Plant-based “vegan meat” and vegan fast-food options are all the rage at restaurants as consumer demand grows.

Neil Rankin first really took notice of vegans in 2016 when they were threatening to protest outside his restaurant. The 43-year-old chef had just opened Temper, a barbecue joint in Soho built around a six metre-long fire pit, which was the biggest in London and perhaps in any restaurant anywhere. Whole beasts were brought in, butchered and grilled theatrically in thick slabs over the embers. As the Observer’s Jay Rayner noted (admiringly): “There is a menu, but they could just replace it with a massive sign stamped with the word MEAT!, alongside one of those comedy boxing gloves on an extending arm which keeps punching you in the face until you surrender.”

Rankin was in many respects an obvious target for vegan ire. With his elaborate tatts, brawny forearms and trucker cap, he was a poster boy for the strange but powerful barbecue fixation that took hold a few years ago; before Temper, he worked variously as a chef at Pitt Cue Co, Smokehouse and Bad Egg. He’d also just spent two years smoking, braising and grilling to produce a bible for carnivores titled Low and Slow: How to Cook Meat. “I’ve cooked 15 goats all at once,” Rankin says, flecks of Edinburgh in his voice. “I’ve butchered many animals in my time.”

So when the vegans came after him on social media, Rankin wasn’t surprised or especially bothered. Those at the “extremist” end, he ignored – “There’s no grey area,” he reasoned, “you’re evil, you’re wrong, that’s it” – but others, he’d debate. One in particular, a university lecturer on food issues, he became friendly with and they went out for dinner. Rankin pointed out that, unlike most steakhouses, his use of entire carcasses respected animals and minimised offcuts, but on certain issues he was swayed. “I was part of a group of people who made barbecue big again in the UK and I’m not too sure if that was a good thing,” he concedes now. “It was an interesting eye-opener to my own ethics and what I was doing.”

Rankin is telling me this in a vegan restaurant. His zero-waste vegan restaurant, in fact: Simplicity Burger on Brick Lane in east London, across the street from the famous bagel shops. When we meet, he’s almost completed Veganuary. Rankin estimates that he probably hasn’t bought meat to cook at home for two-and-a-half years. It’s like Richard Dawkins confiding that maybe he was a bit hasty writing off the whole God thing.

Either that or Rankin is very canny at predicting and leading food trends. There is disagreement over the popularity of veganism in the UK: most estimates put it at a little over 1% of the population. But there is clearly unprecedented awareness and press coverage of it. This year, 400,000 people globally signed up for Veganuary, compared with 250,000 in 2019. Not long ago, the big supermarkets might have a sorry corner with some Quorn and Linda McCartney products; as of last month, when Sainsbury’s joined the club, they all have own-brand plant-based ranges, as well as many stocking the likes of the Meatless Farm Co, Vivera and Oumph!. There’s everything from fake turkey to vegetarian “ham”, and even vegan pork scratchings, made from flash-fried soya pieces, which received 174% funding on Kickstarter last year. The global demand for plant-based protein has grown from £2.9bn in 2015 to a predicted £4bn this year.

One area of undisputed growth is plant-based convenience food. The Vegan Society calls it “the UK’s fastest-growing takeaway choice”, having exploded by 388% (from, admittedly, a low base) between 2016 and 2018. A tipping point was the release last year of the Greggs vegan sausage roll, which, thanks to Piers Morgan, clever use of social media and the fact that it doesn’t taste awful, has brought a new audience to plant-based meat alternatives. Greggs doesn’t talk about specific sales, only that the “huge popularity” of its vegan sausage roll – and, this year’s releases, the vegan steak bake and a doughnut – have driven total sales to rise by 13.5%. Last month, the company announced it would pay its 25,000 employees bonuses totalling £7m, or up to £300 each.

Plant-based food is now even raiding the spiritual castle of the meat pie: the football ground. When Chelsea played Arsenal last month, supporters at Stamford Bridge could warm themselves at half-time with a vegan doner kebab or buffalo cauli wings at the Premier League’s first fully vegan kiosk.

Much of the demand in the fast-food sector is for fake burgers, with restaurants lasciviously telling vegans and flexitarians – meat-reducers, essentially – that theirs “ooze” and “bleed” just like the real thing. Anyone doubting there is serious money in this sector need only look at the US company Beyond Meat, which supplies smaller UK chains such as Honest, Neat Burger and Halo Burger but also All Bar Ones, Premier Inns and Toby Carverys. In July last year, Beyond Meat briefly had a market valuation of $11.7bn (£9bn).

When Rankin set out to make his plant-based Simplicity Burger he did not want to make a product that would appeal to vegans. That was thinking far too small. He wanted to craft a burger with such deep umami notes that anyone and everyone would find it delicious. “Eight months at home, just doing weird stuff with mushrooms and things like that,” Rankin recalls. “I got the flavour really early on; it was the texture that was the hardest thing to get. There were times when I was pulling my hair out. Times I gave up. But when I finally nailed it, that was a good feeling. I was like, ‘Thank god I didn’t have to add some weird chemical.’”

Rankin is in some senses a late arrival at the plant-based party. But the difference, he believes, is that he has approached the challenge as a chef, not as a food scientist, wellness guru or tech entrepreneur. For example, the cheese for the Simplicity Burger could have been a simple vegan cheese: it might not have tasted of much, but it would have melted and provided a familiar texture. Instead, Rankin decided to extract the liquid from vegan cheese and replace it with fermented tomato water, fried onion oil and pickle juice. The result is quite mind-bending: it’s cheese that tastes not of cheese, but faintly of a cheeseburger.

The reason that many chefs have been slow to engage with vegan food, Rankin suggests, is hubris. “Because it’s not cool,” he says. “I’ve taken a lot of flak for it. I get laughed at. I go to these little chef things and they go, ‘How’s your vegan thing? Haha!’ And I’m like, ‘How’s your restaurant that does fuck all for nobody apart from your own ego?’”

Still, Rankin knows, from years sweating over a fire pit, how deep and primal our love of meat is and how difficult it will be to convince the doubters. “There’s a cultural identity to it,” says Rankin. “If you take that scene in Pulp Fiction, where Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta come into the room and he’s eating the burger and he tries it and says, ‘This is a tasty burger…’ You can’t replace that scene with a falafel and get away with it.”

Rankin’s Simplicity Burger is indeed a tasty burger. The first mouthful delivers a dense, satisfying umami whoomph I haven’t tasted before from plant-based fast food. That’s not to imply that I’m tricked into thinking I’m eating a beef burger: it doesn’t fall apart in your mouth in quite the same way. But that’s not a criticism of Rankin; it’s just an acknowledgment that replicating meat is an outsize, maybe even impossible, culinary and scientific challenge.

When you put a ground beef in a hot pan, there’s immediately a reaction between amino acids and simple sugars that form complex flavour compounds. The meat browns – the Maillard reaction – and creates more than 4,000 different molecules, which are responsible for its distinctive look, texture, smell and flavour. Humans have found the taste of cooked meat irresistible for approximately two-and-a-half million years. Eating animals is the main reason our brains developed and our stomachs shrank and we no longer had to spend all day foraging for food.

So why then, if it’s so difficult, are so many people trying to mimic meat with vegetables? The climate emergency is the most pressing reason. In the past half century, global meat production has increased by more than 400%. In the next 30 years, as the population nudges 10 billion, there are projections that demand for meat will double again. “And cows just take too long to grow,” says Simeon Van der Molen, who launched the plant-based manufacturer Moving Mountains in west London in 2015. “After three years, you get 1,000 kilograms of beef, but that’s a ridiculously long time.”

Van der Molen, who is 47 years old and favours the Branson-casual entrepreneur uniform of open-necked shirt and running shoes, had no previous experience in the food industry; his other company, Ecozone, makes detergents. But he had an itch to try something different and he was hearing a lot of noise from the States about Beyond Meat and market leader Impossible Foods, which was founded by Pat Brown, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, and has a stated aim to make animal agriculture and deep-sea fishing redundant by 2035. Van der Molen also had personal reasons.

“I went to the doctors and I had cholesterol at 6.9 and the doctor told me to stop eating burgers,” he recalls when we meet at the Moving Mountains co-working office in Chiswick. “Otherwise I was going to end up on statins all my life. So I went straight to the supermarket and, as you can imagine back in 2015, it wasn’t very tasty: the burgers were bean burgers, nut burgers. And for someone who has gone from eating a quarter pounder that’s juicy and succulent, having a burger that looks like a squashed falafel is just too much of a step.”

In this regard, Van der Molen thinks he is typical. His research suggests that most Moving Mountains customers are either aged 15 to 25, “doing it for the environment and animal welfare”, or between 45 and 65 and driven by health reasons. “Because their doctors told them like they told me,” says Van der Molen. Women significantly outnumber men.

Van der Molen started by speaking to food technologists. He paid for it from his own pocket; he also sold his collection of classic cars, including rare Bugattis and Teslas, plunging the money into the new company. The consultants suggested that oyster mushrooms, with their deep taste and fibrous texture, would make a good base for the first Moving Mountains burger. “I dislike mushrooms,” admits Van der Molen. “I was against it.” Nevertheless, they made up about 20% of the burger, and were supplemented by peas, potatoes, wheat and soy proteins, coconut oil and vitamin B12. The final touch was the addition of beetroot juice, which would give the illusion that the burger was “bleeding”.

The Moving Mountains B12 burger was a hit. It was launched in February 2018 at Mildreds, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Dalston, east London, but there was a mainstream crossover in September when all of Marston’s 400-plus food pubs began offering it. In 2019, Harvester followed, then Europe’s Hard Rock Cafes and the massive pub operators Stonegate and Mitchells & Butlers.

Their secret? “Four words we never mention: vegan, vegetarian, meatless, meat-free,” says Van der Molen. “We have to be so firm sometimes with restaurants, top companies such as Hard Rock Cafe. Call it the Moving Mountains burger. Meat-free and meatless are all about what is missing from the product: ‘Meat free? What’s in it then? I don’t want it.’ So we want to promote this as plant-based meat. Even though it’s not technically meat, we can still call it what we want. And we want to promote what’s good about it, not what’s lacking.”

This, Van der Molen contends, differentiates his product from, say, the Greggs vegan sausage roll and meatless steak bake. “A vegan sausage roll – again, you’re limiting it to the amount of people who are going to buy it,” says Van der Molen. “I have friends that would never go to Greggs and ask for the vegan sausage roll because they never ever want to use the word ‘vegan’ when they’re with their mates. And it’s the same in restaurants. They don’t want to say it. It’s still old school. It’s sissy. You don’t want to be associated with vegan.”

Van der Molen always saw Moving Mountains as restaurant only. “I don’t really like supermarkets, what can I say?” he says, with a smirk. “I’ve worked with them most of my life.” He mellowed, however, and in late December last year, three of Moving Mountains’ plant-based products – a sausage burger, sausage and hot dog, though not the regular burger – became available in the frozen food aisle of Sainsbury’s.

Plant-based is here to stay, insists Van der Molen, and will be a global phenomenon. Moving Mountains already sells in Australia, Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong, but Van der Molen is eager this year to take on Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in the US. He has especially high hopes for the Moving Mountains hot dog, which has a main ingredient of sunflower seeds. “No one’s been able to replicate that,” he says. “So where will the plant-based market and Moving Mountains be in two years? We probably could be meeting in New York, I think.”

As you enter Unity Diner in Spitalfields, east London, there is a large neon sign that reads: “The future is vegan.” On the menu, there are lots of ingredients my spellcheck is not happy about – cheeze, chikken, bakon and prawnz – as well as the Moving Mountains burger and hot dog. You can wash it down with a gin cocktail called Piers Morgan’s Tears, served with a straw made from wheat stems.

I order the burger and my companion, Illtud Llyr Dunsford, selects a Moving Mountains hot dog with added prawnz: vegan surf’n’turf. If Rankin would be near the bottom of the list of people that you would expect to go into the market for meat alternatives, then Dunsford, a jolly, curious 39-year-old with a warm smile, isn’t far behind. His family has been farming in the Gwendraeth Valley, west Wales, for more than 300 years. Dunsford, meanwhile, was so inspired by the nose-to-tail philosophy of St John chef Fergus Henderson that in 2011 he set up a company called Charcutier with the aim of making world-class air-dried ham from Welsh pedigree pigs. Dunsford knows his hot dogs, too: he used to supply them for Harrods. “One of my nicknames back then was the Sausage Dude,” he says. “Don’t know if that’s a good nickname or not.”

So what does Dunsford make of the Moving Mountains hot dog? “That’s surprisingly good,” he says, fighting an admirable battle to keep ketchup out of his thick, reddish-brown beard. “It tastes like a commodity product, a cheap product, the texture is a little bit too hard, but for me if this was a street-corner product it replaces it quite easily.”

Praise then, but qualified. Dunsford can see scenarios in which plant-based simulacra can fill a gap – and for the planet that has to be so – but the notion that they can replace the real thing entirely is a stretch too far. “For me as a meat eater, there’s an organoleptic quality when you consume meat,” he says. “And none of these plant-based products offers exactly the same response. You don’t quite have that little glob of hot fat going down your chin you get with real meat.”

For this reason, Dunsford believes the future of meat has to be growing it in labs from animal cells. His long, at times confounding journey to this conclusion began in 2015, when he attended a symposium on cultured meat at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and continued when he was chosen as a prestigious Nuffield farming scholar and spent 15 months travelling the world to explore the future of meat production, which included seeing the impact of animal agriculture on deforestation in the Amazon. But it all fell into place in late 2017, in the San Francisco headquarters of a US company Just, Inc (a building where Dunsford, a film buff, notes that Toy Story was screened for the first time).

“They cooked me up a little duck liver chorizo,” he remembers. “It was in a little taco, it was tiny. And I ate it and it just had the umami kick of what I expect from meat. It was like this final piece of the jigsaw for me: this actually tastes exactly the same as meat. I thought, ‘Well, if you could produce that product cheaper, why on earth would a consumer buy something else instead?’”

Charcutier was wound down and Dunsford now runs Cellular Agriculture, the first UK startup in the cell-based meat space, with Dr Marianne Ellis, whose day job is head of chemical engineering at the University of Bath. “Our machine at the moment produces milligrams worth of cells, so very, very small,” says Dunsford. “But by the end of the next two years, we’re looking at about 10 kilos for a cycle, which is about three weeks. And the aspiration really, in around five years, is to build factories that produce tonnages of cells.”

Dunsford is well aware that cell-based meat has a yuck factor to overcome, but he’s confident that over time it will. And if it does, the potential market is huge: while he believes plant-based food will mainly appeal to flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans, who make up about 20% of the British population, cultured meat would be an option for everyone else, whether they plan to reduce their meat intake or not. “The difference with cell-based is that chemically it is meat,” says Dunsford. “There’s nothing that you have to do to it to flavour it to make it taste of meat, because the cells are derived from animals.”

As an individual, Dunsford accepts that he should be the perfect target for meat alternatives: he buys local; he cares about sustainability; when he takes a flight, he offsets his carbon. “So I’m that kind of consumer and I’ve tried to do plant-based but I can’t,” he sighs. “It’s just my body and my mind are not strong enough. Even though I know there are a certain number of things that we need to do to help the planet, I’m weak. Most people are.”

Cell-based meat is, as you would expect, divisive. For Rankin, it’s a future that he doesn’t care much to imagine. “One, growing meat in labs, that’s terrifying,” he says. “And two, we have sustainably produced meat in this country. It’s just the fact we are eating too much of it. The whole problem with meat is that we just need to replace 90% of what we eat with other things, then we can sustainably farm animals and the animals can sustainably add manure to the soil. That whole thing that we used to do 100 years ago, really effectively, can work again.”

So Rankin doesn’t think lab-grown meat will find a market then? “Oh, I’m sure it will take off, but I’m just saying it’s going to be terrible for us,” he warns. “You look at history and as soon as we started to get labs or companies to do our diets for us or to feed us food it turned out incredibly badly every single time.”

Van der Molen looked into cell-based meat before starting Moving Mountains. For him, the issue was not ethics, but timescale. “I met with the University of Bath and, as soon as I understood what was involved, I stopped that,” he says. Why? “It’s another 10 years away from now, I would guess, from being produced. Anyone who tells you it’s this year is wanting more money from a funding round in my opinion. And as well as caring for the planet, I’m also a businessman. I need to have a company and I need to get the company moving.”

Still, Van der Molen agrees with Dunsford that ultimately the market for cell-based meat will far outstrip that of the plant-based sector. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, I won’t eat it’ and I say, ‘But you just might not have a choice, because these massive big meat producers will just force it upon you.’ They don’t necessarily care about the environment – though some certainly do – but the savings that they can possibly make from using cell-based as opposed to rearing cattle? Unbelievable.”

So we will see cell-based meat in McDonald’s or Burger King? “Oh God, 100%,” Van der Molen replies. “Yeah, I just think it will dominate.”

For Dunsford, the breakthrough product will likely be a hybrid of cell- and plant-based ingredients. “Because the cells actually taste of meat and plant-based doesn’t,” he says. “You have to think about things like a fish cake: a lot of that is potatoes. Think of a sausage, a lot of that is just filler. So it is the same principle as what we currently do with food products.”

Everyone agrees – some with zeal, others resignation – that it’s not if meat production will change, but when and how. In 2016, Dunsford was asked by advisers at Downing Street to present his research on protein alternatives. At the end of the day, he walked down the Strand to catch his tube and started humming David Bowie’s Space Oddity. “The line ‘Take your protein pill…’ came into my mind,” Dunsford recalls. “And I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do next. I want to make a sausage in space! I want to build a system that will exist for space travel and for planet colonisation!’ That’s what will come of this technology.”

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com/

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