Agri-food start-ups are turning to gourmet cuisine
It’s been about eight years since a protest outside his restaurant in Soho, London, turned Alexis Gauthier against foie gras. Faced with convincing arguments about the cruelty of its production – “foie gras” comes from force-fed ducks and geese – the Michelin-starred chef decided he could no longer serve it.
In fact, the meeting led to a broader change of mind: Gauthier went vegan and moved his restaurant away from animal products. But, now he’s ready to consider putting foie gras back on the menu – provided it comes from a lab, like the one where French start-up Gourmey produces a cellular version of the delicacy.
Although Gauthier has not yet tasted it, he is delighted with the arrival of a cruelty-free alternative. “I think it’s a good place to be when we have to wonder if it’s lab grown or not,” he says.
Gourmey is not the only company working on gourmet cell-based foods. Fish mouth and shark fin, premium ingredients in Chinese and Asian cuisine, have attracted the attention of other biotech start-ups. Their efforts are good news for chefs and consumers alike who don’t want their food to be tainted with cruelty or sustainability concerns.
The mouth of a fish, a fish’s swim bladder, can sell for tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. This has fueled an illicit hangover trade obtained from totoaba, an endangered species found off the coast of Mexico and which is also the most prized source of the ingredient. Demand for shark fins has also led to overfishing, including the cruel practice of “shark finning” – cutting off the fins of live sharks and throwing them back into the sea to die.
The high prices, along with the possibility of regulatory bans, make the production of alternatives to these foods attractive to cellular protein companies, which grow animal cells in volume in laboratories and try to give them taste and texture. conventional meat or fish.
However, it is difficult to make the products viable. While the carbon footprint is potentially much lower, the costs are currently much higher. In the case of gourmet ingredients, this price difference between the laboratory and conventional versions may be smaller, but there are still regulatory hurdles to overcome: to date, Singapore is the only country to have allowed the sale of meat from laboratory.
But, as the industry grows, lab versions could become much more affordable, says Mirte Gosker, acting chief executive of the Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, a nonprofit that promotes alternative proteins. High-end foods could thus reach a larger market without disastrous ecological consequences. “It’s an unbeatable combination,” says Gosker.
Avant Meats, a Hong Kong-based start-up that also makes lab-grown fish fillets, developed a cell-based fish mouth. While it’s not yet on the market, managing director Carrie Chan said several restaurant chains have expressed interest, driven in part by sustainability concerns but also the potential for cost management.
Natural fish mouths come in different qualities with variations in shape and size – and therefore in price. The cultivated product is presented in ready-to-use, easy-to-portion packaging.
Hong Kong chef and restaurateur Eddy Leung, who has worked with Avant Meats to serve his fish face at private tastings, believes its ease of use, without the need for hours of soaking before cooking, will appeal to home cooks. . He also says that it doesn’t taste different if used in a soup, although he’s not sure whether it is even suitable for more sophisticated dishes such as poon choi, which requires braising. supported.
Chan compares the fish-mouth market to that of diamonds and recognizes that the upper segment of the “investment grade”, where scarcity is a big part of attractiveness, may be immune to efforts developed in the laboratory. Its aim is to target the lower, more merchantable segment, just as companies that manufacture lab-grown diamonds do. “Like accessories,” she explains. “Not super expensive accessories but cool and decent accessories.”
Efforts to breed shark fins remain more speculative. New Wave Foods, a US-based alternative protein start-up to seafood, announced plans to develop a biotech version in 2015, but has since focused on plant-based shrimp. The Future Market, a US-based ‘futuristic food lab’, offers ‘False End’ soup – but only as a ‘concept product’ intended to illustrate a possible outcome of trends in food technology.
Whether cell-based specialties can ever become dominant may depend on changes in food culture. Unlike staple proteins – central to many cell-based start-ups – gourmet foods are prized not only for their culinary qualities, but also because they signal status.
Fuchsia Dunlop, food writer and cook specializing in Chinese cuisine, says general consumer acceptance will first depend on winning over customers who demand natural fish mouths and shark fins for special occasions such as wedding banquets – to display their hospitality and wealth.
Regulation can play a role. The Chinese government is trying to encourage more sustainable eating habits, and from next year New York will ban fatty liver produced by force-feeding. Its production is already banned in countries like the UK, Germany, Turkey and Australia.
While some connoisseurs deplore its disappearance, others recall that culinary traditions are much more than specific ingredients. Gauthier says that philosophy and techniques are what really matter in French cuisine. Foie gras was only one of the instruments he used; now his instruments are vegetables – and over time, perhaps, cell products.
Dunlop makes a similar point about Chinese cuisine: Even though a perfect cell-based fishmaw replica turns out to be elusive, the cuisine is rich and complex enough that those who avoid the natural version don’t miss it. . “There are already many other possibilities within the culinary tradition itself,” she says.