East End Eats: Mission Impossible

Just what exactly is the Impossible Burger?
Ed Lightcap, a chef at Rowdy Hall, displayed the five-pound block of “impossible” meat-like substance now being served as a special at the restaurant. Laura Donnelly

When I was assigned to do a story on the Impossible Burger, now being served at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton, I organized my posse for the adventure. “Just don’t make me eat the fake burger,” one of my guests said. “I want the REAL Rowdy burger!” Understood. Just what exactly is the Impossible Burger? It is a combination of heme, water, textured wheat protein, potato protein, and coconut oil. And what is heme? In blood, heme lives in a protein called hemoglobin; in muscle, it’s myoglobin. In soy roots, it is leghemoglobin. Scientists discovered that when they take the genes that code for the soy leghemoglobin and insert them into a species of yeast called Pichia pastoris, and then feed it sugar and minerals, it grows, replicates, and manufactures heme. Thus, the Impossible Burger is a genetically modified plant-based substitute for hamburger meat. It is a miracle of modern science, fresh out of Silicon Valley onto the plates of customers at Momofuko Nishi in New York City, Jardiniere in San Francisco, and now Rowdy Hall in East Hampton.

The most important question to me is, how does it taste? It tastes damn good! I honestly believe that with a nice slice of red onion and all the other varied condiments we like to put on a hamburger, you would believe you are eating real meat, fatty, bloody, chewy, tasty meat.

The Impossible Burger is not on the printed menu at Rowdy Hall. It is a “verbal,” restaurant lingo that just means the waiter tells you it is available. We, or I should say I, ordered one Impossible Burger and two Rowdy burgers. The couple dining next to us were intrigued by our taste test and discussion, but refused to try it themselves.

It took the Impossible Foods company six years to develop this “Frankenfood” product. Patrick Brown, its C.E.O., declared that “almost half of the land area of Earth is being occupied by the animal farming industry, grazing, or feed crop production.” This is a compelling argument for those concerned about all the poofy gasses emitted by our bovine friends.

Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer, said, “We’re not a burger company, we’re a tech platform for food,” and Celeste Holz-Schiefinger, the company’s principal scientist, says “it’s a platform for how to make things that have tensile strength and are juicy.” She went on to say that such meats as chicken and veal could be next and that eventually the company could even produce faux whale meat if it wanted to. Good God! There’s a market for whale meat?

Impossible Foods uses a system called “gas chromatography mass spectrometry” to identify the correct aromas to replicate red meat. At this point in my research, I started to freak out, because I watch a lot of “Forensic Files” in the middle of the night and I’m pretty sure this is the method they use to find blood at murder scenes.

Quite a few jokes and jabs were tossed about at our test of the Impossible Burger. It was a regular Algonquin Round Table. “It’s the Esperanto of food,” quipped Steven. “Soylent green!” (See the 1973 postapocalyptic sci-fi film of the same name to know what he’s talking about.)

Although I have mixed feelings about food created to taste like other foods, I went home feeling less full and semi-virtuous. Mark Smith and Joe Realmuto (co-owners and chef, respectively) happened to be at Rowdy the night of our visit so I had a chance to get their take on it. Mark had tried the Impossible Burger a year ago at Saxon and Parole in the city, while dining with a vegetarian friend. “I’m not one for fake food, but this was good, and my vegetarian friend loved it.” Joe pointed out that people with the lone star tick allergy alpha-gal, or galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, which causes an allergy to red meat, can enjoy this substitute. As a matter of fact, I ran into quite a few people in the midst of my research who have alpha-gal, and their eyes lit up when I told them about this burger at Rowdy Hall.

I still wasn’t completely satisfied. I wanted to taste it raw, cook it in my own kitchen, see how it fried up. So I went back to Rowdy to get some “meat” from chef Ed Lightcap. Has he tried it? Does he like it? “I’ve eaten so many Impossible Burgers, I’m impossible!” he laughed. He thinks the flavor is 90 percent there, but detects a slight livery aftertaste. (I found this to be true when I tried it raw, but not once cooked.) 

Ed has taught the cooks in the kitchen to pan-sear it in a separate omelette pan (can’t use the grill that is shared with real meat, of course), and he pointed out the irony of Rowdy Hall being the first restaurant on the East End to serve the Impossible Burger. “It’s interesting that we’re a restaurant that focuses on natural, healthy, local food, and here we are serving a genetically modified product from a lab in Silicon Valley.” For any of you who get your panties in a twist over the term “genetically modified,” do some research, it’s not all bad.

Impossible Burger meat is not yet available in markets; it is distributed only to restaurants. It also costs four and a half times more than burger meat.

Cooking the burger at home was fun. It did require a bit of oil in the pan to prevent sticking and it didn’t give off any meaty aroma, which is okay with me. Slapped onto a toasted English muffin with some pickle slices and a few other condiments, it was a fine meal.

My food philosophy is one word: moderation. Easy to preach, difficult for some to follow. I seldom eat meat, but when I want a burger, like most people out here, I head to Rowdy Hall. Now I’ll be ordering something different, something Impossible.

The Impossible Burger, at right, seen next to its real beef counterpart at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton last week. Laura Donnelly
The burger meat, which was taken home and cooked to see how it measured up to the restaurant experience, passed the clean plate test with the reviewer's dog, Tutto.Laura Donnelly