The Rock Monk in His Theatrical Catacomb
It’s dark. On barely lit blue walls, plants and botanical installations grow amidst detailed works of modern art. The colorful and refined art pieces turn the catacomb-like darkness into something floral and refined. It’s a room that has the feeling of a shimmering night in a both dark and colorful urban rain forest.
The windows towards the street are blacked out with heavy blue theatrical velvet curtains. The ceiling has embedded and changeable lights, specially designed spots highlighting the foods and plates. Everything is designed to a different level; even the bathrooms feature black and scented toilet paper. In his restaurant Alchemist, Rasmus Munk – aka “The Monk” – pays homage to a playful cuisine, fascinated with storytelling, sensory deception and focusing more than any other restaurant on designing the eating experience, the circumstances of experiencing fine dining. And fine dining isn’t about to die if you ask Rasmus, though many prophets of gastronomy have foreseen this development:
“Fine dining isn’t dead or dying. But maybe something needed to happen with the luxury food experience. What I wanted to do with Alchemist was to develop the setting of a high-end meal. When I was staging at The Fat Duck, I remember thinking that this restaurant has developed some of the most sublime dishes man has ever seen, but in the end, the food was still plated up and served in a more or less traditional restaurant-setting,” he says and explains how it led him to focus more on the stage, which the food was presented and eaten on:
“I think one of the things we need to work more with is developing the scenography of a great meal. I serve 45 dishes here in every seating. I make an effort to find the most extreme and best-quality ingredients. But I don’t believe that most people will be moved by the sensory experience of food alone. Therefore I’ve constructed a more theatre-like setting, where I can manipulate the surroundings, so serving food is thought through to fingertips. I design light, sound and smell around the different parts of the meal,” The Monk explains.
Rasmus is one of the most praised chefs of the young generation, being a mere 25 years old. He’s already been head chef of the Tree-Top restaurant in Jutland, staged in London restaurants like The Fat Duck and Hibiscus, but originally his career was based on burning ambition and not being a product of the talent factory of one of the more prestigious restaurants, he climbed the career ladder of the chefs’ world through competitions. Rasmus’ path to running and owning his own high-end restaurant at the age of just 24 has been shaped by determination and a very personal vision of what the dining scene needed. Looking like the tattooed bass-player of a Swedish heavy metal band, he adores spectacle more than most of the Spartan end solemn approach of much of the hipsterized food scene in Copenhagen:
“Look – you pay 2500 Danish Kroner (335 €) for a meal in my restaurant. I want to send you home talking about more than “it tasted good”. I want to deliver an experience that is both mouthwatering end exquisite – and I want to sparkle conversation, reflection and laughter. Give you something to talk about. I think that’s how I create a lasting value. In the end, I am not intellectually and emotionally moved by just taste – I need more,” Rasmus explains, pointing to some of his signature dishes, where guests bash in a lambs skull in order to get to the silky dish based on smooth brain inside. Or how an opulent dish featuring wagyu meat, foie gras and caviar is served with a small jewelry box that hints to a Danish debate on whether or not to confiscate possessions such as jewelry from migrants and asylum seekers.
“It’s not that I have a political agenda, especially a leftist one. But when I fill a syringe with phosphorescent broth, serving it like it’s a radioactive injection to farming, it’s of course meant to inspire a conversation on the vast amounts of antibiotics that we feed our pigs in Denmark. Like the killing of animals is a part of food, so is over-medication right now. Food without thought is just food. Not in itself spectacular,” Rasmus says.
When you sit down at the horseshoe-styled bar in Rasmus’ restaurant, the Alchemist, you are treated to no less than 45 courses with matching wines. There are no options of choice – you’re a guest in Rasmus’ theatre, and the show you’re about to experience is his. Not all critics have taken a liking to it, and it’s a gamble in many ways. The Michelin Guide for example have often expressed a dislike of fixed tasting menus and the trend that the chef is at the centre, not the guest. One critic simply disliked the 45 small treats because it was simply too many things to compute taste-wise.
“Some of it is bullshit; my kitchen doesn’t get any better, if I serve 20 dishes less. And there are different kinds of restaurants. I serve an expensive meal designed to both please and intoxicate while creating a conversation about food. If you want something different, go to a different kind of place. I want to be measured on whether I succeed in pulling that off – if I can communicate my vision of a great meal,” The Monk argues, pointing to the simple fact that if you think 45 different ideas is too many, choose a restaurant with a smaller menu. That shouldn’t be too hard.
Where a lot of food, especially in the Nordic dining scene, has been about recreating authenticity, proximity to agriculture, an imitation of nature and merging sustainability and fine dining, Rasmus’ food has aimed at something different. Some has argued that he’s a late prophet of the gastro-molecular cuisine, spearheaded by Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Ferran Adria’s El Bulli. This is not a label that Rasmus really accepts though:
“I think there was a great emphasis on sensory deception in what was called the molecular cuisine. I don’t share that. But what I do share is a great fascination of the many techniques that has blown the world of cooking wide open. And if you for a minute think that cooking is going to crawl back in its box and abandon the technical breakthrough of the last 20 years, boy are you mistaken. Nobody gives up their magic wand.”