The Impossible Burger: The Beginning of the End for Beef?

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The Impossible Burger at New York's Momofuko Nishi. It looks like a regular beef burger, in a bun with lettuce, tomato, pickles and what appears to be Russian dressing.
The Impossible Burger at New York's Momofuko Nishi.Credit: Zack DeZon

The last Friday in August, W. 22nd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, 11 A.M.

The lines to taste the new and very well-publicized vegan burger that launched in July at Momofuku Nishi should have surprised no one who is familiar with the eating habits of a certain slice of New York food culture.

At 11, an hour before the opening, there are 10 people outside the Chelsea outpost of chef-restaurateur David Chang’s culinary empire.

Over the next hour, the queue for a taste of the Impossible Burger, which Momofuku advertises as being “available on a first come, first served basis, at brunch and lunch from 12-3pm with a limited number available for happy hour (5:30-7pm) everyday,” becomes ridiculously long.

The media buzz and the rumors around Chang’s new acquisition began several months ago when the chef, who is known for detesting meat substitutes, proclaimed on his Instagram account, “Today I tasted the future and it was vegan: this burger was juicy/bloody and had real texture like beef. But more delicious and way better for the planet. “I can’t really comprehend its impact quite yet ... but I think it might change the whole game.”

The revolutionary patty came to Chang courtesy of Impossible Foods, which for over three years worked, like dozens of other companies and entrepreneurs, to invent a juicy and delicious meat alternative. After raising over $100 million, the company developed and enhanced its product, which is said to provide an identical culinary experience to eating meat, with a juicy texture and without guilt pangs and shaming berating looks from the English singer Morrissey.

In contrast to other products that are on the market or in development, such as Beyond Meat’s soy-based meat substitute or cell-cultured meat grown in a lab, the Impossible Burger contains, in addition to textured wheat protein, coconut oil and potato protein, what Impossible Foods terms, on its website, a “special ingredient, called ‘heme.’” A protein that is abundant in animal flesh but is present in all living cells, “[h]eme gives meat its characteristic color and taste,” the website explains, going on to say that the company discovered a way to synthesize plant heme in a manner that makes the Impossible Burger “a carnivore’s delight.”

Beyond the prospect of generating meat without slaughtering animal, the main advantage is that the new “meat” contains no harmful materials like antibiotics, cholesterol or hormones. Plus it is kosher to boot.

As befitting a star-studded Hollywood movie, the burger was launched at a glamorous press conference in Manhattan on July 26, attended by Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown, a biochemist, and Chang, who informed those present that he was planning to expand the use of “meatless meat” and had begun experimenting with “meat” wontons, patty melts and hot dogs.

Brown is well aware that veggie burgers made from tofu, mushrooms or wheat gluten, including cheap versions offered in successful chains such as Shake Shack, are widely available. However, he announced that the target audience of the meat he was developing was not the usual suspects (vegan hipsters or people with too much money and time) but rather the broadest segment of carnivores, real meat lovers who are unwilling to compromise. Brown announced that his company had cracked meat’s molecular code such that his hamburger would bleed like real meat.

Noon: The impossible becomes possible

A server in a dress shirt with a very narrow collar opens the door and points the hungry future diners to the host, who seats us. By 12:05, the place is packed. There are no tables left and the host brings us to the bar, where we can sit on high, wooden stools. Before I manage a peek at the menu, the bartender smiles and asks if I came for the Impossible Burger. Then he asks if I’d like to add a slice of American cheese, for a dollar, or substitute a vegan roll, for another dollar. I pass on the cheese and start biting my fingernails while waiting for my order, an Impossible Burger on a vegan roll, with French fries, for $13.

A surreptitious look at the other diners confirms that almost everyone ordered the same thing. Five minutes later, another server bursts forth carrying an aluminum tray. On it is a small white tray, nearly overflowing with fairly standard French fries, next to the main feature. In light of the amount of ink and pixels that have been spilled over Chang’s culinary miracle in the past month, it’s hard not to be disappointed by a standard-looking burger that struggles to match the pretensions of its name. It is uncomfortable to admit it, but the Impossible Burger looks possible, far too possible.

The patty is well hidden inside the bun, between the vegan mayonnaise and the pickle, tomato and lettuce, camouflaged like a soldier in a Vietnam jungle. When you take off the top half of the bun and move the vegetables around a little, the wonder is revealed in its full glory — a disappointingly thin, pale pink patty, which is reminiscent of undercooked cheap meat. The look will certainly be hard to satisfy sworn carnivores, and in contrast to what was promised, the patty does not smell like real meat. However, its taste is surprising. It is juicy, fatty and tender. In contrast to many vegetarian burgers, it is not hard to chew, have a grainy texture or taste too salty.

Still, is this the culinary future that will help mankind completely give up on meat? It is too early to tell. Even the sole of a shoe can be edible if it is served in a fresh roll and topped with fresh vegetables, a generous portion of rich homemade sauce and melted cheese. The patty itself was a delight, but it is not satisfying, aromatic or filling like a well-spiced slab of high-quality meat properly prepared, and it is doubtful if meat lovers will give up their steaks for it.

Momofuku Nishi, in New York.Credit: Edsel Little

Fast food, slow food

About an hour after opening, the waiter announced that only about 10 Impossible Burgers remained, and anyone interested to taste the dish has better ordered them quickly. Irrespective of the fairly ordinary culinary experience, there is no doubt that Chang’s marketing gimmick, to declare his restaurant the only one in New York making use of the impossible burger and to limit its daily supply to less than 200 patties, is truly brilliant. A long line has formed every day at 11 A.M. outside his restaurant ever since the announcement.

It is tempting to deride Change or the clients who are prepared to stand over an hour in line for a pale patty, but the impressive success of the meatless meat attests to the popularity of the holy grail of the food industry (and to a great degree of wide swaths of Silicon Valley) — finding a cheap and healthy alternative to meat without reducing the enjoyment or culinary experience of diners.

Brown, who gave up a coveted position at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, where he directed a cancer research lab, believes with all his heart that meatless meat is about to lead a culinary, health and economic revolution (being much cheaper to produce than the need to maintain the meat industry). Oncologist Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate, dubbed Brown, a vegan, a “prophet.” If we are to believe Brown, the impossible burger is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Or, if you prefer something slightly less megalomaniac, a genius gimmick that has already put tens of thousands of dollars into the pocket of Chang and to turn Brown into one of the most talked-about names in Silicon Valley.

Chef David Chang's Instagram post on the Impossible Burger.