Raj Aggarwal took a bite of the burger and paused, looked straight ahead as he chewed, and shrugged his shoulders.
“It tastes like a burger, very tasty,” said Aggarwal, the founder of a startup called Localytics.
“Not quite bloody though.” Bloody would be hard, since that burger was made of plants, the first product from a fake meat startup called Impossible Foods. But bloody is what they’re going for.
The promise from Impossible Foods – which was started in 2011, has raised $182m and which Google tried unsuccessfully to buy for $300m – is they will be making burgers so realistic that even an “uncompromising” meat eater won’t be able to tell the difference. The goal is to offset some of the damage done by cows and to satiate a beef-hungry American population that consumes 10bn pounds of ground beef every year. Doing this requires science.
“You’re not going to make anything that appeals to a hardcore meat lover by mushing together a bunch of vegetables,” Impossible Foods founder and CEO Pat Brown said on Wednesday at the Code Conference in California. “So we had to do a deep, molecular investigation into what it is that accounts for the desirable properties – texture, juiciness, the aromas, how it cooks.”
In a few months, these faux burgers will roll out at a New York City restaurant. They’re still picking which restaurant, an Impossible Foods employee said, though the company declined to officially comment (they may sound like veggie burger makers, but the team operates as a Silicon Valley startup in heavy secrecy). At the Code Conference, a tech-focused event, Impossible Foods rolled out a mass–tasting of hundreds of burgers for the first time.
For Brown, all food manufacturing relies on technology to some extent. “The entire history of food has been nature combined with human ingenuity,” he said. “Bread isn’t something that falls off a plant.”
Brown started thinking about meat while on sabbatical from Stanford, where he was a professor in the department of biochemistry. “I decided that without question the biggest threat to the global environment right now was the use of animals for food,” Brown said. “But the only way you’re going to do [replace meat] is a marketplace approach and that entails creating a food that outperforms this market.”
On the Google offer, Brown was firm: “Bless their hearts, but …” Brown says he didn’t want to be at the whims of a big company with other priorities since he only has one: meat.
The raw patties look distressingly like raw meat. Pull apart a cooked patty, and it flakes and breaks like a burger. There’s a sort of bloody juice with each bite.
It’s not as good as a good burger. But it’s as good as a bad burger. And that might actually be just right. He’s aiming to make a product that fits into a fast-food restaurant. “The meat will be roughly the price of organic beef,” he said. “I want to do a plant-based version of In-N-Out.”
At the tasting, the crowd lined up for sliders. The general consensus was a lot of shrugging. “Burger,” one tester described it as between bites. “Pretty good.”