Anyone who knows May Chow personally or is an admirer of her work (and by that, we mean a frequent diner at her restaurants, Little Bao and Happy Paradise), knows that she’s not one to blindly follow the crowd. The 33-year-old entrepreneur and industry leader has built her career on trailblazing her own path outside the typical fine-dining, fancy French toque-toting path treaded by most ambitious young chefs, instead staking her reputation on a humble, quirky, bao-slinging diner that’s since catapulted Chow to fame and helped her snag the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017.
But there’s one trend that she has no reservations about jumping on the bandwagon for: the soaring interest in plant-based, alternative meat products, made possible by companies such as the Silicon Valley-backed Impossible Foods, which has invested approximately US$80 million to develop an all-natural, plant-based meat product that tastes, feels and cooks like the real thing.
Launched in 2011, Impossible Foods has seen a wave of support from the chef community not just for their honourable mission, but also for creating a truly delicious product: a lab-derived, “plant-based meat” made from all-natural ingredients that has limitless food applications: baos, tacos, burgers — you name it. The latter has perhaps been the biggest cause of hype, first elevated to restaurant status by the prolific chef-restaurateur David Chang, who debuted the Impossible Burger on his Momofuku menu in mid-2017 (Chow first heard about the product from Chang’s endeavours). Since then, it’s swept across the nation, with more than 1,400 restaurants now serving one or more dishes using the Impossible Foods’ signature product.
With its eyes on a quick international expansion, the company has just launched in their first overseas market right here in Hong Kong, with two of the biggest names in the Hong Kong food scene — May Chow and Uwe Opocensky, of Uwe and Beef & Liberty — as the designated launch chefs. With their dishes now available at Little Bao, Happy Paradise and Beef & Liberty, and more restaurants to be unveiled soon, we nabbed the opportunity to sit down with Impossible Foods Chief Strategy Officer Nick Halla and May Chow at the recent launch event to chat about what makes the plant-based meat so revolutionary in a market increasingly driven by conscientious consumers.
Nick Halla: We started Impossible Foods seven years ago; it was founded by Dr. Patrick Brown at Stanford University. He had taken a sabbatical after being a medical school researcher for 25 years, when he realised by far the biggest challenge that we have is how we feed the world. He realised our reliance on animals and food production tech was the biggest threat to the global environment. As a biochemist, he thought we could make foods from plants that can ultimately compete with animals, and so he started the company and built a platform for how to create delicious food — meat, fish and dairy products, all from plants.
About two years in, he decided that minced meat would be the first target product, which we started selling in the US in 2016, and now with May and Uwe here in Hong Kong. The Impossible meat can be used in tartare, meatballs, tacos, dumplings, Xinjiang hotpot, you name it.
NH: The ‘meat’ is made up of four main ingredients: It’s whey protein, which gives it the chew as you bite into it; potato protein, which helps it form and change texture as you cook; a protein called heme that drives all the flavour chemistry of what makes meat what it is; and coconut, which gives you the richness and the juiciness.
NH: We’re in about 1,400 restaurants in the US now, including launching at the fast-food burger chain White Castle recently. We really look for the trendsetters of industries, and so David Chang was our first chef when we launched in New York City. Hong Kong is our first global city. It’s the great culinary city of Asia, and really of the world — a trendsetter in the industry. Being able to work with May and Uwe is a great opportunity for us to deliver a new type of meat made from plants to the consumers of Hong Kong.
May Chow: The company came to meet me really early on, before the launch, to introduce the Impossible product. It comes in a minced meat form, so we just creatively apply it to different types of recipes. We created the Impossible Bao, which is very much a patty-like experience, a burger experience; whereas for the Xinjiang hot pocket, it’s more of doing a mince with different types of Xinjiang spices, like cumin, Sichuan peppercorn, in a very Northwest Chinese style, and it’s a little bit different in terms of application. We’re constantly playing around with it, and there’s lots of possibilities for what it can be used for.
MC: It is very popular in the US. So as a chef, I’m always aware of what’s trending in the global food arena. When David Chang launched the Impossible Burger in NYC it was a huge deal, and I read up about it. I literally watched people eat it and comment on it. And so even before they approached me I was intrigued and excited. And I think that not just chefs, but everyone my generation and age are all probably very aware of how much we love our environment. And we understand that it’s unsustainable, whether it’s with plastics or meats or any other issues. To be able to use a delicious product that can potentially replace a portion of or all meat is, I think, something to be excited about. And it’s also very fun to cook with! So it’s a win-win situation.
NH: Our environmental mission is the reason why the company exists. Whether it’s the Impossible Burger, Impossible dumplings, hot pockets, all these products, they use approximately 95% less land, 87% less greenhouse gas emissions and 74% less water than meat from a cow. So that’s really our starting point, and we’re only getting better.
MC: I think Hong Kong is very progressive. Women in Asia especially are very health-conscious: They eat a lot of vegetables and [consider] what is good for their health as well as what is good for the environment. I think people do care, and so my personal experience even before the launch, testing it and giving it to my mother or my chefs in the kitchen — they were all amazed by it. It’s really fun to cook with as a chef, because it still sears, and then goes from medium rare to medium, and there’s still variations on texture, and it changes as you’re cooking it. I think that Hong Kong people are very open-minded about new things, and to experience something new that they’ve never experienced before is something that people look forward to. I think that creates a curiosity, and hopefully the flavour is what they come back to.
MC: I think when you taste it, it’s actually really easy. For one, it’s not crazy expensive, so there’s no like “OMG, spend this much money and you can try it” — it’s relatively affordable. Plus it’s something new to try, just like trying any new dish. If you tell someone who loves beef that it tastes like beef but it’s plant-based, I don’t think it’s as hard as telling someone to eat chicken feet, for instance. I think if anything, it exceeds expectations. When they put it in their mouth and it’s juicy and kind of has that fat and beef satisfaction, I think it’s more the mental and the mouth not connecting at that moment. It’s fun to watch and I think everyone’s generally very surprised by that.
MC: Well Little Bao does “burgers” but with steamed mantou instead, so that’s already more Asian flavours. We still use the original patty, griddled, and then add Asian flavours on top and around it. For our Xinjiang hot pocket, it’s a very common thing to eat especially in northwestern China, and it’s very common in Hong Kong as well. We wanted somewhere to showcase the original burger, and another dish where we played with it. So for the pocket we added Chinese pickled greens, cumin spices, peppercorns and scallions, creating a very Asian flavour. People argue over which one is their favourite. It’s interesting because Hong Kong and China have a huge consumption of beef, but also a huge consumption of pork and land. And I think because of the utility of the product itself, it doesn’t just lend itself to replacing beef, but maybe even in soup dumplings or various other applications.
NH: They’re the first chefs putting it on their menus for everyone to consume. Uwe and May are great launch partners for us because they can really help us start telling that story, what the company is doing and what it means. Like May said, tasting is believing, so we want to have a platform from which to draw people in. We do have a very big mission as a company. The edible food industry is a 1.5 trillion dollar industry with a huge environmental impact, and our goal is to have better products for everything that consumers consume today. So we will be expanding to a lot more places, and going to retail over the next couple years.
NH: I think it’s a long-term solution, partially because it has to be a long-term solution! Today we use close to half the world’s land surface actively for animal farming, more than a quarter of all the fresh water, we’re the highest industry for water pollution, and of course greenhouse gases. The United States Agricultural Association predicts that meat consumption will increase 70% by 2050; it just doesn’t work, we need to find better ways. And consumers are seeing this, now that there are actually products like the Impossible Burger that can meet the demands of what they’re looking for. If products can really deliver that demand in a more nutritious, better tasting and much more sustainable way, it will be much more than a trend — it’s going to be a consumer movement worldwide.
MC: I think so. It’s about availability, and there’s a balance as an entrepreneur and a chef. There’s a small percentage where you’re trying to educate the market of how they can possibly eat better, but at the same time we need the market to demand it. So I think it’s an effort that a team of people need to do, whether it’s people supplying it, cooking it, etc. I was joking to them, if one day they cold have plant-based uni, or plant-based toro, awesome. If you knew that it was a better product, why would you be so close-minded that it’s plant-based? Or that you have to eat meat? We’re not trying to change people’s habits, because changing habits takes decade,. but if it’s the same flavour, same cooking experience, same everything but it just happens to be plant-based, that’s a very different conversation. I think that’s cool.