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Inside UPSIDE Foods’ quest to make the most perfect meat grown in a lab

Larissa Zimberoff takes us with her to a cultured meat tasting and explores what it means to eat chicken created by scientists.

Inside UPSIDE Foods’ quest to make the most perfect meat grown in a lab
[Images: neyro2008/iStock, vector/iStock]

You can now order cultured meat for dinner, as long as you live in Singapore. This landmark move comes from Eat JUST, which now sells chicken nuggets made from a hybrid mix of plant protein and cultured chicken cells. But scoring regulatory approval in the US is what everyone wants. Especially Memphis Meats, which announced that its cell-based chicken production would “likely begin by end of 2021.”

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The “likely” here is due to regulatory hurdles that stem from launching an entirely New Food that will be regulated collaboratively by the USDA and the FDA. Alongside its chicken news, Memphis Meats announced it was swapping its barbecue-centric company name in exchange for one that loudly declares its goals: UPSIDE Foods.

[Image: Abrams Press]
“We wanted to communicate what we wanted to do in the world,” says CEO and co-founder
Uma Valeti. “We stand for the upside of human health, taste and animal welfare.” Aspirational
names are everywhere. There’s Innocent Meat, New Age Meats, Change Foods, and, of course,
Eat JUST, which also has a former name, and now has an email address on its website that reads: wecare@ju.st.

This is all very obvious. Give your company a name that (founders hope) will telegraph their
good intentions. Are noble company names enough to get us over the hurdle of eating cultured
meat? One of the questions I pose in my book, Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat, is whether consumers will care about how their cultured meat came to be. This includes the nutrients to grow the cells, the process, and, even, the origins of those starter cells.

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For at least one of those questions, I got my answer. Sort of. Valeti tells me they use “cells from multiple breeds of chicken and eggs.” This means that when UPSIDE Foods delivers its first commercial product, we won’t actually know which came first: the chicken or the egg.

Before UPSIDE Foods changed its name, and right before the pandemic began, I dropped by their Berkeley offices for a tasting of cultured chicken. The following is an excerpt from my book, Technically Food.

So . . . How Does It Taste?

Memphis Meats, now UPSIDE Foods, is so confident in its technology that it’s already mocked up packaging. The box I held in my hand looked legit, like anything I might pick up in the supermarket. Attractive branding—a close-up image of a stoneware plate with a grilled piece of chicken breast atop a bed of lacinato kale and a few curls of purple onion. A little window allowed me to peek inside—at a skinless chicken breast covered in plastic. “Made with love in California” was stamped on the box. On the back, under the nutrition facts panel, were the ingredients, so common you might ignore them—sea salt, chipotle pepper, sugar, and garlic. Nothing unusual except the first one: chicken (cell-based). And it really was a chicken breast, but not a breast butchered from a dead animal; it was grown from cells in a lab by Memphis Meats of Berkeley, California. The actual chicken who contributed the cells may still exist on a farm somewhere.

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The second floor of Memphis Meats’ headquarters opens into a giant kitchen worthy of a cooking show. Behind the range stood food scientist Morgan Rease with a hip Brooklyn beard and wearing an apron. The air was fragrant with sautéed mushrooms. My nose twitched and I automatically began salivating, even though I had recently eaten lunch.

“Is there anything you don’t eat?” Rease asked. My list of dislikes is short, but while writing this book my motto was: “I’ll eat anything.”

While I took in the chic cabinets and massive kitchen island, Rease and I waited for Uma Valeti, the CEO of Memphis Meats. Before joining the food tech revolution, Valeti was a cardiologist, a lifesaving career, but with his new endeavor he hoped to save even more human lives and stop animal ­cruelty. As a child growing up in India, he recalled attending birthday parties alongside seeing kitchen staff gutting animals to supply the “joyful” feasts.

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After medical school in the United States, Valeti stayed put. In addition to clinical work, he had a research lab at the University of Minnesota where his patients had one thing in common: massive heart attacks. Stem cells were one of the treatments, and the founder began to wonder if he could make humans healthier—what about the food we eat? This idea percolated until he was introduced to his now co-founder Nicholas Genovese, who has a PhD in oncology. It was the catalyst the pair needed to jettison their medical careers for the high stakes and highly uncertain future of cultured meat.

Five years after leaving medicine, Valeti still has that doctor vibe—measured, well-spoken, and with an assurance that made him the ideal person to go knocking on doors asking for large amounts of money. Every cell-based meat company cringes at hearing their work called fake, but in the early days it was still outlandish enough that most investors showed Valeti the door.

Nonetheless, in its earliest ­fundraising, called a seed round, Valeti pulled in just over $3 million. “This industry had never been funded,” he said, until he proved to investors that he could grow animal cells rapidly. Today the vision has grown into a company of more than sixty staffers—from animal activists to environmental champions and even meat eaters—racing to become the first company to commercialize cell-based meat tissue.

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On our way to a conference room, Valeti paused in front of a company timeline painted on a wall next to the bathroom. Many dates pegged to Memphis Meats are landmarks, such as the founding of the company (Valeti considers his to be the first cell-meat company in 2015), the first meatball (produced in 2016 at a cost of $1,000), and its ­series-­A round in 2017 for $17 million, the largest amount of funding in cellular agriculture at that time.

While most cell-based meat startups focus on a single species, Memphis Meats is agnostic, and maintains that its platform is capable of growing all types of cells and tissue. Scientists in its seventeen-thousand-square-foot headquarters have grown beef, chicken (the most widely consumed meat in the United States), and duck (the most consumed in China) and served them to more than one thousand people.

Valeti walked me back to the kitchen, where Rease was pulling a small piece of chicken off his sauté pan. He placed it on a cutting board, and gently sliced against the grain. Valeti urged me to watch: “The cutting and the texture is something you should notice as Morgan cuts [the chicken]. This cuts exactly like a piece of chicken.”

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On a plate next to Rease were two large gold spoons layered with sauces. “No one eats plain chicken,” said Valeti. Tell that to the bodybuilders, I thought, who Valeti would certainly want enjoying his products. One spoon held the flavorings to make it a single bite of chicken piccata. The other held chicken satay with peanut sauce and house-made gingered pickles. Next to the two spoons there was an undressed bite to taste plain.

I looked down at the plate, and then over to the chef, and across to Valeti.

David Kay, Memphis employee number one and the head of communications, was nearby taking photos. Eating samples in front of people who have tirelessly worked to reinvent our food supply was one of my more uncomfortable professional experiences.

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I sliced. They watched.

Valeti was right, it did cut like chicken. I put a half-­inch morsel in my mouth. Like traditional chicken, it had tug and chew, something for my teeth to grab on to. I could feel the strands of muscle in my mouth. It was also very dry, missing the juicy moisture I wanted from chicken. Valeti assured me there were fat cells in addition to muscle cells, but I couldn’t discern them. The meat itself had flavor, but the oil it was fried in made a bigger impact on my senses. Later I was told that the meat I was eating had been grown from cells taken from a chicken egg. A familiar origin story—chickens come from eggs—but I wondered how many people would be willing to switch?

Next, I put the chicken piccata bite in my mouth. For those who crave meat, it was delicious, and far tastier than the plain bite. The texture of the chicken played well with the butter, lemon, and capers. Thinking back to my sensory evaluation lessons at MycoTechnology in Denver, I slid the food around in my mouth, giving my taste buds time to absorb, and my mind time to think.

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As if I were on an episode of Top Chef, the men watched intently for my reaction. I avoided their gaze, wishing I could jot down some notes. I said “Wow” a lot, which gave me time to think. “It tastes healthy,” I said. It probably wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but it was honest. Most important, they had nailed the texture—the sine qua non of all meat analogues. “The texture is amazing. Impressive,” I repeated.

With only a few small tidbits to consume, I found it hard to visualize a whole chicken breast on a plate. Valeti assured me, however, that they had made “full format chicken,” and hosted frequent tastings—even a recent event for a hundred people. Chefs had tried it, he said, and told him: “I could put this on a plate right now and it will be the most tender, flavorful thing on our menu.”

I tried to imagine what Thomas Keller or Alice Waters might do with it. At Chez Panisse, the apex of California-local cuisine, Waters might baste the chicken in a sauce of morel mushrooms and serve it alongside roasted red thumb potatoes and sautéed chard, the bites of cultured chicken becoming a sideshow to the far prettier plants. Maybe Chef Keller would sous vide his chicken in a bordelaise sauce made with dry red wine, bone marrow, butter, and shallots. He’d set the chicken on a plate atop wilted arrowleaf spinach and Nantes carrots.

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I snapped back to reality. Whether cultured meat could be seen as a gustatory delight—say Thanksgiving dinner—seemed far off. Waters would never accept meat that came from anyone other than from a farmer she knew. And even the experimentally minded Thomas Keller would be perplexed at how to feature it on the menu at The French Laundry, his Michelin­-starred restaurant in Yountville, California. “Cultured meat from Memphis Meats,” it could read. Maybe the word “cultured” would help them sell it for more? Servers would have to instruct diners that the company was from Berkeley, not from Memphis, and employed scientists instead of butchers.

But instead of unattainable dining experiences, what if cultured meat startups acted like their goal was feeding everyone? They could find more approachable culinary experiences like the buttermilk fried chicken at chef Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, California, or the BBQ brisket bowl at chef JJ Johnson’s Field Trip in Harlem, New York?

Chef adoption is mission critical in the future food movement. By serving Memphis Meat products in their ­restaurants—which hasn’t happened yet—chefs lend instant credibility to these unvalidated foods.

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“We feel like it’s ready to go to market,” Valeti told me. “But we always see room for improvement.” With that, Valeti picked up his phone, plugged in his headset, and jumped on a call. Kay escorted me to my next interview.

Adapted excerpt from the new book TECHNICALLY FOOD: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat by Larissa Zimberoff, published by Abrams Press

© 2021 Larissa Zimberoff

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