If you were to think of the world’s most ambitious kitchens, Alchemist must surely be among them. It’s the type of place where you might be served a cryofrozen cloud of apple-and-marigold aromas, the taste of which you can chase but never quite attain (it fades as soon as the spoon passes your lips). It’s somewhere where you’re ushered into a pitch-black room before following a spotlight leading to a violinist who wouldn’t look out of place on an haute couture runway. Then, projected onto a planetarium-style domed roof are animated scenes of a throbbing circulatory system or a flock of caged poultry — the latter a comment on the treatment of animals.
Dinner as theatre isn’t a new concept, yet at Alchemist, chef Rasmus Munk’s Copenhagen restaurant, it’s taken to a new level. He aims to meld the arts, social commentary and global-influenced cuisine into a coherent whole.
Munk, 30, grew up in Randers, Jutland, in a family that wasn’t food-focused, and in contrast to the restaurant he’d later establish, meals weren’t particularly creative. He, however, was. He did the arduous, physically taxing work, enrolling at culinary school, peeling piles of veg at a canteen and taking on unpaid apprenticeships across Denmark. Having worked his way up in various kitchens, garnering accolades in the process, Munk eventually landed a head chef role at fine dining restaurant Treetop, just south of his home city, in 2013.
Here, he found his sense of direction changed. The restaurant received awards, but, Munk says, it was “the classic recipe [for] making a good restaurant”: a set tasting menu of approachable flavours and foraged foods, served on locally made ceramics. “It was such a boring thing, to tap into a reality that wasn’t original — or mine,” he says. He quit after two years to calculate his next move.
That move turned out to be setting up his own restaurant, Alchemist, in 2015. It was originally housed within a single room with a U-shaped bar, although the kitchen was already turning out the envelope-pushing dishes that have made Munk’s name. It’s since upsized to a colossal, aircraft hangar-like space in Refshaleøen — a raw fringe of town that’s home to modern art shows and acclaimed restaurants — earning two Michelin stars in the process.
Alchemist is visually and conceptually outlandish, with an atmosphere described by chef Ferran Adrià, the obsessively creative force behind the now-closed El Bulli, as “magical”. A meal at Munk’s establishment can last for more than seven hours, with a set menu that takes diners from one part of the restaurant to another. In addition to the blackout-dark room and planetarium-style space, there’s another decked out in a violent shade of pink, where diners are cajoled into grooving along to a Barry White track.
Yet the whole project is about a lot more than conceptual eccentricity. It’s almost an unspoken requirement for contemporary chefs to champion causes such as sustainability or working conditions, and for Munk, chasing a sense of purpose is a big driver. He recalls the fulfilment he felt during his early years as a chef when he’d volunteer to cook for underprivileged families at Christmas. “There needs to be a bigger end goal [than gaining stars],” he says. He wants diners to have those difficult conversations about issues such as food waste, exploitative labour in chocolate production or invasive coastline organisms. If everyone left Alchemist saying it was “the best experience in the world,” Munk says, “then we haven’t pushed the boundaries enough.”
So, his taco of finely shaved lamb’s lungs and sheep’s milk cream cheese, dusted with cherry-wine-vinegar powder and primped into something resembling a punk rocker’s mohawk, is a lesson in making the most of offcuts. The ice cream of pig’s blood ganache, meanwhile, shaped into a droplet and moistened with wild blueberry jam and juniper oil, arrives with a QR code that leads to a blood donor sign-up page.
Is Munk aware of his privileged position as a white male chef flagging up social and ethical causes to his affluent guests? It seems so. But in the meantime, he continues to do what he feels is right, stating that he could make a restaurant where everything just tastes good and nothing more — but that’s “not the part” he wants to play.
Munk likes to subvert expectations both gustatorially and visually. His impossibly thin Gillardeau oyster terrine, for example, resembles something closer to the marble floors of a Medici palazzo than something to eat. He has a curiosity that extends beyond culinary dexterity, working with a multidisciplinary team that numbers other chefs, of course, but also VFX artists and scientists who observe the kitchen work and feature it in academic papers.
Munk has various food-related, non-restaurant-based projects on the go, too. He’s developing an open-resource library, Tastelab, to distribute educational materials on gastronomy, sustainability and natural science, in the hope the information will eventually be incorporated into Denmark’s national curriculum. Meanwhile, he’s also working with a yet-to-open children’s hospital, BørneRiget, in Copenhagen, to formulate a series of soft-textured instant meals for cancer patients whose chemotherapy has caused mouth sores.
Elsewhere, in conjunction with the Technical University of Denmark, a PhD student from MIT and Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, Alchemist is helping to create recipes for zero gravity, and facilitate research into the theoretical possibilities of building a restaurant on the moon. The team are looking into what kind of vegetables and crops can be cultivated there. “We [got] some Moon soil from NASA,” says Munk. “I think, right now, we’ve just scratched the surface for what [we] can be.”
Rasmus Munk's signature dishes
1. The Perfect Omelette
A distant cousin of Albert Adrià’s legendary liquid olive, Munk’s exploding omelette is a gleaming, wobbly globe the size of a strawberry, made with a cream of egg yolk and comté. It’s held together only by the thinnest of membranes, so that once in the mouth it erupts, releasing a butter-hued slosh of rich filling.
Riffing on George Orwell’s 1984 as a comment on data harvesting, this volleyball-sized model of an ever-watching eyeball is placed onto the counter in front of diners, its hollowed out pupil filled with a spoonful of white asparagus cream, pistachios and raw hamachi (a Japanese fish) marinated in lime and olive oil. The pupil is overlaid with imperial oscietra caviar and fish-eye gel.
3. Double Trouble
Invasive to the Baltic and North Seas, moon jellyfish may be common on Chinatown menus but they’re a relative rarity in Western kitchens. At Alchemist, however, these sci-fi-like creatures are served raw, in what resembles a mini tidal pool, slicked with an almost hazardous-looking green rosa rugosa flower oil and a sauce akin to Vietnamese nuoc cham. The dish is then scattered with beach herbs, coriander and Thai basil.
Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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