our sense of smell as large a role as it actually has on flavor perception. Contradicting his own manifesto of appealing to all senses, aromas are consistently kept on a short leash. I remember the smells of only one dish––for me, the high-point of the meal––a pigeon, hung tender from its neck and encased in aromatic beeswax that has really penetrated the meat. The bird is presented “Serrano ham” style, hanging on a rack, topped with its detached, fully feathered head. Its breast is Josper-grilled, carved tableside and served with a masterful sauce that is low in sweetness despite its notes of honey, exhibiting a slightly bitter acidity of fermented currants. The beeswax encapsulates the whole experience in a wonderful aroma bubble. With this dish we are well into act 3.
Act 3 is comprised of five sections, called scenes, in what might be labeled the dining room—a number of “counters” that meander in various directions under the theatrical dome and that are served by cooks, sommeliers and waiters who move about with choreographic elegance. Now and then Munk comes along to personally finalize a dish in front of his guests. Each seat has its own goose-necked light source, allowing for perfect Instagramming.
Focusing on ocean management
Act 3 opens magnificently with a feathery light “toast” topped with fine Oscietra and a cream of fermented almond. The brioche-like toast with delicate buttery notes is completely flourless and made with cellulose; a clever gesture, as we must find alternatives to wheat.
The alchemist’s scarlet bonbon is a real showstopper: damaged langoustines that are normally thrown back to sea find their way into the kitchen where they are reshaped into flavorful confections: Læsø Chocolate, sprinkled with sea salt from the island that is home to the crustaceans. Munk is clearly passionate about the wellness of our seas and excels in translating this in a number of dishes that are as challenging as they are meaningful. “Plastic Fantastic” looks appalling, but that is also the whole point. Resting at the edge of a sludge decked with an assortment of plastic refuse, including a PET-bottle, is a grilled cod maw with an edible plastic film made of dried cod skin broth, not bad at all. It is a reminder that microplastics find its way to the bottom of the marine food chain and finally turn up in what we eat, including a third of all North Atlantic cod.
I do not understand why we do not also get a jellyfish dish, an interesting primary product in and of itself, and one that we most likely must learn to like. Admittedly, there is a “jellyfish” in the dessert part of the meal, but it is an ice cream made with leftovers from sake production, garnished with a juzu gel. In “Coral Reef”; a solidified seafood dashi that slowly melts as hot water is poured onto it, Munk takes on global warming and the breakdown of the coral skeletons. Although dramaturgically efficient, I believe Munk should read up a little more on this topic. The main villain here is the changing pH, even if the gradual warming of the oceans contributes to the coral bleaching. A drop of acid in the water?
Pranks that work—and misfire
Many of Munk’s dishes challenge our disgust; often with good intention, as in “Pig Fix” where he introduces an apple juice-filled syringe needle in the little pork neck, protesting the Danish pork industry’s persistent use of antibiotics. “Danish Summer Kiss” is an even more audacious creation; a very lifelike silicone tongue with miscellaneous vegan candy, meant to be licked off—a nearly unforgivably childish prank that the Danes nonetheless seem to enjoy (Copenhagen’s newspaper Berlingske is currently featuring the tongue all over town in a billboard campaign). The same “épater le bourgeois”-ambition returns at dessert with the chilled goat milk “Dulce” cream to be sucked out of a silicone mini-udder. If there was a message here, it was lost on me. Other pranks work fine. Of course it feels a bit like attending a Hannibal Lecter dinner when a lamb’s brain is presented in a transparent plastic container, the whole organ robed in red jelly, floating in walnut oil (yes, it looks like formaldehyde) before it is removed tableside, carved with surgical precision and served on a porous cherry meringue. The brain is decidedly silky, having been quickly steamed at 52 degrees; taste and texture wise this is one of the evening’s highlights. It is possibly also what Ferran Adrià refers to as techno-emotional cooking, the dish eliciting emotions of all sorts.
The duck liver in two textures is equally enjoyable, despite being served in a decapitated cranium. The liver gets its fattiness naturally as the birds are tricked into gorging themselves on figs and acorns at Eduardo Sousa’s farm in Extremadura, Spain, before their long migration to Africa, which, after Sousa’s final intervention, never happens.
The menu contains many nods to Spain, including some extraordinarily tasty tapas renditions such as the “Crispy Sardine”, the closest thing this evening to “straight as is”; Joselito 2014, the finest Bellota, on a fantastic pig foot wafer, and Spanish coppa on seemingly simple, yet technically complicated “Airy Bread”. The gossamer bread is actually butter-slicked potato starch, vacuum-baked to croissant-like, fragile fluffiness. Munk is a master at transformative structural technique, something he proves time and again.
After having scrutinized some 30 dishes under the Dome, including a brilliant dessert-interpretation of Andy Warhol’s iconic banana, it is time for act 4. Thus we are led into the next space, the Rainbow Room. This is where diversity, and more specifically LGBT, are celebrated. It is a sort of blinking, multi-colored, narrow, twisting tunnel, and as a gay man I understand the idea, but I do not feel entirely at home or comfortable, even though the scenario brings to mind the upper parquet at Studio 54 toward the end of the 1970’s, and yet more so when the Statue of Liberty from the first New York room suddenly turns up again, this time in disco-garb, offering a seahorse-shaped popsicle, which of course is the most LGBT of all animals: everyone knows that Mr. Seahorse can get pregnant. A few more wobbly steps and we abruptly come out. Phew! What an ordeal. Again.
There is a lot to ponder when one finally settles in on the “Balcony” for the last act of this unsurpassed, and at times absurd performance. Naturally, the big question is what gastronomy is all about. To cook delicious food in order to eat well? Well, at least not that simple. To stretch culinary boundaries? Sure, consistently pushing a meal’s sensory qualities in new directions is an important task for gastronomy and its advocates. Raising relevant questions about our times and our world? Yes, that is laudable if done responsibly and in a meaningful ways, as "food for thought" or "call to action". At Alchemist, Munk tackles all possible dimensions—and then some.
Time for reflection
Of all the innovative goodies that are served in act 5, “Amber” is the one that invites afterthought: a few red ants baked into an amber-like honey and ginger toffee. Previous lives are caught in real amber and other fossils. According to science, we are currently in the midst of the sixth great extinction, the fastest since the Triassic-Jurassic. Like other species we will leave our mark, sooner (if the pessimists are right) or later (if the optimists do not just talk, but also take necessary action). Regardless of the time aspect, the environment and climate are issues that need to be addressed within the framework of gastronomy.
Munk is consumed by environmental, social and, as I would like to say, philosophical topics. His ambition to let this resonate through gastronomy is worthy of respect and applause. But of course it gets in the way of his cuisine. It is hard to disregard his very unique show, with all its relevant and irrelevant digressions, and focus solely on the food.
Copenhagen consolidates its leading roll
There is obviously greatness in the making here, most likely also when it comes to the purely culinary experience. To launch a 2.0 version of molecular cooking, in the very capital of New Nordic Cuisine—a couple hundred meters from the new Noma—that is brave, and certainly a sign of the times.
Munk and Redzepi focus on similar issues, but search for answers in very different places—which is necessary, considering the complexity of the issues. Both challenge our notions of good food; Noma via an ever-deeper exploration of the organic and the microbiological, at present specifically mold; Alchemist via advanced technology, at present specifically cryo freezing. Both believe in science. That’s reassuring.
Our food system accounts for approximately a third of all the negative impact that our environment is subjected to. This is why gastronomy has a mission beyond itself.
Everything would be much harder without talented and courageous gastro-entrepreneurs.
Lars Peder Hedberg was a guest of Yvonne and Lars Seier Christensen who financed Alchemist, thus, this is not a review but an article.