Americans have long been obsessed with all things eating, and now that means obsessing over how clean their diet is -- vegan, gluten-free, organic or additive-averse.
To keep consumers happily fed, chefs and food manufacturers are figuring out how to maximize taste without any suspect ingredients.
“We’ve pushed the limits of how well a crop ships or how long it can sit on a shelf, but when you don’t make flavor a priority, it gets lost,” says Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University and founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, which connects plant breeders with farmers and chefs to create better-tasting grains and vegetables. But it’s the hearty dose of attention from venture capitalists and tech firms that has recently transformed the granola world of “clean eating” into a science-centric new frontier.
Case in point: The $100 million that investors -- including Bill Gates and Google Ventures -- sunk into Impossible Foods, a San Francisco-based food startup founded by a Stanford biochemist. When the company’s juicy meatless burger debuted at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi this fall, the line of diners stretched down the New York sidewalk. And Impossible Foods is hardly alone in the race for beefy flavor without the butcher: Beyond Meat, which counts Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams as investors, has taken aim at the freezer aisle with faux meat crumbles and chicken nuggets. And for actual animal flesh minus the carbon footprint and livestock squeamishness, some startups are raising meat in labs, like Mosa Meat (Sergey Brin is an investor), which figured out how to grow a burger from bovine stem cells.
For vegan chef and Kite Hill cofounder Tal Ronnen, it was a moment of mortification that motivated him to double down on science: He was hired by casino magnate Steve Wynn to design menus for 12 restaurants, and while Ronnen was walking the team of chefs through alternatives to butter and cheese, one literally spit out a sample. Making a vegan cheese that wasn’t nasty wouldn’t just take years of tinkering in the kitchen -- it involved partnering with a biochemist to develop proprietary enzymes that could make pure almond milk form curds like dairy.
Kite Hill now sells 17 unique SKUs, including ricotta, Brie, cheese-filled ravioli and yogurt. Khosla Ventures was an early investor, and in May, CAVU Venture Partners and General Mills’ VC arm led an $18 million investment in the alt-dairy powerhouse.
But to stretch beyond the 2 percent of consumers who consider themselves vegan, Kite Hill is taking a page from the milk aisle, where alternatives like soy milk and almond milk have shouldered nearly 20 percent market share without ever using the v-word. “We don’t want to make products for only a captive vegan audience,” says CEO Matt Sade. “For people to discover this brand, our products can’t just taste incrementally better -- we have to make products that are light-years tastier.” Cheesy but true.
Impossible burger: New York City’s Momofuku Nishi debuted Impossible Foods’ burger that “bleeds” though it’s made from potato proteins, wheat proteins and coconut oil. Owner David Chang has also used his R&D lab to experiment with fermenting chickpeas, which creates a sweet umami bomb that now replaces the traditional Pecorino Romano in the restaurant’s version of cacio e pepe.
Chickpea pisco sour: The liquid in canned chickpeas -- aka aquafaba -- makes for a surprisingly good egg substitute. Los Angeles restaurants Gracias Madre and Birch both use whipped aquafaba as a vegan stand-in for egg foam on classic cocktails, like pisco sours.
Habanada sherbet: Michael Mazourek, a Cornell professor and one of the top plant breeders in the world, created the habanada pepper -- all the floral notes of a habanero minus even a hint of heat. Nora Antene, former pastry chef at Portland, Oreg.’s renowned Le Pigeon, made the new pepper a sherbet standout. So long, chocolate chip ice cream.