From Sunrise to Sunset With the “Noma” of Vegan Restaurants

Plate by plate, the Ark Collection is trying to change the way we think of fine dining.

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Charred Funga Farm oyster mushrooms: Renwick calls mushrooms the “perfect meat replacement” and uses them widely across his restaurants.

Photo by Christoffer Rosenfeldt

I’m somewhere on the outskirts of Copenhagen in a secret beach foraging spot with Jason Renwick, founder, forager, and CEO of the Ark Collection, a conscious dining group in Denmark. As we walk through vegetation toward the shoreline, Renwick points out sea buckthorn, rose hips, fireweed, elderberry, beach mustard, goosefoot (wild spinach), and sea sandwort. Shrubs are dotted with red, black, and bright yellow-orange berries, and flowering plants with magenta and violet-hued blooms announce themselves in a sea of green. “It’s just free food everywhere,” he says. Renwick, trained by the former head forager for 2021 world’s-best restaurant Noma, Christina Rasmussen, collects beach and forest bounty for around 20 hours a week for his restaurants. Noma foragers also frequent this area, so Renwick has competition. “Noma actually beat me to this spot this year,” he says.

In 2021, Ark, the Ark Collection’s plant-based fine-dining restaurant, became the first vegan restaurant to be awarded a Michelin Green Star in the Nordics for its sustainability practices and innovations in plant-based cuisine; it also received a Michelin Green Star in 2022. The Ark Collection’s progression of restaurants—first Souls, then Ark, then Bistro Lupa—exemplifies a commitment to contemporary plant-based cuisine with a conscience.

Ark is not alone in its efforts: Around the world, restaurants are seeing green. Ranked the number one restaurant in the world in 2022, Copenhagen’s three-Michelin-starred Geranium removed meat from its menu at the start of 2022, although it still serves seafood options for discerning pescatarians. Eleven Madison Park famously went vegan in 2021, which chef Daniel Humm hoped would shape fine dining’s future. “I think the culinary world is where we can change the most, by changing our eating habits,” Renwick says. “A restaurant like Eleven Madison Park doing that is huge.”

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From left: lion’s mane mushroom with kombu; chef Jason Renwick foraging in the forest near Copenhagen.

Photo by Jenia Nelisova

Despite opening only vegan restaurants, Renwick is not exclusively vegan; in fact, he had originally planned to open a steakhouse—but that never happened. About five months before debuting Souls Steakhouse in 2016, Renwick watched Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) and Earthlings, a 2005 U.S. documentary about humanity’s treatment of animals, and overnight switched the idea of a steakhouse to that of a casual vegan restaurant. “I got halfway through [Earthlings] and I had tears in my eyes, and I’m like, I can’t do this—I need to make a vegan restaurant. And I knew nothing about vegan food.”

The original Souls, which served vegan burgers and salads, was a success, but Renwick had his eye on fine dining. “I wanted to show the world [that] plant-based fine dining could match any other restaurant,” he says. In November 2019, Renwick recruited English chef Brett Lavender, who found the challenge of plant-based fine dining interesting after years of traditional fine-dining restaurants. During lockdown, Lavender had the opportunity to train and experiment before Ark debuted in August 2020. Almost immediately, it was heralded as a hit.

In mid-September 2020, the Danish newspaper Politiken gave Ark five hearts, and from that point onward, it was packed. When the second lockdown came, Renwick decided to shut down Souls; Bistro Lupa was opened in the space formerly home to Souls. Their pandemic labors bore fruit: Politiken gave Bistro Lupa a rare six hearts in 2022, the top rating seldom given to a restaurant.

The previous evening, I’d sampled the tasting menu at Bistro Lupa, which featured “LFM” (Lupa Fried Mushroom)—a coral tooth mushroom, fried Southern style with a smoked chile glaze of tomato, tamarind, and a blend of 15 additional spices. The mushroom, cut into strips that resembled fried chicken, was bursting with umami. My favorite dish, “Corn on the Cob,” was coated with truffle aioli (featuring black summer truffle) and crushed popcorn, with hints of tarragon and Espelette pepper, a mild chile pepper from the Basque region that provided just the right level of heat.

Mushrooms—which Renwick called “the perfect meat replacement”—take center stage at Bistro Lupa and Ark; they also have a minimal impact on the environment, which is “what Ark is all about,” he points out. Last year, Renwick teamed up with mushroom grower Thomas Kyle Cometta, and today, they are building Funga Farm 2.0 in collaboration with the Danish brewery Brøl, using spent brewer’s grain as a supplement to grow the mushrooms. “For them, it’s a waste product. For us, it’s gold,” Cometta says.

Mushrooms usually also feature prominently on Ark’s tasting menu, but due to the relocation to Funga Farm 2.0, they were absent from my meal. However, later that night, I was thrilled to see some of our foraging finds on Ark’s artful plates, including “Blue Plate,” Lavender’s version of Pommes Anna, which is built up of many layers with potato, fermented kohlrabi trimmings, miso hollandaise, and a mix of hemp, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds, finished with a final layer of foraged beach herbs. It was almost too beautiful to eat.

Another standout dish, “Black Plate,” is a nod to Lavender’s English background. A fresh sourdough crumpet topped with smoked ricotta and Danish green beans, the dish is dressed with a champagne vinaigrette and served with a mix of herbs from an organic, sustainable Danish farm about an hour from Copenhagen. The ricotta, based on unsweetened soy milk, is made with the same technique as traditional ricotta and smoked on pine or juniper branches foraged by Renwick. As a dairy lover, I’m especially fond of butter and cheese, but I found myself not missing either.

The final dessert on the menu, “White Bowl,” showcased the best and last of the season’s rhubarb and strawberries—the table next to me had raved about the dish, and it didn’t disappoint. Crunchy and buttery shortbread crumble was paired with crème anglaise, made of lentil cream and oat milk, accompanied by red and green Danish strawberries, finished with a rhubarb and soy whey sorbet and topped with foraged corn flowers. (The soy whey was a byproduct of the ricotta-making process—an example of the collection’s commitment to minimizing waste across the menu.) There was a moment when I thought about licking the bowl.

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A Mylk Punch cocktail from Ark’s bar, which is also driven by a “zero waste” philosophy.

Photo by Christoffer Rosenfeldt

Ark’s bar, too, is driven by a “zero waste” ideology, and nearly everything is made in house, from revamping wine, tea, and coffee grinds into house-made liqueurs and vermouths to fermenting acids to balance drinks. The bar doesn’t use citrus; instead, it uses fermented drinks like kombucha and kaffir leftovers to give drinks acidity normally derived from lemons. The ethos extends to the property: Inside, lights are made from seaweed, wood floors are sourced from a nearby forest, and vegan glue holds together dining room chairs. As Renwick notes: “The sustainable part, we live and breathe it.”

Kristin Vuković is a New York City-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, BBC Travel, BBC Good Food Magazine, The Daily Beast, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, AFAR and Public Books, among others.
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