George Motz, a burly, mutton-chopped Brooklynite, fashions himself as America's hamburger expert. An enthusiastic carnivore who has chronicled his love affair with ground beef through books and films, Motz estimates he has eaten more than 14,000 hamburgers over the last 20 years.
But on a frigid Monday in December, Motz sat down for a burger that promised to be unlike any he had eaten before. He was at Momofuku Nishi, a new restaurant from the celebrity chef David Chang, and he had come to eat the Impossible Burger.
The Impossible Burger wants to be the tech industry's answer to the Big Mac. Concocted by a team of food scientists in Silicon Valley, it is made from wheat, coconut oil and potatoes, yet it aims to be more than just another veggie patty. Thanks to the addition of heme, an iron-rich molecule contained in blood (which the company produces in bulk using fermented yeast), it is designed to look, smell, sizzle and taste like a beef burger.
Patrick Brown, the founder and chief executive of Impossible Foods, said the goal was to disrupt the multibillion-dollar market for ground beef without killing cows. "You can have uncompromisingly delicious meat without using animals," Brown said in an interview.
Brown, a former biochemist at Stanford University who founded Impossible Foods about six years ago, said that in blind taste tests, some people could not distinguish between the Impossible Burger and a beef patty. And in an informal tasting organised by The New York Times, the reactions were generally positive.
At Momofuku Nishi, Motz knew what he was getting. The Impossible Burger arrived on a squishy white bun, topped with a slice of American cheese, lettuce and tomato, fries on the side.
"It looks real," Motz said, picking up the burger and examining it. "It feels like the right weight."
And with that, he took a big bite, chewed vigorously and stared into the distance.
For Impossible Foods to succeed, Brown will need to win over meat-eaters like Motz. "No disrespect to vegetarians," Brown said, "but the only consumers we really care about are meat consumers."
A vegetarian for 40 years, Brown is not interested in making just another meatless treat for those who have already sworn off eating animals. Instead, he said, he wants to change the world.
When he took a sabbatical from Stanford six years ago and pondered what big problem he could help solve, he zeroed in on the idea of reducing the consumption of meat.
Never mind the business of killing billions of animals for food. The farming, fishing and production of feed for livestock and poultry strains the earth's finite resources — consuming fossil fuel, emitting greenhouse gasses, hogging farmland and polluting waterways. Brown said, "It is seriously imperilling some of the world's ecosystems.
"But there is a solution," he said. "Produce all those same foods, with all the specifications consumers demand, but do it with a much lower environmental footprint, without using animals as the technology. That, I realised, was something that was fundamentally doable."
There is a lot of money riding on Brown's eco-vegetarian zeal. Impossible Foods has raised more than $180 million from investors including Google Ventures, UBS and Bill Gates. It is part of a new crop of food companies — Soylent, Hampton Creek and Juicero among them — that is aiming to revolutionise the way we eat. Another company, Beyond Meat, is also making a plant-based ground beef alternative and is already selling in Whole Foods and other stores. It, too, aims to entice meat-eaters.
There is a growing market for these products. Sales of meat substitutes are up 18 per cent in recent years, to more than $1 billion in the United States this year, from about $850 million in 2012, according to Euromonitor International, a research firm.
"Customers are becoming more willing to accept the idea of alternatives to meat," said Raphael Moreau, a food analyst at Euromonitor. "And that's where the real success will come from, by appealing to a much wider group beyond vegetarians."
But for Impossible Foods to succeed, carnivores like Motz would have to choose an Impossible Burger over a conventional hamburger at the point of sale.
Brown said he had no illusions that meat-eaters would go vegetarian simply for the sake of the environment. "We have to have a product that consumers choose because they want to eat it," he said. "The market will decide."
So what did America's burger expert think of the Impossible Burger? Back at Momofuku Nishi, Motz delivered his verdict.
"No, I'm very sorry, but this does not taste like a hamburger," he said. "It tastes like a fabrication of beef, not a real animal."
Motz wasn't totally dismissive. The Impossible Burger almost looked the part, and the patty had a pleasurably salty crust. But it lacked the distinctively greasy mouth feel of a real burger, and the flavour was, in Motz's opinion, bland. Not bad compared with a Gardenburger, he said, but not like the real thing either.
"This is a big step in the right direction for the veggie burger," Motz said. "And I haven't burped yet. I usually burp."
Brown said he was only getting started. The Impossible Burger is being served in just a handful of high-end restaurants for now. There are plans to expand distribution this year and make it available for consumers to cook at home. He and his team are continuing to improve its formula, he said.
"The cow is never going to get better at making meat," Brown said. "It was not optimised for beef. It did not evolve to be eaten. Our burger was. We're always getting better."
Perhaps Motz will revisit the Impossible Burger in the future. For now, he is sticking with ground beef.
"I'm proud of the fact that they have gone and made the veggie burger for the proletariat," he said. "But any carnivore will take one bite of this burger and know it's fake."
With that, Motz left Momofuku Nishi. His destination: a nearby food truck, where he ordered a real cheeseburger.
New York Times