The Impossible Burger explained: Peninsula chefs on cooking Silicon Valley’s most controversial food
By Elena Kadvany
Vina Enoteca owner Rocco Scordella grew up on an olive farm in Bologna, Italy, in a region known for its meat culture. It seems almost sacrilegious that in 2017, he might serve a scientifically engineered hamburger made from plant-based ingredients at his Italian restaurant in Palo Alto.
But he is. In March, Vina Enoteca became the first Silicon Valley restaurant to serve the Impossible Burger, a meatless burger that has made waves in the food industry since its release in 2016.
Impossible Foods, which Stanford University biologist Pat Brown founded in Redwood City in 2011, makes the burgers from water, wheat, coconut oil, potato protein and soy heme protein, which makes blood red and mimics the “bleeding” of a juicy, perfectly medium rare beef burger. (Impossible Foods caught heat earlier this month after The New York Times reported about food regulation safety concerns regarding heme, or soy leghemoglobin. Brown promptly defended the ingredient’s safety in a detailed, four-page open letter posted online.)
The company says it’s a more environmentally sustainable burger — it uses 95 percent less land, 74 percent less water, and emits 87 percent less greenhouse gas than conventional ground beef from cows — and ultimately, its creators hope, will change the way we consume meat.
“I get a hard time from my friends in Italy. They’re like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Scordella said. “But it’s the right place to start something like that and to be part of it. It’s Silicon Valley, so why not?”
In July, two more restaurants with Palo Alto locations added the Impossible Burger to their menus: Gott’s Roadside and Umami Burger. Read on to learn more about how the three restaurants are serving the meatless burger, and their owners’ predictions for how it will shape the future of the meat industry.
Gott’s Roadside has been serving classic beef burgers in the Bay Area since 1999. But now, alongside the 1/3 pound Niman Ranch patties is an Impossible Burger.
The preparation, however, is totally different, said Jennifer Rebman, Gott’s culinary director. While beef patties are cooked on a grill, the Impossible Burger is done on a griddle.
“The coconut oil, which is a big component of the Impossible Burger, would not hold up to the higher temperatures that our grill produces,” Rebman said. “We can regulate the temperature of the griddle and keep it around 350 degrees, which gives the Impossible Burger … that crispiness on the outside but it cooks it slow enough that the burger stays bound.”
Gott’s shapes the Impossible Burger patties in house and seasons them with salt and pepper, Rebman said.
The Impossible Burger debuted on the Gott’s menu as the meatless version of the restaurant’s classic cheeseburger, the restaurant’s best-selling item. (Customers can, however, ask for the Impossible Burger patty on any Gott’s burger.)
At $10.99, it comes with American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and Gott’s “secret sauce” on a toasted egg bun. The only clue that it’s any different from a regular burger, at least from a quick glance, is the paper wrapping stamped with “Impossible” in black ink.
Gott’s has “been on the hunt” for a better veggie burger for years, Walker said, but until the Impossible Burger, hadn’t found one that met their standards. Gott’s does serve a veggie burger (not made in house) but it’s totally distinct in flavor, consistency, texture and ingredients from the Impossible Burger.
“The Impossible Burger largely mimics beef whereas a veggie burger, at least the off-the-shelf variety, are pretty far from that,” Walker said. “It’s semantics on the one hand but … it really is, product-wise, night and day.”
Gott’s has been selling out of the Impossible Burger every day at all three of its locations. The restaurant has also seen slightly lower sales for the regular hamburger and cheeseburger, a sign, Walker said, that meat eaters are trying the Impossible Burger. But overall, burger sales are “way up over what they were before we launched the Impossible Burger,” Walker said.
What does it mean for a longtime, meat-centric establishment like Gott’s to be serving a plant-based burger?
“The better burger segment in our eyes is somewhat static,” Walker said. The meatless burger fits into an effort at Gott’s to diversify its menu, with items like an Ahi tuna burger, fish tacos and kale salads.
“I would say we’ve been striving for a breadth of menu to increase mass appeal and market shares so we don’t alienate any single member of a family or a group that wants to dine with us,” Walker said. “Most burger places can’t say that.”
Gott’s Roadside, 855 El Camino Real #65, Palo Alto; gotts.com
At Vina Enoteca, Scordella is treating the Impossible Burger like any other ingredient: in a creative, chef-driven way. The first time he cooked with it, he made Bolognese sauce. Instead of the four to five hours the meat sauce usually takes to cook, it was done in under an hour.
Admittedly, “it’s not going to be the same,” Scordella said — the Impossible Burger meat doesn’t doesn’t have as much fat as beef and veal give a typical bolognese, but it “came out really good.” He’s planning to add an Impossible bolognese pasta to the menu soon, as well as stuffed peppers and meatballs.
“It’s such a versatile ingredient that you can pretty much do whatever you want with it,” Scordella said.
He compared it to bison meat, which is also leaner and has less fat than beef. Before serving the burger, the Vina Enoteca kitchen was trained by Impossible Foods staff who came out to explain in detail how the Impossible Burger is made and demonstrated how to cook it. (This training also took place at Gott’s and Umami.)
Burger-wise, Vina Enoteca first served a smaller, slider-sized patty with Italian touches: sun-dried tomatoes, cavolo nero (lacinato kale) and a sun-dried tomatoes mayonnaise on a soft poppy seed potato bun. Now, it’s more “American-style” to give diners the feeling of a classic burger, Scordella said, with red onion, lettuce, tomato and spicy mayo. Instead of fries, the restaurant serves small marble potatoes on the side. It has a higher price tag at $18.
Scordella said cooking with the Impossible Burger meat isn’t vastly different from beef, though it cooks slightly more quickly.
“We treat it like regular meat,” Scordella said. “We store it the same way (and) cook it the same way.”
At Vina Enoteca, they decided to sear the burger patty on a pan with olive oil to give the edges a crispiness that “brings out more of the flavors of the meat,” he said.
Look out for the Impossible Burger in other forms on the Vina Enoteca menu soon, like a meatball sandwich. Scordella makes the meatballs exactly as he would using meat. He said they come out even better than the burger patty, with the added moisture from the tomato sauce.
“I feel like if you give it to anybody without saying anything, they won’t notice the difference,” he said.
Vina Enoteca, 700 Welch Road, Palo Alto; vinaenoteca.com
The Impossible Burger has quickly become the number one selling burger at most Umami locations serving it, outselling burgers with toppings like bacon lardon and braised short rib.
It comes as a hefty double burger with caramelized onions, American cheese, miso mustard, Umami’s house spread, dill pickles and tomatoes, priced at $16.
When Umami Chief Operations Officer Gregg Frazer first cooked an Impossible patty about two years ago, he treated it just like any other Umami burger: searing a thick, six-ounce patty on the grill. He quickly realized the more “delicate” meat would work better as a thinner patty, hence the double burger. (With two smaller patties, customers still get the same amount of meat they would in any other Umami burger.)
“It’s that caramelization … that gives it the mouth-feel, the bite, that flavor. When I saw it did that, I was like, ‘All right, we might be onto something,’” he said.
Umami went through several iterations of toppings and add-ons for the Impossible Burger before deciding that the best path forward was to keep it simple.
“The wrong move was to take this burger and go way out left field (with) crazy ingredients. We have enough of that on the Umami menu,” Frazer said. “The idea here was a more … traditional tasting (burger).”
Instead of masking the faux meat with toppings, he said, “This is about the Impossible meat — letting people taste it and letting them know it can be an alternative burger.”
Prep-wise, it’s treated the same as beef in the Umami kitchens: seasoned with the company’s proprietary “Umami Dust” and “Master Sauce,” which is like soy sauce.
Umami is not yet offering the Impossible patty on its other burgers; the restaurant wants to carefully control people’s first impressions with a vetted combination of ingredients, Frazer said.
Frazer said Umami was attracted to Impossible Foods as an innovative company in a slow-moving industry. (Similarly, Scordella said founder Pat Brown is “like the Steve Jobs of meat.”) Impossible Foods recently opened a manufacturing facility in Oakland that will allow the company to sell its burger at not only more restaurants, but also at retail stores and internationally.
“What got me excited is, from the first time I heard (about) it, I said, ‘This changes the landscape of the food industry, without question,’” Frazer said. “In my whole career I don’t know that I’ve seen too much of that, ever.”
Despite the Silicon Valley-esque excitement around Impossible Foods’ potential for industry disruption, classic beef burgers aren’t going anywhere just yet, Frazer said.
“Maybe one day when I’m long gone and dead people will stop eating beef burgers but the reality is, people still love burgers,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going anywhere in my lifetime.”
Umami Burger, 452 University Ave., Palo Alto; umamiburger.com