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First Contact: Why Chefs Could Be The Key Players In Bringing Cultivated Meat To The Dinner Table

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

The recent USDA clearance for UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat, thus far the only cellular agriculture companies allowed to provide cultivated meat to restaurants in the U.S., has been the summer hit of the entire alternative protein industry. The two chefs chosen to pioneer cultivated meat on their respective menus are top-end restaurant owners Dominique Crenn and José Andrés, internationally renowned Michelin-starred culinary artists with very prominent public profiles. This particular collaboration between food scientists and chefs should surprise no one – after all, their shared palate for innovation and disruption was well established before they joined forces to start this nascent cell-to-table movement.

The company and chef pairings of UPSIDE/Crenn and GOOD Meat/Andrés have of course already benefited from extensive media coverage about what cultivated meat is, how it’s made, and how it is served in a dish. Indeed, the first reservations to sample this new feature on the menu will likely come from people who have been anticipating the moment they get to try cultivated meat for quite some time. What is truly exciting about this moment is that what diners are about to eat is both ordinary – it is a chicken piece – and extraordinary – it is not a piece of chicken. Nonetheless, the vast majority of future diners will require an explanation of sorts, whether it’s written on the menu or delivered by way of an elaborate table-side micro-recital on the special of the day.

So what should the restaurant narrative about diners’ “first contact” with cultivated meat on the menu be about, and how should it be told to future diners who aren’t ubiquitous “informavores” that already know everything about the food they eat? Who should be crafting this narrative, which may very well determine or at least influence whether diners would or would not want to try cultivated meat for the first time? And could too much science be an appetite killer and alienate people, or might not enough science leave people equally confused and cautious enough to stick to eating the meat they know?

Trust As The Key Ingredient

First, let’s consider why the first contact with cultivated meat depends so much on the explanatory narrative behind it. Diners expect both chefs and servers to have truthful or trustworthy knowledge about the food on the menu. Trust is an implicit part of ingesting food made by other people, and most diners rarely think about questioning the safety and quality of food in restaurants, especially if they are in a fine dining or high-end establishment. If they do occur, safety and quality questions about food most often center on fresh or frozen, pre-made or made-to-order, or homemade or made elsewhere. But what kinds of questions might address the safety and quality of cultivated meat? Is cultivated meat fresh meat? Is it processed meat? Is it locally grown? Paradoxically, the answers can be both true and not true at the same time, depending on how narrative scenarios about cultivated meat are constructed and delivered.

The worst-case scenario could play out like a round of Chinese whispers gone wrong: chefs might, perhaps carelessly, instruct servers to tell diners that cultivated meat is “fake” meat, “imitation” meat, or “lab grown” meat. Because diners are often quite perceptive to subtle cues servers communicate, reading something like “I’m not sure what this is” into answers will unlikely result in ordering it. Our brains are highly attuned to interpreting words like “alternative” as “less than,” and we also tend to place things in arbitrary binary categories such as “natural” and “artificial.” In addition, Crenn and Andrés’ menus use the descriptor “cultivated” whereas the official term approved by the USDA is “cell-cultured.” On the other hand, even if the value-neutral science behind cultivated meat is the star of the dish, it simply cannot end up sounding like “today’s special on the menu is a biotechnological food application of tissue engineering resulting in an animal-free, no-kill muscle and fat cell cluster.”

The best-case scenario requires a few lessons in scientific communication to balance the scientific information about cultivated meat with the culinary commitment to serving more sustainable, ethical, and safer proteins. Essentially, this means that the increasingly prominent role of science in food production should also inform the role of scientific knowledge for chefs in food consumption. The shift from chef or server recommendations being based on values like taste and flavor to values like health and sustainability has already been adapted to consumer-driven concerns; the challenge cultivated meat poses here, however, is vetting a product that diners can not buy, touch, or cook themselves, or at least not yet. This is why chefs and servers occupy an even more critical role in mediating information about cultivated meat and should curate the diners’ first contact by being at ease with narrating both the “what” and the “why” behind it.

Scientific Seasoning To Taste

Finding the right explanatory narrative balance in and of itself could benefit from a scientific approach: there have been quite a few speculative studies about whether or not people would be willing to try cultivated meat, but these tend to be qualitative in nature. They explore, for example, what kinds of concerns would most likely motivate people to try it, demographic and psychometric differences in consumer attitudes, and cross-cultural variations that compare the likelihood of adopting cultivated meat into their diets. A quantitative approach would focus on finding the right amount or percentage of scientific and ethical information in written or verbal statements about cultivated meat, which constitutes the “bliss point” that would most appeal to consumers. In practice, this would mean presenting consumers with differently weighted versions of cultivated meat narratives to learn which might become a model for “best practices” or even a standardized text. Whether or not these would aim for making the unfamiliar more familiar or emphasize the novelty of cultivated meat, however, remains a contentious point of debate.

Since the first cultivated meat dishes offered by Crenn and Andrés are artistic creations representative of their overall innovative menus, their clientele might already be accustomed to trying unfamiliar things; one could even argue that their offerings have created, rather than simply catered to food neophiles. But for restaurants not quite as liberated from any one national cuisine or regional cooking style, “fitting in” rather than standing out might be a better approach to introduce cultivated meat. For one, traditionally familiar dishes cooked with meat could be introduced with cultivated meat to retain the familiar palate. Still, who introduces it is just as important as what is introduced: I wouldn’t be too worried about the disciple-like foodie following of celebrity chefs, but I would imagine that this might be a bit more challenging in ethnically distinct cuisines that celebrate shared cultural identities or shared emotional meanings behind traditional dishes.

The shift from chefs simply learning about food preparation to also learning about food science is not exactly new, and learning pathways are manifold. Culinary school curricula designers might consider either adding a short course about cellular agriculture products or sending their chef-in-training students to the few existing university hubs where the subject is already taught. However, consistency in narratives, including using the agreed-upon nomenclature or labeling of products and processes, is critical to communicating across different groups of stakeholders, as we have seen in the rather laborious effort of the USDA establishing labeling for cellular agriculture products. Most importantly, caution should be taken not to push cultivated meat onto already-skeptical diners’ plates; recommendations peppered with too many explanations may quickly turn into over-thinking, while recommendations lacking explanations might have diners fill in the wrong blanks. The ideal table-side goal should be to inspire scientific curiosity and a reflection on food choices that promote sustainable, ethical, and safer food systems.

The New Natural Becomes The New Normal

Of course, cultivated meat companies will likely want to take it upon themselves to deliver a narrative about their products and build personal relationships with chefs. But unlike conventional meat, which is an every-day commodity that does not necessarily require producer disclosure beyond a guarantee of quality, the first cultivated meat products might be highly dependent on the brand and what the brand represents in the age of green, clean food transparency. Because one of the biggest selling points of cultivated meat is the larger vision and mission behind cellular agriculture, what UPSIDE and GOOD Meat have done right thus far is to evoke an anticipatory, as well as participatory sensory experience of guilt-less, ethical, feel-good flavor before even putting a single chicken dish on a plate. What they will have to work on, however, is a consumer commitment to enduring brand loyalty that accepts science and technology (over nature and convention) as the best means for choosing the most ecologically adaptable food.

This is precisely why one of the biggest hurdles both cultivated meat producers and servers will continue to grapple with is why people remain so concerned about the inevitable involvement of science and technology in modern food production. Virtually every modern food is the result of scientific and technological intervention, but while people insist on rigorous scientific vetting of pharmaceutical products they ingest, they appear resistant to the notion of scientists “meddling” with their food, which thereby renders it “unnatural.” But rather than convincing consumers or diners that cultivated meat is no more or less “unnatural” than the meat they already consume, we might consider changing the wording to “neo-natural” to mean better than natural. Aside from the fact that we have always manipulated the natural world to make it better for us, we already live in an embodied state where artificial self-optimization is more desirable than simply letting nature decide how we look, feel, think, and what we eat. This suggests that moving away from animal-based food and into cell-based food should not require a giant leap forward in overcoming consumers’ dreaded food neophobia if neo-natural foods such as cultivated meat are simply becoming part of our evolving food topography.

Looking back at the transition from small farm suppliers of meat to massive industrial factory farm systems, we quickly learn that what used to be the norm is now the exception. How else would we explain the emphasis on “grass-fed” or “pasture raised” trends on menus as well as supermarket isles? If indeed this descriptor is lacking, we assume that meat is mass-produced, a label that is obscured rather than amplified for obvious reasons, and yet it is not considered unethical not to disclose it. But, looking far ahead into the future of cultivated meat’s vision to eventually become the predominant method of meat production, the question of whether or not it might still be ethically necessary to disclose that cultivated meat is being served will require a consensus in food services across the board. Then again, deliberate consumer as well as producer choices against cultivated meat and conversely, an insistence on serving “real” or “living animal” meat might carry its own ethical, moral contention, or, in the extreme case, outright condemnation.

How closely the narratives of all stakeholders involved in building up the cellular agriculture industry need to match remains to be seen, especially as far as scientific and technological understanding are concerned. Food podcaster Alex Crisp remarked in his recent Op Ed on cultivated meat that “Marketing the new science will be a science in itself”, which poignantly reiterates the role of chefs and servers as scientific communicators who won’t convince customers with flattering adjectives about cultivated meat alone. Science needs to be part of the transparency recipe that has worked well to attract people to the idea of cultivated meat so far. And although many chefs are as new to cultivated meat as their future customers, the pressure to develop an informative and balanced narrative couldn’t be greater if the cell-to-table movement aims to win at the restaurant table first.

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