Words by Alexandra Ilyashov
Photographs by Pippa Drummond
Chef Brad Farmerie has built a reputation for delicious, carnivore-friendly fare, formerly at the (now closed) Michelin-decorated Nolita restaurant Public and currently as executive chef at another Avroko-owned hotspot, Saxon + Parole, an equestrian-themed, meat-centric eatery. In early 2017, Farmerie became one of just five chefs nationally to get a hold of the Impossible Burger, a lab-created, plant-based meat alternative. He’s since been blazing up juicy patties of the remarkable beef facsimile, crowning them with a decadent truffle-tinged mushroom sauce and sherry onions at Saxon + Parole—and he foresees a bright, wide-reaching future for the miracle product.
Why did the Impossible Burger initially appeal to you?
With cooking, I like to give people something different, even in a package that seems familiar. At Public, we never had beef or chicken on the menu—always venison or sweetbreads, but also a lot of vegan dishes. The Impossible Burger seemed to be exactly that: positioning something vegan in a format that people can easily understand. I made some calls, looked into it, but at that point, it was so early in their production, nobody could get it. They spent four or five years perfecting it. I forgot about it for a bit, then Impossible Burger approached me as one of five chefs nationally they wanted to give it to. I felt pretty honored—Public was the first Michelin-starred restaurant the burger was served in. I also carry it at Saxon + Parole, which is such a meat-focused restaurant—we serve vegetarian options, but that’s not part of our reputation.
How have customers responded?
It was a sensation right from the start. So many people wanted to see this “bleeding burger.” [Impossible Burger] didn’t like it described that way, but that’s the tagline that built the reputation. At the beginning, we only had 50 to serve per night, and would hit that all the time. It’s a lot. People drove in from Boston and Philadelphia just for dinner. It’s crazy! Only myself and David Chang served it on the East Coast. Groups from CIA [the Culinary Institute of America] and food tours came in. It was a lot of pressure! The product is good, so it’s my job to just enhance it and not fuck it up. We got a lot of new guests, which can happen any time you serve something new. But what was different about the Impossible Burger is that people would try it and next time bring friends to taste something they discovered.
Is the Impossible Burger pricy for you to procure?
It costs significantly more for us to purchase than regular ground beef. There’s definitely no real financial incentive behind it for us—it’s not a loss, it’s better than a break-even, but it’s not much of a profit. We’ve done that purposefully: If it’s a comparable or cheaper price than a beef burger, you’ll get it onto more tables. But Impossible is definitely struggling to keep up with production, so if we’re not buying it, a lot of other people would be very happy to do so.
How did you decide to dress the Impossible Burger?
We wanted to enhance the natural flavors and textures without covering up that it smells and tastes like beef. This is a vegetarian preparation with a lot of umami to boost what the Impossible Burger has going for it: A mushroom purée hints at the burger’s richness, some pickled onions cut that richness, plus a tiny bit of truffle oil and cheese sauce. It’s not a “cheeseburger,” but it’s oozy and gooey. We also do a vegan version on a housemade vegan brioche bun, served with smoked paprika and avocado, so it kind of feels like you’re doing something good for your body, but we didn’t want to be too treehugger-y about it. Also, we do our patties a lot thicker than other people: We wanted it medium rare, with the textural difference between the inside and outside.
Have you dabbled with Impossible Burger meat in other recipes?
It doesn’t make a great Bolognese sauce, but if you make a drier chili, it works. One of its pros is also one of its cons: It tends to absorb moisture, rather that expel it, like regular beef. As a burger, it stays nice and juicy and doesn’t leak out all the liquid—it retains almost the same weight, pre-cooked and cooked. Beef loses roughly 75 percent of its weight, and Impossible Burger loses five to eight percent. So, you can start with the same amount of [ground meat] and the Impossible Burger looks incredibly large.
Why are you equally drawn to lesser-used meats and high-tech alternatives?
They’re two misunderstood ends of the food spectrum. Someone can have a bad experience with their grandma’s overcooked, grey, metallic-tasting liver and decide they don’t like it; or their uncle cooked deer in a chili, it was rubbery and terrible, and now they don’t think they like venison. Similarly, I like to do something really creative, break the preconceived notion that a vegan dish will be insipid, flavorless, or you’ll be hungry in an hour.
Any interest in other meat alternatives?
Right now, the “buckets” I look at are upcycling, like turning spent grains or expired bread into beer, which Toast is doing in the U.K.; then, urban and vertical farming, on rooftops and using solar power; the third bucket to me is alternative proteins, like Ahimi “tuna,” made from compressed tomatoes. I think we’re the only NYC restaurant using it—and it’s sold at Whole Foods in the sushi case. Most Ahimi goes to Japan, that’s how good it is. Because tuna is generally a texture more than a flavor, I think it can easily be substituted. We use it for raw fish preparations, like tartares. Also, FabaButter, a vegan butter made from chickpea water, is genius. It can be substituted one-for-one for butter in most baking applications and it tastes good just on bread. I think Impossible helped elevate the whole industry and set a new standard: It got so much money behind it, and [other food-tech companies] were like, “Oh, wow, I have to make my product taste better.” I’m also interested in cricket flour from Seek. It’s hard with insect protein, though. People don’t want to see a bug, but if you get it into something like flour…
How do you track down these sustainable, futuristic ingredients?
It’s a domino effect: The guys from Impossible introduced me to a few people, who introduced them to a few people. It’s become this ever-expanding web. A lot of these foods are at a starting point where, as a chef, you can help propel or give advice about what could be better. There are strange things happening, like a world-changing product that’s packaged in a non-recyclable container. It can’t just be end product—the whole cycle of the product must be great.
What burgeoning meat tech are you eager to explore next?
I’ve been to seminars about using techniques similar to the Impossible Burger to create a whole muscle: Can you create a steak? Theoretically, yes. The research has already been done—how it’s supposed to look, taste, smell. In Europe, there’s research being done on striated plant proteins that mimic the muscle. It’s still a distance away, but when somebody figures out how to make steak, they’re going to be rich!
Do you find that fellow chefs embrace or are skeptical of these innovative proteins?
I’ve heard chefs joke about how five years ago it was a pig movement, all about butchering and charcuterie. Now, the pendulum has swung way back. The pig is still cool, it’ll always be delicious, but I think chefs understand they have to keep up not just with products but with what guests are demanding. Impossible raised that awareness and make people ask for more options.
How can chefs and restaurants help plant proteins truly go mainstream?
Impossible is an interesting case study for this: Most brands go right out to mass market first and pray that it’s used properly and that people don’t ruin the product while cooking it. A lot of times, peoples’ first chance to taste something is when they’ve ruined it. That’s a bad way to start! Instead, Impossible gave the product to five chefs to create our idea of the “best” version—of this—and when people come dine, they try what could be the best way to use the product, and they start to talk. You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to enjoy this. Some people ask for a fried egg or bacon on it. Actually, it seems like the only people who haven’t fully appreciated the Impossible burger are vegans, because it’s just too close to beef. The smell and look, it’s already something they haven’t eaten in years, maybe avoided. Impossible wants to be available across America, for the same price as ground beef. When and if Impossible reaches the same price and it sits side by side with beef in supermarkets and customers have already tried a good version of it, then I think Impossible Burger is going to win over America. If they can replace even a percentage of what the beef industry is producing, that’s going to help the world.