Brett Lavender, the Michelin Green Star Chef in Copenhagen, Denmark
Each dish at Restaurant Ark is a testament to culinary innovation and a profound respect for the environment. Helmed by Michelin Green Star Chef Brett Lavender, the plant-based establishment pushes the boundaries of vegan cuisine, demonstrating that sustainability and culinary excellence can coexist harmoniously. From sourcing ethically to zero-waste practices, discover how Ark is setting the gold standard for dining. We sat down with Brett Lavender, the Michelin Green Star Chef at the Restaurant Ark. The restaurant has become the first ever vegan restaurant in the Nordics to be awarded with the Michelin Green Star.
Tell us about yourself and how your background led you to your current position as a Michelin Green Star chef.
I am originally from England and have spent 23 years cooking professionally. During this time, I traveled extensively, always ensuring that I worked in the best possible places. It was always work first, which at times determined my destination. This approach ultimately gave me the skillset and experience needed to open Ark.
My unwavering work ethic and dedication to my craft, which is precisely what cooking is, brought me to this point. To master a craft, it requires lots of hard work, sacrifices, patience, and going the extra mile. Repetition builds consistency, consistency builds reputation, and a good reputation is what you need for a successful restaurant.
Could you please explain the concept behind the Ark Collection group?
The Ark Collection is a small group of restaurants designed to showcase the potential of plant-based cuisine. I don’t like to use the “V” word, but as more people use the term “plant-based” while still using animal products, it becomes unavoidable.
The restaurant also showcases sustainable practices, which goes for every aspect, from the paint on the walls, the glue in the chairs, and the filling inside the cushions. It’s about how and where we source our ingredients from, and how we use the products to minimize waste.
At their core our restaurants are just good restaurants, with consistent positive feedback for both the food and the service. We always put our guests first and prioritize hospitality throughout our restaurants. The first aim is to have outstanding food, followed by great service and an enjoyable ambience, ultimately giving customers a night to remember.
What inspired you to open a vegan restaurant?
Initially, it was for the professional challenge, to see what my capabilities were if I were to cook vegan food. Once I had a starting point, I wanted to see how far I could push it. This remains true today; every new menu created, every new dish I develop is done with the forethought of pushing plant-based food in a unique and interesting direction. But as I fell down the rabbit hole, it became more about sustainability and the environment. It became a much "bigger picture" than just cooking.
What drives your commitment to sustainability at Restaurant ARK?
The impact we have on our environment leads me to wonder: where will we be in the future? Is our current way of living sustainable? These are all questions I started to ask, which led me to do something about it. My platform is a restaurant group, and our approach is to cut out animal products, source ethically, and implement waste practices. If we could convince everyone to make even small changes, it would make a big difference.
How does it feel to be the first vegan restaurant in the Nordics to receive a Michelin Green Star? Do you feel that this recognition has furthered sustainable practices in the restaurant?
While awards are great, especially from Michelin, happy guests and a happy team are even greater. The Green Star validates all our hard work and all of the extra steps we take to be sustainable. However, our motivation comes from pushing boundaries collectively as a team and company; to try and set an example and show others what’s possible.
Which dishes are particularly popular? And what inspired the incorporation of Japanese flavors?
Dishes are so subjective to an individual. Depending on whom you ask in the restaurant on any given day, the answer will vary. The Blue Oyster mushrooms, cooked over burning white coals and glazed, are consistently a crowd favorite. They are sourced from our co-owned urban mushroom farm, Funga Farm. This dish exemplifies how, with amazing products and the right skill, you can achieve a great result with very little.
The Japanese influence comes from my time working in Japan and my great respect for the way they approach products. The culture's pursuit of perfection, their flavor profiles, and use of umami are all things I try to bring to Ark.
Could you discuss the restaurant's sustainability initiatives and zero-waste practices?
The way I approach cooking at Ark is through what I call "full circle cuisine." This means that when I look at a product, I consider how I can utilize every part of it: the skin, the pulp, the flesh, and the juice. If I cut it, what do I do with the trimmings? How can I preserve the best of the season and carry over something to another? How do I enhance a dish using a by-product or a part that would usually go in the bin? This approach takes a lot of extra work, steps and time, but ultimately makes us more sustainable with much less waste.
Could you shed light on the ingredients you use and the behind-the-scenes processes?
It's a secret! The ingredients used are a credit to the dedicated producers and farmers we work with. When they grow amazing products, my life becomes easier. If I were a carpenter, the nature that provided the tree I used to make a piece of furniture would deserve the credit. If you start with bad ingredients, no matter how strong a chef you are, you are fighting a losing battle.
What are the overarching goals for the restaurant? And what are your sustainable aspirations?
For me, the restaurant is about showing our guests what is possible with vegan food. You can come to the restaurant, have an amazing meal, and not miss meat or fish. You won't think that the dishes lack flavor just because we don’t use animal products, and I think we have built that reputation. A knock-on effect of this is that I hope our guests go home and consider maybe skipping meat or fish one night a week. If everyone did that, there would be a massive domino effect that could help our environment and reduce the pressures on certain farming industries.
We aren't preaching about being vegan. I am not a vegan and have no desire to become one, but if we consider where our food comes from, how it's grown, transported, and processed, then we can make a big difference together.
What significant lessons have you learned on this journey? Have you faced any particular challenges?
Every day is a new challenge; every day brings a new lesson. When we first started, it was very difficult to get professional chefs to take vegan food seriously. It was deemed career suicide to work in a vegan restaurant. However, as time passed and our restaurant's reputation grew, this mindset began to change. Alongside this, the perception that vegan cooking was becoming an important skillset to have under your belt. As is true for everyone in all walks of life, good people are hard to find.
Another challenge is changing the perception and stereotype associated with vegan food. We aim to convince guests that they can come to the restaurant, whether they're vegan or not, and enjoy the experience. People should visit a restaurant to be challenged, to try something new, and to step outside their comfort zone.
We learned so many lessons along the way, especially during endless hours of research and development. But most importantly is the understanding of how versatile and interesting vegetables can be. They aren't just a garnish or a side to a piece of meat or fish. The texture, the flavor, the variety, and the endless pairing possibilities have been real eye-openers.
Lastly, no matter how well we believe we're executing sustainable practices, we can always do better. Sometimes, it’s important to stop and take a step back to correct what you are doing or even go in a different direction altogether.
Do you have a guiding philosophy or life quote that you'd like to share?
Asking me for a life quote is a dangerous prospect! But there isn’t really something that I quote regularly. However, Socrates once said, “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and weak minds discuss people.” Ark is an idea. One that shows a possibility; a fork in the road down a gastronomic path towards a more sustainable future. But we don’t claim to have all the answers. It is just an idea embodied as a restaurant.