Alchemist, the two-Michelin-starred experiential dining hotspot in Copenhagen, Denmark, is not for the faint of heart. Among the 40 “impressions” — mainly edible items, even chewable cocktails, but includes immersive theatre and musical performances — you will face a dessert called Lifeline, a shell of pig’s blood ice cream encasing a “ganache” of deer’s blood garum, more pig’s blood and juniper oil.
Then there is 1984, which involves digging your spoon into the gelatinous iris of a giant human eyeball, and Plastic Fantastic, a jawbone of a cod topped with cheese cream and transparent sheets of dehydrated cod skin bouillon that look, and feel, like eating plastic.
As you navigate both the unsettling physical act of eating and the emotions it elicits — surprise, revulsion, admiration, amusement, disgust — a video projected on the planetarium dome above you shows a dreamy underwater scene. But upon closer inspection, discarded face masks and litter float in the water; and a sea turtle stuck in plastic netting swims by.
In another dish, a pretty white butterfly sits in a small glass bowl, wings pert, as if sipping daintily from the flowers beneath her — except those flowers have been cryogenically frozen since summer and they are floating in a broth made from the wings of thousands of her brethren. She is real, but dead.
The instructions for eating Butterfly: “Eat the butterfly first, along with a spoonful of the broth. Then enjoy the salad of frozen flowers, apple and greens underneath.”
The butterfly, a Cabbage White, tastes a little like its name, perhaps unsurprising given that the larvae feed only on plants in the cabbage family. Mixed with the broth, the wings do not feel dusty in the mouth, as you might have expected.
“Not everyone can eat the butterfly,” notes chef Rasmus Munk, the culinary and creative mastermind of Alchemist. “The dish created a shit-storm on social media.”
Eating insects would be a challenge for many, especially a species that is so pretty, so “romantic”, as Munk describes it in his soft-spoken, self-effacing manner.
But the reasons are laudable. While the butterflies at Alchemist are specially farmed, the Cabbage White is an invasive species in Denmark — in other words, it is not native to the area. Even organic farmers can exterminate them, according to Munk. One study showed that they contain four times more protein than crickets. With pressures on the global food system due to climate change, we must look for more sustainable protein sources, although perhaps ones that are more palatable.
If diners push aside any one of his dishes, Munk’s work is still partly done: he has provoked an emotional reaction.
“Provocation has a deep impact on people. Our guests sometimes say they remember a dish of ours five years later. It’s a good way to talk about difficult subjects,” he says.
Munk uses provocation as a tool, rather than for its own sake. “Often, when a new chef comes in for training, he’ll try to impress with these big ideas for edgy, challenging dishes. But I always ask, why are we doing it? I’m not aiming just to shock, but to provoke debate. I want to change the world.”
Munk is aware of how that sounds: a fine dining restaurant costing an eye-watering DKK 3,800 ($767) to DKK 13,000 per person and serving only 50 diners a night that’s trying to save the planet.
But Alchemist, rated no. 58 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, is not your average restaurant. Munk’s co-owner and majority backer Lars Seier Christensen, co-founder of Saxo Bank, invested US$15 million ($20.3 million) in the project, lending it some serious clout while allowing Munk the space to indulge his vision.
The Kitchen Savant
Munk’s career first took off when he became the head chef of fine dining restaurant Treetop in central Denmark at 22. In 2015, he opened the first incarnation of Alchemist, a 16-seater in central Copenhagen where he caused a stir with his boundary-pushing dishes, such as blood and cherry sauce in an IV bag, and mousse of lamb’s brain with roasted mealworms and ants.
Now, having transformed the former set-building workshop of the Royal Danish Theatre on industrial Refshaleøen island into a state-of-the-art, computer-controlled dining mecca, he has 22,000 square feet of space over four floors to let his imagination run wild.
He has 30 chefs overseen by two head chefs, but perhaps what’s unique about his restaurant is that traditional staff — chefs and servers — are now outnumbered by employees, including industrial designers, artists, dancers, musicians and engineers. The team designs and 3D prints the moulds of some of its dishes in-house, including Guilty Pleasure, a coffin-shaped dessert designed to raise awareness of child labour in the chocolate industry.
They are also researching the impact of cutlery on the experience of eating, from using silver to cool the hands to the mouthfeel of marble spoons of varying thickness. They are working with a Japanese scientist to deliver a prototype of a glass that sends an undetectable electrical current through your mouth to change your perception of taste.
Munk has worked with a researcher from the Space Exploration Initiative at MIT Media Lab to design future space food. He is exploring bioluminescent algae.
He helped deliver clean drinking water to people in Kenya, and set up JunkFood, an initiative to feed Copenhagen’s homeless. He is also a consultant for a local children’s hospital, creating soft-textured instant meals for cancer patients with chemotherapy-induced mouth sores, and offering advice on cutlery, lighting and ambience to make the environment as pleasing as possible.
Saving the World
It is the creative, multidisciplinary synergies, both within the restaurant and with collaborators, where Munk believes the true magic happens.
“If you can scale these creative, multidisciplinary collaborations, then you can change the world for the better,” says Munk. “Are you going to sit in a corner by yourself? Or are you going to collaborate with other, bigger companies and have an effective voice? If you don’t have the ambition to change the world, you’ll never do it. Like the alchemists of the past, we may never succeed in making gold. But we’re creating things with that ambition.”
Munk’s aims may be lofty, and certainly, for issues like sustainability, they are deadly serious. But dining at Alchemist is also thrillingly entertaining. Throughout the evening, guests move through five different spaces and tour the 10,000-bottle-strong wine cellar and vast main kitchen.
The show begins in a pitch dark room, a spotlight illuminating a violinist playing a sublimely plaintive Swedish folk song about emigration. One wall opens to reveal the next space, a towering, dark room that looks straight out of sci-fi film The Matrix.
Closed in by glass on one side is the development kitchen, where Munk and his team work against the backdrop of the “flavour wall” — rows of jars containing everything from roots and flowers to sheets of paper-thin gold.
Against this view, you may receive a martini made from steeped rabbit ears and a witty dish called Greed that is cryogenically frozen to -68 degrees Celsius. Every spoonful dissipates on the tongue before you can even taste it.
The technically brilliant Perfect Omelette is a squishy capsule made from a membrane of egg yolk that encapsulates a Comté cream and egg yolk centre. You eat it in one bite using your fingers.
The main dining room is under the dome, where projections move between scenes of intense red beating hearts to magical mushroom forests and battery-farmed hens that look down on diners with curious faces.
Flawlessly choreographed wait staff glide through the softly lit space, explaining dishes and answering your questions with effortless ease. As an antithesis to the dark, futuristic spaces, the Pink Room is a riotous burst of colour. Shades of candy floss, Barry White’s Can’t Get Enough of Your Love and an actor miming instructions inspire you to shed your socially constructed inhibitions, suck frothy pink gloop off your finger and dance around the room.
The electrifying and bewildering variety of experiences that make up a visit to Alchemist ensure that the tone is provocative and playful rather than preachy. Each guest, depending on their personality and cultural background, will respond more to certain impressions than others.
And that is exactly the way Munk likes it. In a day, he can go from working on space-age projects or multicultural collaborations with artists and musicians, to making mashed potatoes for the homeless.
“This variety is why I don’t fall asleep at work. Everything I do needs to have some creativity,” he says. “Not everyone is going to like everything we do. In fact, if a guest leaves having merely liked everything, we haven’t done our job.”
As the ancient alchemists well knew, transformation is difficult. But Munk will continue his quest, using gastronomy as a tool to create a more golden future.