Inside The Alternative Kitchen

Jul 24 2021

Anyone who's a chef, who loves food, ultimately knows that all that matters is: 'Is it good? Does it give pleasure?' 

The famous chef and TV presenter Anthony Bourdain spoke these words in 2010. Over the last decade, a whole lot has changed. Pleasure remains at the heart of any great meal, but most chefs now understand that the stakes are higher than flavor. Food is about indulgence, yes, but we’re learning to ask: at what cost? 

The challenge we face when it comes to feeding the planet is this: by the year 2050, the world’s population will have increased to nearly 10 billion – that’s over 1 billion more people seeking out meat and proteins for their diets, particularly among the growing middle classes. However, our current way of producing and consuming meat is increasingly unsustainable in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, as well as animal diseases and animal welfare. Food production is also contributing to deforestation, water shortages and biodiversity loss. We are experiencing a global food shortage and our food system urgently needs upgrading. 

Across the world, cutting-edge restaurants are already trialing innovative new ways to serve food that address these issues, and there’s no one right approach. Vegan fast food menus replace factory-farmed meat with offerings like jackfruit and tofu, some restaurants exclusively use sustainably sourced ingredients, and zero waste restaurants do exactly what they say on the (recyclable) tin: cut out waste entirely. The most promising answer we have to tackle our food crisis however, will be the kitchens focused on the next big frontier in food: alternative meats. 

By 2050, cell-based, plant-based, and fermented meat alternatives could become the new normal. Here’s how. 

Getting a table 

We are just at the beginning of the story when it comes to alternative meats, explains Caroline Kolta, XPRIZE’s Program Lead on Feed The Next Billion, our $15M Prize to spur innovation in chicken and fish alternatives. Companies producing plant-based burgers have been around for over a decade, and the first “lab-grown” hamburger was cooked and consumed in London back in 2013, but the fact that these products are not embraced more widely shows just how much scope for improvement there is when it comes to viability, scalability, and importantly, taste. 

“Today, plant-based meat accounts for only 1-2% of all meat sales,” offers Kolta as an example, “but we anticipate exponential reductions in associated costs with economies of scale, and so for this percentage to grow.” Look no further than the broad range of eateries – from Taco Bell to Daniel Humm’s triple-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison – that have recently added plant-based alternatives to menus, or the plant-based “chicken” nuggets you can buy in US supermarkets.

As for cultured meat products, we are on the cusp of seeing food regulation allow for wider availability in the consumer market. In 2020, 1880 in Singapore became the first restaurant in the world to sell dishes cooked with cell-based chicken alternatives after the Singapore government passed legislation allowing alternative meat manufacturer Eat Just to provide the restaurant with their product. In Israel, also last year, The Chicken opened, a restaurant asking diners to come by and try their alternative chicken – SuperMeat – in exchange for feedback. If SuperMeat wins approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, they may soon start selling their product. 

Over the next decade, as technology – and with it, taste – advances along with regulation, we can expect to be spoilt for choice when it comes to grabbing breakfast, lunch, or dinner based on alternative meat at restaurants like these. 

(Alternative) chicken or fish? 

At this point, you might be wondering why certain kinds of alternatives get a seat at the table. “While the alternative meat industry has achieved improvements on ground/minced products such as beef patties and chicken nuggets, there is still a lack of products on the market for structured or whole cuts of chicken breast and fish fillet,” explains Kolta, “but as populations and incomes rise, the demand for all types of meat, including chicken and fish, is expected to rise too.” 

Chicken and fish are two of the more common ingredients in global cuisine, so by asking innovators to create alternatives that act as replicas, we can ensure that global recipes and food traditions are able to continue, even if everything else about our food system may change.

A focus on chicken and fish can also alleviate some of the most pressing impacts our food system is having on our planet. Approximately 70 billion chickens are now killed globally each year, and approximately 93% of the marine fisheries worldwide are fished at or beyond sustainable catch levels. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has accelerated food insecurity, meaning that revolutionizing the global food system has never been more urgent.


Cooking up a storm 

Your order of alternative chicken or fish has reached the kitchen, but what happens next? Chefs will need to embrace these new meats as part of their cooking practice and as more than a novelty. Over in the Netherlands, a digital and conceptual restaurant called Bistro In Vitro has recently explored how this might be achieved. Their online menu demonstrates with flair what is possible when it comes to designing alternative meat and fish menus. Focussing on “in vitro meat”, produced from animal cells cultured in a bioreactor, the menu features offerings like “Scallop with Cultured Caviar”, “See-Through Sashimi” and “Friendly Foie-Gras”, with dishes ranked on how realistically they might come to fruition. 

This menu might not represent the future of alternative meats dish-for-dish, but it might just spark inspiration for chefs and diners alike. “Alternative meats certainly open the door to creativity and more cooking options,” explains MJ Kinney, plant-based protein expert and consultant on Feed The Next Billion. “The reality is: alternative meat can make preparation simpler than what we’ve accepted with traditional meat products. Alternative meat also provides potential for greater shelf-life stability, and with greater levels of preparation in advance of consumer-consumption, I think greater access to more flavors and cuisines.”

If In Bistro Vitro nods to a not-so-distant time when we actively seek out alternative meats as a more sustainable way to cook and eat, to get there we need a few big things to happen, says Kolta; more product options for more global markets, more public awareness around the benefits of alternatives, and an improved regulatory framework. Over three years, Feed The Next Billion aims to catalyze all three. 

A healthier future

Right now, 28 Semifinalist teams from 14 countries are in the running for Feed The Next Billion. At the next round of testing, teams will cook their alternative chicken breast and fish fillet products for the judges with salt, pepper, and oil – the purest of ingredients, meaning the teams have no additional flavors to hide behind when the products are tested on structure, cookability, and sensory properties such as taste, smell, and texture. At the Finals, the teams’ products will be cooked by world-class professional chefs who will assess ease of handling and cookability first-hand, as well as product incorporation into more than one international cuisine.

Overall, Feed The Next Billion seeks to bring more nutritious and affordable alternatives to fruition – and so to our tables. It’s about more than taking the products to their next stages, but building an improved approach to food worldwide: healthier for us, healthier for the planet. As Kolta summarizes: “I think this kind of food innovation is a great tool to direct consumers all over the world towards more options that promote health, animal welfare, and improved environmental outcomes.”

Harnessing alternative meats is the key to revolutionizing our food system for the greater benefit of humanity. We need to welcome these changes if we want to fight climate change, improve nutrition and prevent biodiversity loss. It’s not just restaurants we’ll need on board, but individuals and families cooking plant-based, cell-based and fermented meats at home, too. So, you know what they say: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.