It’s no secret that beef prices continue to rise, people are as worried as ever about the impact — both environmentally and on their bodies — of eating too much meat, and high-priced comfort food is a trend that’s starting to feel a little passé. That all spells trouble for the hamburger, a dish that more or less came to define dining — from high-end Black Label burgers all the way down to thoughtful fast food — at every level over the last decade-plus.
In other words, the time is right for veggie burgers, an idea that was once reviled but is now revitalized thanks to the efforts of the country’s most talented chefs, who have spent the last year turning out a steady supply of high-quality, much-liked versions like the ones served at Superiority Burger, or even the high-tech Impossible Foods model that David Chang offers at his restaurant Momofuku Nishi.
The question now: Can the veggie burger actually overtake the beef burger, if not in actual sales, then in general interest among the eating public? Certainly at the moment, a new veggie burger sparks conversation whereas a new beef burger … just kind of doesn’t. In this week’s Grub Street Podcast, Adam Platt and Alan Sytsma debate whether this interest could turn into a kind of national phenomenon. Check out the excerpt below, then listen to the whole episode underneath, or download it on iTunes.
Alan Sytsma: The thing that I have often thought is, why is there this desire to turn vegetables into a dish that’s only successful because it works with meat? Why not find the thing that vegetables are good for, instead of trying to re-create the experience of eating beef with soybeans?
Adam Platt: Well, the answer is that the chefs are getting more canny and focusing on it. The top chefs didn’t used to worry about this stuff. They worried about getting their perfect engorged foie gras, searing it beautifully with sauces. These guys are taking those techniques, and food science, and applying it to the veggie burger. Whereas before, the people who made veggie burgers were stoned line cooks in San Diego. So these are top, trained chefs. And, like Brooks Headley, they’re food-lab wizards. So the science, if you could call it that, is there now. They figured out how to not just re-create the somewhat-accurate taste of a real burger. Although it’s ultimately not. It’s not really beef, and you don’t have this great umami. But they’ve made it look like a real beef burger, and they’ve made it feel, texturally, like a beef burger, both in your hand and sort of in your mouth. So they’ve created the highly ritualized, satisfying experience of eating a beef burger, but it happens to be vegetable.
The veggie burger is the most conspicuous part of this trend. A top chef now is not just a cook. They’re socially engaged, politically involved … in the ideas of the times. They’re like philosopher kings. The food world is that way now. It’s linked to the environment in ways we never thought about, even 10, 15 years ago. Like Dan Barber and David Chang, they’re preaching the gospel. The veggie burger is one of the easiest ways, and most popular ways to preach this gospel.
AS: In a lot of ways it’s comparable to the fashion industry, where the people at the top of the food chain say, “This is what’s important, and this is what we’re doing,” and that is Dan Barber, David Chang, Daniel Humm, the chef at the NoMad who has a veggie burger.
AP: That’s a good one.
AS: It’s just a matter of time before that message trickles down.
AP: You could say it’s a veggie-burger arms race.