Last year the world’s number two restaurant went meat-free. Soon after, it was named world’s number one. We met the chef, Rasmus Kofoed, to hear the story behind Geranium’s stunning rebirth, and why he wants the world to eat more vegetables.
At first, he didn’t realise how big a deal it was.
Of the many changes that chef Rasmus Kofoed made last year to the menu at his restaurant Geranium, what grabbed headlines was what was gone: meat. When Geranium was awarded the title of world’s best restaurant six months later, there was hardly a headline that didn’t include the words “meat-free”.
“I did not see it coming,” says Kofoed of the reaction. For him, it was all part of a slow, gradual change. But in a world where more people are embracing plant-based food, a meatless restaurant topping the world ranking was a huge symbolic milestone.
Food from the heart
Geranium, which Kofoed owns together with general manager and wine director Søren Ledet, was Denmark’s first three-Michelin star restaurant, and has been at the heart of the New Nordic culinary movement for 16 years. Its home city of Copenhagen is also where you’ll find Noma, another three-Michelin-star New Nordic pioneer, which held the best restaurant title for several years.
Geranium is a celebration of natural, seasonal, local produce, prepared with endless creativity and presented with startling finesse. That coveted third Michelin star signals that a restaurant is worth a special journey, and over the years, many have come out of their way to experience Geranium’s signature dishes, such as the famous marbled hake.
“I see it as an investment in my health”
Meat has never been a large part of the menu here. But, until last year, it was always there in at least one course, often in the form of seasonal game or local quails. People just expected meat – or, that’s what Kofoed thought.
Meanwhile, in his own life, he has been eating “mainly plants” – a little fish and cheese here and there, but not a lot – for more than five years. Kofoed says: “I remember I was talking with my wife about how it could be nice to try to go plant-based for a week. And suddenly, six months was gone and we were still plant-based. I really see it as an investment in my health. I want to grow old, but I also want to be in good shape when I’m old. I would love still to run around in the landscape.”
He was also increasingly conscious of the strong environmental reasons for eating more plants and less meat. Animal agriculture is responsible for a big chunk of the pollution that is changing our climate, as well as harming nature with chemicals and using up land and water. This is particularly evident in Denmark, which produces more meat per person than any other country.
For all these reasons, Kofoed wanted his love of healthy, seasonal vegetables to be more strongly reflected at Geranium. “For the last many years, I just felt that creating that last savoury meat course was not as enjoyable as before, because I did not eat meat at all the last five years. So it doesn’t make sense. If I don’t believe it, how can the guests believe? I was always thinking, let me change it next month…”
New flavours to explore
Then came Covid. With Geranium forced to shut its doors, Kofoed found himself spending a lot of time with family on the windswept island of Samsø, going for long runs through the meadow, swimming in the sea and reflecting on life and work. “I woke up one night… and I could see everything coming together. I was writing down 25 new dishes and ideas. I was really inspired.”
As chef at the world’s (at that time) second best restaurant, Kofoed saw he had a chance to shake things up. Say goodbye to the signature dishes. Make the food more heartfelt, more personal. And that meant more vegetables.
His new vision first came to life in 2020 in a 100% plant-based pop-up restaurant, and now at the reinvigorated Geranium, which is meat-free, although not totally plant-based, still serving some seafood. The menu adapts day-by-day to the ever-changing seasons. In the first weeks of this summer Geranium was serving ‘chicken of the woods’: mushroom, prepared to taste like chicken. A few weeks later, lack of rainfall had made the available mushrooms too dry, and the dish was substituted by another.
“I could easily have kept Geranium as it was. But it’s not the way I want to live my life”
Scandinavian staples like herring with aquavit and rye bread with cheese are here, in intricate, innovative incarnations. A tiny, perfectly formed golden rose with braised petals turns out to be pickled yellow beet with sea buckthorn and goat’s cheese. Dishes like celeriac with fermented cream and caviar, and frozen raspberry juice and liquorice, are prepared and presented so creatively that they become something entirely new.
Was Kofoed concerned about how the world would react to his meatless menu? “I was not thinking about it,” he says. “I could easily just have kept Geranium as it was with the signature dishes. The restaurant would be successful, everything would be great… But it’s not the way I want to live my life. Taking meat off the menu, I just felt like I had more freedom. Right now we are serving seasonal vegetables as the last savoury course – I was not able to do that before. It’s really amazing because it’s changing on a daily basis. We present it like a piece of natural landscape to the guest and tell them about the ingredients and the season… We discover new flavours and we discover new ways of serving.”
The power to change
Not everyone will get to try Geranium out for themselves – it’s booked up several months in advance, and the three-hour tasting menu costs €530 ($575) per person, plus at least another €295 ($320) for wines. But the restaurant’s worldwide renown means its influence goes far beyond its own clientele. Kofoed’s hope is that Geranium’s plant-based creations can help inspire people to change how they eat at home – which is one of the most impactful things any of us can do for the planet. Every person who goes from eating a lot of meat to eating just a little meat, cuts the carbon footprint of their diet roughly in half.
Of course, from an environmental point of view, Kofoed knows Geranium isn’t perfect. “If I should think only about the environment, I would close Geranium,” he says. “Why? Because if you want to cook more sustainably, you should open up in a forest, use local ingredients and fire, and water from a little lake or something. Maybe we’ll do that one day. But this is also to inspire people. We are taking diners on a journey. It’s about giving great experiences and giving hope to people. Life is complicated, we need these great moments, and a visit to Geranium can be a really joyful moment. So that’s why I’m not going to close Geranium.”
Kofoed would like to see Denmark, which is a green leader in areas like recycling and wind power, set an example of more sustainable eating too. “I’m not saying we should not eat meat at all, but we could eat less meat and more vegetables. It could be an inspiration to the whole world. So I really hope that will change. I hope that we will farm more plants than animals, and the plants that we are farming, we can serve to Danish families, instead of feeding them to animals.”
The first step is realising that we can change our habits, Kofoed says. “I remember the first time I tasted plant-based milk, I was like, what is that? I was used to another flavour. Now it’s completely different: I cannot put cow’s milk on my muesli, it needs to be plant-based milk. So you’re used to things, but you can also change.
“What makes me happy and also fills me with hope, is that the younger generation is much more open to plant-based food than the older generation. So I think over time it will go in the right direction. We have a lot of possibilities. If you go to the supermarket today, you will see much more plant-based ingredients than ever before. The carrot is right in front of your nose.
“You just need to eat the carrot.”