A Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City debuted a new dish last week that's getting a lot of buzz. It's a burger made entirely from plants.
This isn't just another veggie knock off. The rap is that this burger looks, cooks and even bleeds like the real thing.
The Impossible Burger, as it's known, is the culmination of a dream for Pat Brown. For 25 years, Brown was a professor at Stanford University. He was one of the stars in his field, studying a range of biomedical topics.
"Genetics and genomics ... cancer research — nothing to do with food," says Brown.
But about seven years ago, his work took a turn when, during a sabbatical, he decided to tackle what he saw as a really big problem for the planet: animal livestock farming.
"The use of animals as a technology for food production is the most destructive technology on Earth," Brown says.
It's a strong position. But he says there's a lot of science to back him up.
Think of all U.S. crop land. Two-thirds of all the calories produced from the crops are used for animal feed to produce meat, dairy and other animal products. Livestock production also uses lots of water and is a major contributor to climate change. Animal farming produces about as many greenhouse gas emissions as the entire Southern Hemisphere, for example.
The ecological footprint of meat production is not sustainable, Brown argues. But the obvious problem is this: Billions of people around the world love meat. We've been eating it for thousands of years.
"You're not going to get people to change their diets. You know, stop eating meat, fish and dairy — ain't gonna happen," Brown says.
After all, veggie burgers have been around a long time and they certainly haven't replaced beef in people's diets.
Now, what Brown wanted was to literally re-create the taste of beef — without cows. So he started by deconstructing the composition of meat, down to the molecular level.
"Why does meat taste like meat? We had to take on that question," he says.
There had to be something that gave beef its unmistakable flavor. Early on, he and his team honed in on one compound in the blood of cows. It's called heme. You and I have it, too — in the hemoglobin in our blood.
"Heme is responsible for the bloody flavor of raw meat, and you generate this explosion of flavor and raw meat when you cook it," Brown explains.
He says discovering this was the key to his quest, because it turns out that plants have heme, too, but in very small amounts. For instance, soybeans have heme in their roots.
So to re-create the taste of beef, Brown had to figure out how to produce heme from plants in vast amounts. To do that, he and the scientists he works with isolated the gene that produces heme in soybeans and put it in yeast, which ferments in a big steel tank.
"It's just like making beer, basically," Brown says. "You grow vast quantities of this. It's scalable and [has a] very low environmental footprint." The end result is a juicy burger made entirely from plants.
Brown has lots of people excited about his burger. Bill Gates has invested in his start-up, Impossible Foods, which is already supplying burgers to seven high-end restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Public in New York City. Just last week, chef Brad Farmerie put Brown's burger on the menu at Public and a second restaurant where he's executive chef, Saxon + Parole.
Farmerie prepares one for me to sample. In the skillet, the patty looks remarkably similar to ground chuck. As he puts one in a hot pan, he tells me that, in addition to all that heme, the patty also contains bits of wheat and potato protein to add bulk.
"It looks, cooks and sizzles like beef," he says. "And when I flip it over, you'll be amazed. It caramelizes like beef as well."
After a few minutes in the pan, Farmerie nestles the burger in a bun and tops it with a béchamel sauce and truffle paste, then hands it to me to taste. Of course, with the star-chef treatment, it's undeniably delicious and, I can vouch, it's juicy like a real burger. "I like it a lot — I think it has that nuttiness you get from good beef. I think it has great moisture, great mouthfeel," Farmerie says.
Farmerie is known for his unusual and fancy meat offerings, like kangaroo and sweetbreads. So his customers weren't expecting a bleeding plant burger.
"This would be a surprising place to find it," says Phillip Duff, a customer sitting at the bar. At my request, he tries one. "This is a tasty burger," he says, but he notices the texture is a little different. "It kind of falls apart a bit."
The burger is on the Saxon + Parole menu for $17, which seems on par with other items on the menu. When I asked Duff how much he thought people would pay for it, he replied, "I think this would sell about the same price as a regular burger."
To charge a premium, Duff says, the makers will have to work hard to tell the story that this burger is better for the Earth, because he doesn't think the taste alone will stand out for people.
If you never told people what's in the burger, Duff says, "they quite literally would not know."
But that's exactly what Pat Brown wants — for his burger to be so tasty that it's indistinguishable from a regular beef burger. He knows he has to bring the price down. Eventually he wants to out-compete beef, even if it takes him years to get there.
Next month Impossible Foods plans to debut the Impossible Burger at a regional burger chain based on the East Coast. At first, it'll only be sold at one location, but the goal is to expand to more franchises.