In a green hoodie, creased T-shirt and jeans, Dr Pat Brown, MD, PhD, looks as far removed from a traditional CEO as it’s possible to imagine. But, then again, we are in the heart of Silicon Valley, so a jacket – or, God forbid, a tie – is a totally alien concept in this beating heart of global innovation, this tech wonderland where everyone looks like they could be a maverick genius or plain old billionaire.
Dr Brown – Professor Emeritus in Stanford University’s Biochemistry Department, co-founder of the Public Library of Science, fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and more – could conceivably pass for both. If his company, Impossible Foods, continues its meteoric rise, that billionaire status could well be imminent. One gets the distinct impression, however, that uncountable wealth is the absolute last thing that motivates the bespectacled 64-year-old. He has far bigger and more important goals in mind. Foremost amongst them, the passionate and profound desire that plant-based meats “...completely replace animals as a food-production technology by 2035. We’re not going to stop until the global food system is truly sustainable.”
That’s right. Farewell crisp bacon, sayonara Wagyu, arrivederci salami. Or at least in their current forms. Impossible Foods, the company he founded only seven years ago, has quickly taken giant leaps forward to become the key player vying to make animal meat history – and save the planet at the same time. Impossible’s meat – served mostly as burgers, but also available for use in tacos, meatballs, pizza, dumplings and more – looks, smells and (largely) tastes like minced beef. It is, however, made entirely from plants. Vegan, kosher and halal, with zero cholesterol, hormones or antibiotics, it’s a mix of textured wheat and potato proteins, coconut oil, natural flavourings and the killer ingredient – an iron-containing molecule called heme – that gives it both a unique, rich, umami flavour and a disconcertingly effective bloody appearance.
We’re not going to stop until the global food system is truly sustainable.
— Dr Pat Brown, MD, PhD
Dr Brown – although everyone calls him Pat – was in Hong Kong in April for Impossible’s global launch, working with the likes of local chefs Uwe Opocensky and May Chow to get his burgers into the mouths – and consciousness – of Asia’s diners. It was obvious why Hong Kong was chosen, not only for our record of having more restaurants per square foot than any other city, but also because 40 per cent of the world’s meat is consumed in Asia.
Five months on from the Hong Kong launch and I’m in Palo Alto to learn more about the man, the produce and the vision, which seems unmatched in ambition and scale. Palo Alto is the perfect base for Impossible Foods. It’s home to Dr Brown’s former employer, Stanford University, while the streets seem to be largely populated by super-smart people who care more than most about the fate of the planet.
In an Uber from the airport, pulling up at a stop light, I spot my first ever Wahlburgers, the chain belonging to Donnie, Mark and family. Prominent in the window, a poster proclaiming that they proudly serve the Impossible Burger. They’re not the only one, as the brand has recently been added to the menus of chains like iconic burger joint White Castle, The Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s, America’s largest chain of sit-down restaurants.
If they may lack a certain street cred, fear not, as the Impossible Burger first launched at David Chang’s cooler-than-cool Momofuku Nishi, when the popular American chef said, “I was genuinely blown away when I tasted it.” Today, Impossible count Michelin-starred chefs amongst some of those serving their products in more than 3,500 locations. That is, however, the tip of the proverbial clichéd iceberg, and plans are well under way to massively ramp up production and make Impossible meats – as well as their fish and dairy products – pretty much ubiquitous.
Impossible Foods’ meat patties
It’s one hell of a challenge. As Dr Brown explains, Impossible currently produce “less than one-thousandth of one per cent of the world’s meat supply”. To give an idea of the scale of industrial meat production, some terrifying figures are thrown our way. Forty-seven pigs are slaughtered every second of every day. Meat demand, through soy and cattle, accounts for 90 per cent of Amazon deforestation. Ultimately, animal farming accounts for half of the planet’s land, 15 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions and 25 per cent of our fresh water. To use a decidedly non-scientific term, the need to quickly and massively change our approach to food and the environment is a no-brainer, but having the experience, vision and expertise to deliver is a different matter. Step forward, Dr Brown.
He looks considerably younger than 64, a good advertisement for the veganism that he has embraced for 15 years. Back in 2009, he took an 18-month sabbatical. While you or I would perhaps travel, sit on a beach or simply appreciate not working, Dr Brown took a different approach. He chose to change his career and try to solve the problem of climate change. As you do.
Impossible Foods’ ingredients
He started off trying to raise awareness of the need for plant-based meats in both academic circles and the corridors of power in Washington, but quickly realized that the way to truly move the needle was through creating consumer demand for food that was genuinely sustainable – but also delicious. The team he assembled to tackle the challenge was a world-class mix of scientists, farmers, chefs and more. One chef, for example, was Kyle Connaughton from Sonoma’s SingleThread farm and restaurant, a two-Michelin-starred property, this year voted One to Watch on The World’s 50 Best list. Connaughton spent five years launching and running the experimental kitchen at The Fat Duck, so it’s safe to say he knows more than most about flavour. Minced beef was the first focus of the crack team’s research. Why? Because every American eats an average of two hamburgers every single week. No need to do the maths there.
Dr Brown’s vision and near-legendary status within the scientific community quickly won support from exactly the sort of people you’d hope. Bill Gates, whose foundation along with his wife, Melinda, has a key goal to reduce global hunger, invested US$75 million. Singapore’s Temasek Holdings chipped in US$114 million, while a certain Hong Kong billionaire by the name of Li Ka-shing also thought it could be worth a punt, as did GV (Google Ventures) and UBS. You get the picture.
Armed with this backing and confident in their incredible growth curve, they opened a manufacturing site in Oakland a year ago. It looks unremarkable and surprisingly compact from the outside and, apart from a mural that cutely proclaims, “Made in Oakland, not Mars”, it passes for another nondescript warehouse. Inside, however, is a different story. The 67,000-square-foot facility currently produces around 500,000 kilograms of meat a month, with the capacity to increase this volume three or fourfold. Incredibly, only 60 people are employed there, led by a Frenchman, Julien Grascoeur. He explained how the state-of-the-art filtration systems, environmental monitoring and eight hours of overnight cleaning ensure the space is laboratory-level sanitised before any meat is created.
Impossible Foods’ packaging
Even if the equipment is at the cutting edge of high-tech, the creation process is amazingly simple, with ingredients going from tanks into vast paddle mixers. Coconut oil from Southeast Asia, textured wheat protein, the key heme ingredient (leghaemoglobin, to give it its proper name) and more produce a texture, colour and aroma that are frankly mind-boggingly close to beef mince. You have to stop for a second and remember that absolutely everything is vegan, including the drips of “blood” that occasionally escape, which actually come from the roots of soybeans. The meat is formed into quarter-pounder patties, sliders and five-pound bricks for use in other non-burger dishes, before being frozen through a nitrogen tunnel to optimise shelf life.
The plant currently manufactures all of Impossible’s meat produce, including the burgers you may be chowing on at Beef & Liberty, as shipments go from Oakland direct to Hong Kong. Singapore is their next launch market, with others doubtless to follow. It’s far from surprising to learn that they are already working on developing multiple new sites to rapidly increase capacity.
Back at the Impossible HQ, with its open-plan offices, laboratory and fully vegan catering for staff, we hear from Director of Research Celeste Holz-Schietinger, whose job it is to understand meat at the molecular level, namely its flavour, texture and structure. As she explains, “A cow is created by eating plants. So, yes, those molecular components are also in plants.” She then demonstrates with different ingredients in a series of glass bowls, like at any cooking class, just how simple it is to construct a burger, making one in front of us before frying it in a pan. The sizzle, the famed Maillard reaction of browning and crisping and the aroma all combine to make you really want to eat it. That’s some feat, especially given that I’ve only eaten Impossible meat, in various guises, for the previous 36 hours.
But its versatility is one big draw, one reason why people seem likely to go back to it time and again. I had it as minced beef as a topping on an excellent Neapolitan-style pizza at Vina Enoteca, a real-deal Italian in a converted barn. It was served at breakfast in a sausage patty with sage, maple syrup, a touch of allspice and smoked peppercorn. Ridiculously tasty, especially paired with a mix of corn, mustard greens, red onion and sweet potato.
Impossible doner kebab at Wursthall
Best of all was at Wursthall in San Mateo, a new and decidedly hip spot from chef and writer Kenji López-Alt. The Impossible signature was his take on the doner kebab, but without those scary slices of mystery meat shoved inside a pitta after pub closing time. They pack Impossible meat onto a rotisserie, flavour it with spices and serve it on traditional Turkish bread with pickled cucumber and chilli, rocket, red onion, coriander and their secret doner sauce. Sensational eating. Somehow, smugly, guilt free also tastes that little bit better.
We finish where we began with Dr Brown, the visionary founder of Impossible Foods. In a frank Q&A session, he answers difficult questions on what his 2035 vision will mean for farmers and consumers alike and whether he will ultimately share his unique technology with other companies (broadly, yes).
Most of all, however, he reiterates the current state of play regarding the terrifying impact of animal agriculture, stating, “We have pushed biodiversity to catastrophic meltdown, and wildlife populations are just absolutely plummeting. The total number of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians living on Earth is less than half of what it was 40 years ago, almost entirely due to the environmental footprint of animal farming.”
As if that wasn’t reason enough to make you seriously reconsider ordering those chicken nuggets or beef sliders, he lays out why the alternative is a much saner proposition. “If you look at the land, water and other requirements for our current product, they’re vastly lower than producing the same product from a cow. The land footprint of the entire agricultural system will be vastly reduced, so we won’t need grazing land, which is its single largest component. The total land area that would be required to produce the world’s entire protein supply would be about two per cent of its land. It’s an extremely high yield of protein per acre.”
From using 50 per cent of the planet’s land just to feed our desire for meat to just two per cent that could still feed us enough protein? It’s enough to give this committed carnivore serious food for thought.
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