Food by VICE

What Happens When a Chef Intentionally Cuts the Power at His Packed Restaurant

For one whole evening restaurant Amass in Copenhagen went dark when Matt Orlando marked Earth Hour by cutting all power in his restaurant during dinner service.

by Lars Hinnerskov Eriksen
Mar 25 2017, 4:00pm

It should be the kitchen nightmare to end all nightmares: a restaurant blacked out with no electricity, chefs scampering to build fires while whiney diners run off and vent their fury online about collapsing souffles. But what if you were bonkers enough to force this regimented dogma on yourself, and voluntarily turn off all power in your restaurant for the whole night? Who would be enough of a masochist to expose themselves to this torture?

Matt Orlando, head chef at Amass in Copenhagen, sees purpose where others see torture. His restaurant on Refshaleøen's old industrial island, on the fringes of hippie town Christiania and in sight of the Little Mermaid, has a happy habit of testing the limits: he turns leftover bread into chips, melts candles into firestarters for the fire outside, and ferments discarded stems.

Matt Orlando and James Knappett. Illustrations by Lena Trachsel

To mark Earth Hour on March 25, an annual event that encourages people to switch off non-essential electricity for an hour, Amass hosted a dinner where everything was blacked out: No power, no lights, no Spotify playlist on the stereo. Diners were under strict instructions of no cameras and no phones in the restaurants, which also meant no bloggers snapping the soul out of the party with those two-handed helicopter shots over their plates.

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In the spirit of this event, we got illustrator Lena Trachsel to sketch the dinner as it happened.

James Lowe and Daniel Burns

"We wanted to do something for Earth Hour," said Orlando. "And cutting all power represents what we are trying to do with this restaurant. Just on steroids."

To cook this blackout dinner, Orlando gathered a crew of likeminded chefs equally thrilled by the prospect of raw cooking and flames: Daniel Burns, formerly of Luksus in Brooklyn, James Lowe from Lyle's in London, and James Knappett from Kitchen Table. A makeshift barbecue station was set up by the bike racks outside the kitchen door, a Green Egg grill was smoking on the worktop, and the hip-hop playlist was replaced by a pair of bearded buskers sitting on upturned milk crates playing guitar and pounding a cajon box drum.

"I'm excited about the amount of stuff we are doing on the grill," said Orlando, "Just to see whether that kiss of the fire is going to be consistent throughout the meal—it will be chaos. I have no doubt about that."

Besides the nod to Earth Hour, the dinner was spurred on by a real life accidental clusterfuck that happened back in December. With a packed dining room on a Friday evening at 7:30 PM, all electricity at Amass cut out. With no improvement in sight until midnight, Orlando walked around each table and offered to book the guests in for another day. Or to stay and eat—free of charge—whatever the kitchen could rustle up. The chefs hoped half of the dining room would run away. In the end, only one table left.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and something magical happened. Not just in the dining room, but also in the kitchen. The duck, which they had been cooking sous vide, now had to be thrown on the barbecue raw. "It tasted way better," said Orlando. "After that, we stated grilling all the ducks like that every night.

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"It's a terrible situation the moment when it happens, trust me," said Orlando. "But the vibe was special. Over the following week, we were inundated with emails: 'This was the best dining experience I've ever had!' People were in a different frame of mind, and it became less serious. We could never achieve what happened that night in a regular service."

The blackout dinner to mark Earth Hour was a much more controlled experiment, but nonetheless prone to spontaneous freewheeling. When the first guests arrived at 6 PM, the fading beams from the sunset streamed through the panoramic windows to offer plenty of light. By 8 PM, darkness had set, and the atmospheric light seemed more befitting of a soft porn movie or a pagan seance.

Chef Burns, leaning over the kitchen pass illuminated by five white cylinder-shaped candlelights, looked like he was about to cast a spell, rather than plate a scallop. Lowe dashed between the outdoor grill and the kitchen, carrying trays of blue mussels that had been barbecued with brown butter, fermented green strawberry, and preserved fennel flowers. If a sacrifice had to be made, this glorious mussel broth was indulgent enough to appease the fiercest of gods.

With the shamanic beat of the wooden drum soundtracking the occasion, dishes arrived steadfastly. Candlelight rendered it hard to decipher what some of them looked liked, but this was riveting stuff: Whelks in an egg yolk emulsion with pickled mugwort and Grilled lamb's heart glazed with squid garum.

"The main course", said the waiter with an anxious laugh, "is fucking hectic." Knappett, with beads of sweat on his forehead, served the grain beef porridge which had been cooked in the barbecue with roast beef juices, and ran off a list of ingredients with the flow of a rapper: dried beef heart, four-year old feta cheese, wild garlic, smoked bbq onions cooked in beef fat on the grill for fours hours, and grated black chestnut. On the side, were a dried cep cracker draped with raw slices of 132-day old beef, black chestnut mayo and wild garlic, pickled Judas' ear mushroom and grated feta. No wonder Knappett had managed to break a sweat.

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"All this," he said, "seemed like a good idea on Sunday when we were planning."

It was a good idea. The beef dish was fucking hectic and brilliant. Whatever the obstacles, this power outage seemed to bring out the best in the chefs. "Normally we are so busy taking pictures of all the dishes and talking about it," said Knappett. "Here we didn't even plate them before service started. This has been so much fun."

The fun was contagious. As Lowe scooped spoonfuls of black orange and toasted almonds over a dessert—an ice cream made from black pumpkin skins and frozen with liquid nitrogen—he was humming. The final serving took place outside by the bonfire: s'mores made with burnt chocolate and rose vinegar-spiked marshmallows.

"The guys I'm cooking with all have the same mindset," said Orlando. "Let's do exactly what we want to do and not care too much what people think. Forget about ratings and all this shit and just be true to what you do. We are not worried about fucking up. However, you probably couldn't do this on a nightly basis because you'd have a heart attack by the time you are 40."

A few miles away, in the city centre of Copenhagen, the appetite for darkness was catching on. The cocktail bar Balderdash had also cut the power and stereo for the night, serving only Victorian cocktails without ice. Orlando hoped more would follow.

"The more people we get onboard the better. What if five years from now all of Copenhagen blacked out their restaurants for one night only? Even high-street chains.

"Then they would have to cook for real and not just throw stuff in a machine."