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Taste for nature

It would be dishonourable not to hand the New Nordic ­Cuisine crown to Denmark. Many of the movement’s first seeds were planted and sown there around two decades ago, and the Nordic fine-dining scene has flourished at a steady pace ever since. But one type of food, or rather one type of philosophy, has been conspicuous by its absence: entirely plant-based food with conscious choices of climate-neutral furnishing. Newly opened restaurant ark in central Copenhagen hopes to be a trailblazer in this field and could be the next restaurant to change New Nordic Cuisine from the inside. The critics are jointly impressed, and the two-month-old restaurant has already taken the number five spot of Copenhagen based restaurants, vegan or not, on Trip Advisor.

Founder of ARK, Jason Renwick, has been running plant-based restaurants for close to five years now. His first was supposed to be a steakhouse, but when he saw the agriculture documentary Cowspiracy he made a complete 180° turn towards plant-based food instead. That sudden change of direction has now made him the best vegan restaurant owner in Scandinavia, at least if you ask him.

We’ve been seeing an amazing rise of Scandinavian gastronomy for the last two decades, are there any vegan Scandinavian restaurants that you look up to?

— Vegan? No way. I’m not trying to sound cocky, but in Scandinavia, we’re leading the scene. We’ve won the Best Began of the Year for two years. In Copenhagen, there’s a general misconception that vegan places are kind of hippie and psychedelic. We’ve never wanted to be that. We just want to be normal! We don’t showcase that our food is vegan, there’s no sign that says our food is vegan. People realise that its vegan afterwards. 

Renwick knows the true potential of vegan cuisine, but he is not shy to criticise its shortcomings as well. When vegan dishes replicate dairy or meat products it’s a hit-and-miss affair, with more misses than hits. According to Renwick, it just takes some courage and backing from producers, restaurants, and chefs to wake the sleeping giant. 

— Vegan cheese most often tastes like cardboard to be honest. And we actually need meat-eaters to create a substitute because they are the ones that actually want the product to taste exactly like they are used to. If you get a really big chef like René Redzepi from Noma on the vegan train I’m sure he can make a cheese that tastes like actual cheese. There’s just not enough people looking into it, but it can be done. 

ARK is not leaving anything to chance. Not only do they hire chefs that eat meat on a regular basis, they actually prefer it. Vegan chefs will generally cook for other vegans, and if they haven’t had meat or dairy products for a while they won’t remember what they’re trying to recreate. ARK wants to teach meat-eaters to cut back on meat. Therefore, the perfect chef for ark is a meat-eater that is interested in vegan food. Furthermore, fine craftsmen need the right products.

ARK get their cutting-edge mushrooms from the indoor farming space Fungafarm. Its mushrooms grow in a hidden basement in the Nordvest district of Copenhagen and they deliver to nearby restaurants by bike. With the help of very secretive fertilising methods and moist plastic compartments, Fungafarm can produce exotic and local mushrooms with textures and flavours not commonly found in Scandinaviavia. The showstopper is the lion’s mane mushroom (also called monkey head mushroom or bearded hedgehog mushroom), that ARK massage and oil up just like it was a piece of meat. Moreover, ARK gets a hold of their greens from the vertical farm Nabo Farm that lies just next door to Fungafarm. Garlic, coriander, radishes and herbs are harvested in artificially lit ”bunk beds”, completely free from soil, sunlight and pesticides. The vertically farmed greens save up to 90 % water and can cut the growing time in half. And in true Copenhagen style, they too are delivered by bike. 

”The vertically farmed greens save up to 90 % water and can cut the growing time in half. And in true Copenhagen style, they too are delivered by bike.”

By choosing vegan or plant-based cuisine, ARK has had a sustainable mindset from the get-go. But they didn’t want to stop at the food. Except for the Swedish BAUX wall panels, everything is selected from Danish designers. The TAKT chairs are made of 100 % eco-certified oak, produced from sustainable forests, and are shipped as space-efficient flat packs’ that minimise CO2 emissions. The lights are made of seaweed and recycled paper waste. The plates are made by Copenhagen based potter Hannah Blackall-Smith. ARK Head of Design and Brand Manager Jenia Nelisova made sure that every last inch of the restaurant is rooted in sustainability, and they tried not to cut any corners. 

Did you have to compensate, in any way, by only using sustainable designs and furniture?

— In terms of aesthetics, I don’t feel like we gave up on ­anything! We found a great balance between fashion and function. The big challenge is obviously budget… I get confused with numbers easily but I sometimes had to double-check if there was an extra zero added somewhere, Nelisova jokes, and elaborates:

— But it’s the right thing to do. It’s a really good investment, and the pieces have such an amazing story. Not only are we doing the right thing by the planet, but it can also inspire other people to see how amazing it can look. We are proud that we’ve found so many local designers and artists to help us. Copenhagen is a good city to be in if you want to get a hold of local, sustainable designers. That’s for sure.

At the same time, Renwick and Nelisova know that there’s a certain limit to what they can do. Even though cleaning materials, toilet paper, napkins and all interior pieces are sustainable in some way, it’s hard to go all the way — especially if you want to have a great tasting product. In Denmark, it’s too cold to get a hold of avocados for half of the year, and even though ARK tries to stay away from Australian and American wine, European varieties still get shipped in to match the ambitious food. 

— On one hand, some of the products get here by plane which is environmentally harmful, but on the other hand, it also prevents people from buying and eating meat. We know that it’s better for the environment in the long run if we get someone to not eat meat, even if it’s just for one dinner. If we can get a meat eater in and broaden his mind, we’ve done our job, Renwick states confidently.