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Photo: Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Food & Drink

The future of food is to be found in San Francisco

Where’s the beef? And the chicken and eggs? In and around tech-focused San Francisco, 
lab-cultured meat is in the testing stages at the city’s leading-edge food manufacturing startups.

I’m standing at a kitchen counter inside the headquarters of Just, a San Francisco-based food-tech company. The head of R&D is describing the company’s latest creation – a panko-breaded chicken nugget that on the free market would cost about $100. After frying it in hot oil, he dabs it on a napkin and sets it on my plate. I dip it into chipotle mayo and take a bite. The flavor is undeniably chicken-like, and the soft squish in my mouth convinces me I’m eating meat. Yes, I am eating meat, but it’s cultured meat that was grown in a lab.

Vitor Espirito Santo, Director of Cellular Agriculture at Just, oversees the creation of meat tissues in the lab. Photo: Marc Olivier Le Blanc

The Bay Area has a history of being the nexus for technology spikes – first, with the internet, followed by the app explosion. Today it’s alternative meat. The food manufacturing outfit Just, formerly known as Hampton Creek, is but one of dozens of companies working to re-engineer our favorite foods from the ground up. Just has made mayonnaise out of plants and re-jigged chocolate chip cookies. Now it’s crafting scrambled “eggs” out of mung beans, and its chicken bites didn’t emerge from any factory farm. Next on the company’s list is the first cultured Wagyu steak.

Just's scrambled “eggs”.

While not for sale yet, cultured meat will be coming to a market near you. To better understand the product is to know that these startups take tiny tissue or blood samples from live animals, analyze them in the lab and, with the aid of the right nutrients and growing conditions, turn them into edible protein.

Perfect Day has cracked how to make milk proteins like whey and casein without a cow. Photo: Marc Olivier Le Blanc

The start-up Just is one of the closest to market with its ground chicken facsimile. 

One reason the Bay area has become the de facto home for food-tech innovation is IndieBio, a synthetic biology accelerator that has pumped out dozens of startups, including Clara Foods, which is focused on growing egg protein, Perfect Day and New Culture, that are tackling dairproteins and New Age Meats, Memphis Meats and Finless Foods – all three of which are engineering cultured meat.

Another reason is the money.
“The Bay Area is certainly a mecca of sorts for sustainable protein startups, both because many of these food-tech entrepreneurs like being near the venture capital wealth that’s driving them, and because there’s already a built-in pool of talent in the tech sector,” says Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat, a study on the future of this new kind of edible.

Shapiro is also CEO of The Better Meat Co., which offers a unique twist to the alternative protein space. It’s creating ingredient supplies for massive animal processing outfits, such as Tyson and Perdue, with a plant-based blend that allows these companies to offer products containing a quarter less animal protein. Perdue has already launched a product called Chicken Plus that’s marketed to kids and parents as a way to “fill the vegetable void.” A former executive at The Humane Society of the United States, and longtime vegan, Shapiro knows the reality of pushing a plant-based diet. While consumers say they want to shift more towards plant-based diets, meat consumption is continuing to rise. His product meets them halfway.

Nora Haron’s burger – 60/40 blend of beef and mushroom. Photo: Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Another halfway food is chef Nora Haron’s burger – a 60/40 blend of beef and mushrooms. At Local Kitchen in San Francisco, Haron serves up Singaporean dishes alongside her burger, which she introduced two years ago for the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project. 
“I wanted to stick to the Singapore game, and shitake was always in abundance,” she says. In addition to roasted shitakes, some dried shitakes went into her Vitamix after they’d been ground to a powder that she used as further seasoning. “It’s got a funk that I love so much.” The burger is served on a toasted homemade brioche bun with vegan sambal aioli, cheddar cheese and arugula.

 

Haron is so happy with her creation that she’s swapped out the Impossible Burger that was on the Local Kitchen menu in favor of her own blended version. “I think my burger is better, and it’s more sustainable,” she says.

But while Haron’s assessment is debatable, the Impossible Burger is quickly gaining traction on menus from fast food eateries to fine dining establishments. Invented by Pat Brown, a former Stanford University biochemist, it’s made primarily from soy, potato and coconut oil, and is being devoured by even the most die-hard meat lovers. Brown, a longtime vegan, has lofty goals – to replace animals in our food supply by 2035. 

When he got started, Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, knew that to achieve this, he needed a chef. His team put him in touch with local chef Traci Des Jardins, who has been working in the San Francisco food scene for over 25 years. The fine dining Jardinière, the best-known of her six area restaurants, was in business for an impressive 21 years before it recently closed, so she could focus on the others. 

Chris Cosentino, chef/owner of Cockscomb, is equally at home cooking animal or plant-based meat. Photo: Marc Olivier Le Blanc“It was interesting and inspiring,” she says of that startup’s mission. “Even though I eat meat, I thought it was a revolutionary product.”

Des Jardins was tasked with getting the Impossible Burger out to her network of chefs with influence in the foodie world. She began with New York-based David Chang, of Momofuku fame, Brad Farmerie, currently executive chef of Public, in New York and Chris Cosentino, owner of Cockscomb in San Francisco. Cosentino formerly worked under Des Jardins, and when his ex-boss dropped by to show him the product, he was quickly won over. 
“It was exciting to work with something that you could cook from scratch,” he says. “I like to call it vegetable meat – it’s very versatile.” Cosentino rattled off a few of the dishes he’s made with it – tartare, meatballs, moussaka and sliders. 

While the Bay area may sound like the epicenter of the industry, the market is expanding outwards. Shapiro sees the benefits of staying put, but he purpose-fully chose to launch his own startup in Sacramento, 90 miles to the northeast. 
“I think the high costs are leading some folks to wonder if other places might be more economically prudent,” he says. Removing animals from the meat equation is expensive, but soon it will make a world of financial sense. 

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