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The waiter lifted the lid with a flourish. Inside the gold-detailed ceramic container, on a bed of flower petals, rested a small black plate cradling two bits of chicken. Each was coated with a dark crust (a recado negro tempura, I later learned) and topped with edible flowers and leaves.
A swanky restaurant in San Francisco isn’t my usual haunt for reporting on climate and energy. But I recently paid a visit to Bar Crenn, a Michelin-starred spot and one of two restaurants in the US currently serving up lab-grown meat. The two morsels on the plate in front of me were what I’d come for: a one-ounce sampling of cultivated chicken, made in the lab by startup Upside Foods.
Small wisps of what looked like smoke rose from the dish mysteriously. I wondered if this was my imagination playing tricks on me, adding to the theatrics of the moment. I later discovered a small reservoir for dry ice inside the cylinder the meat was brought out in. As I pondered my plate, I wondered if this could be a future staple in my diet, or if the whole thing might turn out to all be smoke and mirrors.
Lab to table
Cultivated meat, also called cultured or lab-grown meat, is meat made using animal cells—but not animals themselves. Upside Foods, along with another US-based company called Good Meat, got the green light from regulators earlier this year to begin selling cultivated chicken products to consumers.
Both companies chose to roll out their products first in high-end restaurants. Good Meat, a subsidiary of Eat Just, is serving up its chicken in China Chilcano, a DC spot headed up by chef José Andrés. Upside Foods landed its products in Bar Crenn.
Neither restaurant could be accused of being cheap, but the placement of these products on a commercial menu is still something of a milestone in affordability for cultivated meat. The world’s first lab-grown burger, served in 2013, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. Upside hasn’t shared how much the chicken on my plate cost to grow and serve, but Bar Crenn sells the dish for $45 on an a la carte menu.
I ordered a few other items, including a pumpkin tart topped with what appeared to be gilded pumpkin seeds and a grilled oyster dish comprising two oyster bellies with smoked cream and pickled tapioca. (Yes, apparently it’s possible to butcher an oyster.)
Bar Crenn removed most meat from its menu in 2018, a decision attributed to “the impact of factory farming on animals and the planet,” according to the restaurant’s website. It does still serve seafood, though (hence, the oyster bellies).
So Upside’s chicken is the only land-based meat available on the menu. It’s only served on a limited basis, though. Reservations are available once each month for a special Upside Foods night, and they sell out fast.
After I snapped a few photos, it was time to dig in. While we were given silverware, the servers encouraged us to pick up the chicken pieces with our fingers. The flavor was savory, a bit smoky from the burnt chili aioli. It was tough to discern, with all the seasonings, sauces, and greens on top, but I thought I detected a somewhat chicken-ish flavor too.
More than the taste, I was intrigued by the texture. This is often what I find isn’t quite right in alternative meats—if you’ve ever tried a plant-based burger like the one from Impossible Foods, you might have had the experience of a slightly softer product than one made with conventional meat. I noticed the same thing when I tried a burger made with part plant-based and part cultivated ingredients earlier this year.
And Upside Foods has taken on a difficult task where texture is concerned, aiming to make not a chicken nugget, burger, or other blended product, but a whole-cut chicken filet.
Whole-cut meat like chicken breast or steak is made of complicated structures of protein and fat that form as muscles grow and work. That’s hard to replicate, which is why we see so many alternative-meat companies going after things like burgers or chicken nuggets.
But Upside wanted its first offering to be a lab-grown chicken filet. And the result is at least partway there, at least in my opinion. Cutting into the Bar Crenn tasting portion showed some fibrous-looking structure. And while the bites I slowly chewed and considered were still softer than a chicken breast, they were definitely more chicken-like than other alternatives I’ve tried.
The thing is, just because lab-grown meat has reached a few plates doesn’t mean it’ll make it to everyone anytime soon.
One of the biggest challenges facing the industry is scaling up production: growing huge amounts of products in massive reactors. Upside has started work to get to these large scales. It has a pilot facility built in California, which it says has the capacity to produce 50,000 pounds of meat per year.
But for the products I tasted, things are much more small-scale right now. The Upside Foods products served at Bar Crenn are grown in small two-liter vessels, according to the company. A recent deep dive about the process from Wired described it as producing meat “almost by hand,” in a labor-intensive set of steps.
Part of the difficulty is the decision to make a whole-cut product. In a blog post from September, Upside CEO Uma Valeti said, “We know that the whole-cut filet won’t be our first mass-market product.” The company will be working to scale easier-to-produce options over the next several years. So it’s not clear when, if ever, the chicken I tried will be widely available.
I’ll be talking with Valeti about the road ahead for the company and the rest of the industry in a panel discussion next week at EmTech MIT, our signature event covering technology in business. We’ll also be joined by Shannon Cosentino-Roush, chief strategy officer for Finless Foods, another startup working to bring new versions of meat—in this case tuna—to our plates.
There’s still time to register to join us on MIT’s campus or online, and we’ve got a special discount for newsletter readers at this link. Hope to see you there!
A green light from regulators is just the beginning. Read more about the milestone and what’s coming next for Upside Foods and Good Meat in this news story from earlier this year.
For more details on my first lab-grown meat tasting, check out this newsletter.
Finally, I took a close look at the data on just how much lab-grown meat could help climate change. It basically all comes down to scale.
If you missed the last few editions of this newsletter, you should go back and give them a read! While I was away for a couple weeks, my colleagues on the climate desk took on some fascinating topics.
June Kim, our editorial fellow, dug into the potential for heat batteries and shared some news from startup Antora Energy in her first appearance in The Spark. And James Temple, our senior editor for energy, took the opportunity to dive into one of his favorite topics, carbon offsets. What are you waiting for? Go read them!
Keeping up with climate
This startup took its electric plane from Vermont to Florida. Here’s what it might mean for the future of flight. (New York Times)
→ The runway for battery-powered planes might still be a long one. (MIT Technology Review)
There’s been lots of talk over the last few weeks about a slowdown in EV sales from legacy automakers like Ford and GM. Battery makers are grateful for the reprieve. (E&E News)
Meanwhile, the industry is still waiting for more details on EV tax credits, specifically related to China’s involvement in the supply chain. It’s a niche bit of rule-making that could have massive implications for the affordability of electric vehicles in the US. (Politico)
The US offshore wind industry is facing a moment of reckoning as rising costs and stalled supply chains put projects in jeopardy. (Canary Media)
Climate-change-fueled droughts and rising temperatures are messing with the fish, too. Smallmouth bass could soon wreak havoc on native fish in the Grand Canyon. (High Country News)
I loved this column on 10 controversial food truths from Tamar Haspel. (Washington Post)
→ Number five reminded me of this story that my colleague James Temple wrote a few years ago, which points out that unfortunately, organic farming is actually worse for climate change than the conventional route. (MIT Technology Review)
Hoboken, New Jersey, is something of a success story when it comes to managing flooding. But it’s nearly impossible to prepare for every storm. (New York Times)
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