People want burgers. It seems hardwired. You can read Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire to learn how man evolved into a thinking primate by learning to cook the animals he killed. You can talk to the stylish proprietor of a leading cooking school in Japan, who co-owns an artful Manhattan sushi restaurant. What does he find the most efficient fuel for his triathlon training? A couple of McDonald’s quarter-pounders a day.
Vegetarian and vegans want burgers. Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, says that from the time he started a health-food store in the Northern California of the late 1970s, he had to sell tofu, seitan, and anything else that could be made to look like meat but wasn’t. “The stuff sells,” he says simply. Entire books are dedicated to veggie burgers, even if they all taste like overseasoned, underhydrated corrugated cardboard.
Of course, there are rational reasons not to eat meat. You can probably recite them along with Ethan Brown, a strapping 6-foot-5 vegan who sold his house in Washington, D.C., and raided his family’s savings accounts to fund a startup called Beyond Meat. Because raising livestock is such an inefficient use of land and water, he thought that making soy “chicken” strips and vegetable-protein “Beast” patties would be an even better way to improve the environment than creating fuel cells, the career he abandoned. Along the way he signed up Bill Gates and Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams as investors. It’s hard, in fact, to find a tech billionaire who hasn’t invested in a protein alternative that aims to stamp out factory farming. They all recognize the realities of the market: everybody buys burgers. “Meat is such a macho thing,” Williams says.
I eat meat. It’s hard to be a restaurant reviewer, as I am, without eating meat. I like to think I’m less culpable if it has been raised with care, killed humanely (not something whose meaning I’m so clear on, though from the time I started writing about food I’ve watched chickens, lambs, and cattle be killed and butchered in farms and factories), and sold at a price that allows fair wages to everyone involved with its production. But I have never tried to delude myself that more than the tiniest fraction of people who want meat can afford to keep these illusions of enlightenment alive.
The problem is that the new alternatives are—in the words of one tech billionaire who isn’t sold on the idea, Nathan Myhrvold (a trained chef and author of the encyclopedic Modernist Cuisine)—essentially “slightly better Tofurkey.” So why bother? This was the question on my mind when I headed to Beyond Meat’s office in El Segundo, California. Why kill yourself to produce a not-quite-rubber burger? Why not just make something new?
Beyond Meat can count itself a tech company, in that it began when Brown plowed through scientific papers to find the university researchers who were doing the work likeliest to advance the T in TVP—textured vegetable protein, which has generally had a consistency somewhere between modeling clay and latex sponge. Texture, Brown thought, was the key to a better meat substitute. He also wanted to vary the V: most TVP means soy, in a world where many people want to avoid genetically modified organisms and almost all soy is a GMO. His assumption was that the flavor challenge had been cracked by chemists working from the late 1960s through the ’80s—a golden era for experimentation in processed food, when instruments to measure flavor were being invented and refined, multinational flavoring companies were racing to develop new molecules, and cranks hadn’t started talking about eating only what your grandmother ate.
The El Segundo offices, on a street in a quiet beachside neighborhood with strip malls, seem less like a tech startup than like the laid-back domain of amiable tinkerers. The essential research machine is a clunky-looking extruder Brown calls “the Steer,” to point out its efficiency at converting feed to “meat.” Product developers scoop white soy and pea protein meal that looks like animal feed from white plastic buckets into one end of the machine, along with water, and grab strips out of the extruder to see how moist and tearable they feel. A young man at a walnut-Formica table uses an eyedropper to squeeze rust–colored liquid, colored with turmeric, onto a Beast patty to see if he can get the liquid to stay in the burger during cooking and create the look of myoglobin, a protein in muscle cells; the paper plates under the cooked patties stubbornly keep getting stained. The test kitchen has an open pantry of wire shelves filled with spices and peppers and starch powders only slightly more abstruse than what you’d find in a supermarket, and a stove that could have come out of a rental apartment.
Dave Anderson, a friendly, slightly shaggy chef, ran a popular vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, where he was particularly proud of his multistep portobello mushroom bacon and his seitan poached in mushroom broth (“You could tear it like filet mignon”). Brown may have assumed that flavor was the easy part and texture the hard part, but Anderson has learned from trial and error that both are still high hills to climb. Meat, says Don Mottram, an emeritus professor of food chemistry at the University of Reading, is the hardest problem for flavor-chemical companies to solve. Because of its complex structure, he says, meat develops flavor at different rates as fat, muscle, and bone successively cook. Mottram spent decades investigating meat flavor and in particular the Maillard reaction, the caramelization of carbohydrates that releases hundreds or thousands of compounds during cooking.
Anderson approaches flavor like the cook he is: by constantly experimenting with the proportions of ingredients. He gamely warms up some Beyond Chicken “lightly seasoned” strips, Beyond Beef “beefy crumbles,” and a Beast Burger for me to taste against their real-meat counterparts—something that he and the rest of the flavor developers, including the diehard vegans, regularly do (they figure that giving fellow vegans better alternatives will make up any lost karma).
I’m impressed by the “lightly seasoned” strips, insofar as they bear a strong similarity to my Hungarian grandmother’s Saturday lunch of re-boiled chicken from her Friday-night chicken soup. She used garlic and onion in everything, too much salt, and usually some dried or fresh parsley. So does Anderson. What took her hours of simmering for a particular waterlogged yet dry, chewy texture, Beyond Meat achieves by tossing pieces of extruded soy protein into a flavored brine under a vacuum, so the liquid and flavor will penetrate better. The chicken strips out of a bag from Tyson or a similar mass-market supermarket brand—the standard Anderson says he is aiming for—do have a meatier flavor. But only slightly. Their chewy-fibrous texture is more unmistakably meaty than that of the Beyond Meat strips, though the strips are pretty close and getting closer. Tim Geistlinger, who’s in charge of R&D, lets me sample a new batch of “chicken” strips extruded from the Steer, which have a more variegated and branching striation than the current version. With better hydration, the newly configured strips will be possible to confuse with something out of a Tyson bag. I went through the better part of a bag of Beyond Meat strips without really thinking about it. And I’d certainly rather eat what Beyond Meat extrudes than what Tyson packages.
The Beast is more problematic. It has to be tarted up with a lot of seasoning—more onion and garlic, paprika, mesquite, sugar—to cover the taste of the nutrient powder it contains so that Brown can claim in TED-talk tones that it has more iron and protein than the same amount of ground beef, more omega-3s than the same amount of salmon. What the Beast doesn’t have is enough hydration to keep you from needing a good bit of liquid to get it down. When I saw Brown eat one, he added the emollients of ketchup, sliced tomato, and iceberg lettuce.
What’s most striking is not how close these products are to supermarket chicken strips and ground beef but how debased our own flavor sense has become. If Bill Gates and other luminary investors in Beyond Meat can be fooled, as they say they have been, it may be more because of what they’re used to than what actual chicken or steak tastes like.
After my taste-through, I went to Cut, one of Los Angeles’s most expensive steakhouses, in the Beverly Wilshire hotel. There’s nothing like a steak with the intramuscular marbling fat that bastes every bite of a bone-in porterhouse: tender loin with just enough chew not to seem rancid, sinew and cartilage for texture, and a heavy fat cap that is like a food group of its own. Beyond Meat and its rivals are decades away from anything like that.
But as for the kobe sliders that came as a giveaway at Cut after my table ordered enough steak to make it worth the restaurant’s while: once you scrape away the ashy char and ignore the house-made ketchup and freshly baked brioche bun, the chewy gristle isn’t so far from the dry, flavor-free crumbs of supermarket ground beef Anderson plunked down beside the Beast. Plain ground beef is dismal. With some essential work on flavor and moisture, Anderson and Geistlinger will be able to get beyond the cooked-dog-food appearance of the Beast. They might even perfect the Salisbury steak, that staple of school cafeterias, that Anderson says he can imagine achieving in his lifetime (he doesn’t mention the school-cafeteria part), or the skinless chicken breast that both men think might not be far down the road.
Another alternative—test-tube meat, also known as cultured meat, in vitro meat, and lab meat—is probably decades off, despite the introduction of a $332,000 burger at a London press conference in August 2013. The pinkish ground meat had been produced in a Maastricht University lab directed by Mark Post, a vascular biologist and surgeon: it consisted of billions of cells cultured from skeletal muscle cells taken from one beef neck, nourished in a warm broth of synthetic nutrients and cow-fetus serum. To get the cells to grow into myotubes, the building blocks of muscle fiber, the researchers reduce the serum in the broth, which causes the cells to stop dividing and fuse. Then they suspend the cells in a gel surrounding a central column that allows them to align and form muscle fibers. For the scaffold, Post and others first used Velcro and then searched out biodegradable options. At the live-streamed tasting, the testers reported that the burger tasted almost like a real one, but not as juicy and “surprisingly crunchy.” (The burger backer was Sergey Brin.)
Somewhat more practical-minded researchers based in Brooklyn, New York, are aiming to produce cultured meat at a company called Modern Meadow (the names of these companies, you will have noticed, border on the Orwellian). Gabor Forgacs, a theoretical physicist who changed midcareer to developmental biology, and his son, Andras, are incubating beef cells and mixing them with pectin and spices to create a range of products, including “baked steak chips.” Their original company, Organovo, intended to produce living tissue for drug testing; food seemed to be an equally achievable goal. Of course, Modern Meadow has its own Silicon Valley angel: Peter Thiel.
In theory, cultured meat can be scaled and may offer something closer to real meat than any other inventions in the works. By its nature, it would offer the complex flavors of meat. But it is still in the basic-research phase. The problems are many: scientists must figure out how to build intramuscular fat, sinew, cartilage, and even bone, and a structure to mimic veins and blood vessels that will keep the cells fed so they don’t become gangrenous. The work is so expensive that the steps forward are likely to come from trying to produce organs for transplant—which are “worth millions of dollars a pound instead of $10 a pound,” as Myhrvold points out.
None of this will do much for people who care about cuisine. Fooling more people by coming closer to debased industrial meat will hardly elevate America’s palate. Admittedly, none of these companies is aiming to do that: people on the frontiers of flavor are not their intended audience. But for people who do want to be on the frontiers, some of the new research could result in actual improvements.
What I’m interested in seeing is how cooks will use these companies’ protein-isolation techniques to create entirely new textures. Two ethereal dishes pointed the way for me. I tried them during a competition among practitioners of washoku, a Japanese cooking philosophy that glorifies umami with results from the simple to the exquisite. One was a pyramid of trembling, subtle sesame tofu, a Kyoto specialty of Buddhist monks. Flanlike, with the musky flavor of toasted sesame and light soy, it didn’t attempt to be anything but delicate, and it was unlike any tofu I’d had anywhere, including Koreatown restaurants that make fresh batches every few hours.
The other was a small white bowl of luminescent white tofu as reconceived by Rene Redzepi, Lars Williams, and their staff when they set up an outpost of the Danish restaurant Noma in Tokyo last January and February. It was the one classic Japanese dish they dared try to make, Williams explained one night as we stood watching the kitchen crew. Tiny corkscrews of soft, beige grated unripe walnut coated it like snow; an emerald-green herb sauce lay at the bottom. The tiny cube of tofu didn’t quite taste of milk or soy, though it was reminiscent of both; it was silken air, the clear expression of a passing if intense notion of what fresh tofu could be. In the hands of cooks capable of that kind of imagination and high-wire skill, pea-protein isolates—even fortified with omega-3s and iron—can be the way to save the world and keep it safe for culinary invention, too.