A large dark room, music pumping, people and tables packed tightly and in the centre an open kitchen with a large grill, the embers glowing, cuts of meat smoking as they’re licked by the heat.
‘m in Chotto Matte on Frith Street in Soho, upstairs from an even more heaving bar on the ground floor and, courtesy of this Peruvian-Japanese fusion, I’m about to sample the meat that is charring on the grill.
I say “meat” but this is not meat. This is a plant-based creation and among the coterie of people feverishly promoting this thing tonight is chef Louise Wagstaffe, who tells me that this is “new meat” and “this is the future”. Oh, and that it was produced by a 3D printer in Israel.
Ms Wagstaffe is an employee of Redefine Meat, which has this week announced and unleashed its product to the world, saying that it is the “first ever category of plant-based whole cuts that achieve a level of product quality comparable to high-quality animal meat”.
The company has been busy recruiting well-known chefs across the world to endorse its message.
In Berlin, it has Joachim Gerner, in Holland it’s Ron Blaauw. Over here, its new champion is Marco Pierre White, who will be serving Redefine Meat steaks in his 22 steakhouses, at an expected price of pounds 20 to pounds 30.
“When I first tasted Redefine Meat, I was mind-blown,” said chef legend Marco in the company’s press release, as he double-checked to see if his contract with Knorr had run its course.
Those boffins in Israel who saw the future – and the current staff shortage crisis in hospitality – worked out that they didn’t need chefs, just printers.
Indeed Wagstaffe – whose hinterland as a chef was 10 years at Unilever, where she doubtless oversaw the production of such delicacies as Chicken Tonight and Pot Noodle – tells me excitedly that, this January, Redefine Meat will open the world’s first “print farm” in Holland. No fields, no barns, no muck, no methane. Just row after row of printing machines and plenty of techies on hand for when the toner gets low.
The launch follows hot on the heels of Cop26 as world leaders gathered in Glasgow to discuss climate change and negotiate ways to cut emissions.
High on the list of offenders are beef farmers. You know the story: cattle emit methane, they consume vast quantities of water and the conversion of grain to meat protein is highly inefficient. And the world in the second half of the 20th century and beyond got itself an unhealthy and ever-growing addiction to beef in its many forms, from steaks to burgers.
As Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, CEO and co-founder of Redefine Meat, says: “Redefine Meat has its eyes set on the real problem – not meat, but the way it’s produced. We have a genuine solution that today, not in 2030, preserves all the culinary aspects of meat we know and love, but eliminates cattle as a means of production.”
I’ve eaten a number of plant-based creations in recent years from vegan mayonnaise to vegan sausages, veggie shawarma kebas to soya mince. All of which have been targeted at the growing number of plant-based consumers in the UK. Supermarkets such as Waitrose have devoted whole sections in their shops to cater for vegans. Cafes and restaurants have opened to sate their needs to shun meat and embrace pulses and jackfruit.
But Redefine Meat doesn’t have vegans in their sights. It wants you: meat-eaters. Its range will shortly include beef and lamb cuts, as well as premium-quality burgers, sausages, lamb kebabs and what it calls “ground beef”. The boffins reckon you won’t be able to tell the difference between their products and the real thing.
Now it is ready to let the food critics in on the act. I stand at the pass at Chotto Matte as chef Jordan Sclare examines a raw cut. It has the touch of raw steak, there are what seem to be fibres, it is purplish-pink in colour and, charred from his grill, is set on a plate and dressed with causa – a potato puree with coriander and chilli – and anticucho (a Peruvian marinade of red and yellow chilli) with spots on the plate of teriyaki sauce and topped with pomegranate and fresh coriander.
But first I’m given a vegan gyoza; a dumpling filled with Redefine mince and a mix of onion, aubergine, mint and coriander, that is gently fried then steamed and served with a yuzu-flavoured sweet potato puree and red pepper ponzu (a citrus-based Japanese sauce). It’s a fine dumpling, soft and with a light crunch at the edges. The flavour is good, but with all the accompanying Japanese and Peruvian touches I can’t make out the mince.
Chef Sclare then presents the main event. “When I tried this I was very, very impressed,” he says, adding: “And it’s natural.”
“Oh yes?” I reply. “So what’s in it?”
“There’s nuts and peas and protein,” he says. “But they won’t tell me the recipe.”
I wonder if the nation’s grand chefs will tolerate this. I’ve seen the best grilling their suppliers on provenance. What binding agents are in this thing, what oils, what proteins, what methods are they employing? I wonder if they – and you – would trust the Israeli boffins and their 3D printers.
But here comes that “steak”. It’s been sliced as you would a small fillet and comes with all that moreish, umami-delicious dressing. It does eat like a meat. But not a steak as intended, more a slow-cooked brisket. Indeed, I have to work my chops as I have never needed to with previous fake meats. It even gets in between my teeth.
And while the chefs’ sauces are fabulous, I can discern no actual flavour in the meat. Clever, sure. But this is a receptacle for sauce. It has no depth. The flavour of great meat comes from its fat, its muscle, its blood.
I do not doubt the significance of Ben-Shitrit’s invention. The world eats too much beef, we need alternatives beyond a few meat-free Mondays. Of course, what we should be eating rather than beef – and definitely instead of mass-produced poultry – is game. Deer are on the rampage across the country and we should be cooking that most sustainable and natural-lived cut: venison. And thanks in part to campaigning by the organisation British Game Assurance, Christmas 2021 will see more pheasant and partridge on the shelves of Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Lidl than ever before.
Perhaps I live in a bubble. In between trips to London and elsewhere, I retreat to west Somerset. Over the hill I can buy cuts of Longhorn beef direct from Westcott Organics farm. Last week we entertained guests to a lavish dinner of ribeye, onglet and sirloin cap; the meat was juicy, rich and, yes, real.
I hope that steadfastly remains our future: real meat, great meat, but less often and with plenty of game in between. It has the sort of provenance that stirs my soul. And when my family and friends eat it they don’t need to ask: “So where was this printed?”