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A round platter of food decorated with edible flowers and dry ice.
Not even the potent combo of first-of-its-kind cell-based chicken and Michelin-level cooking could cure our environmental ennui.
Brooke Whitney

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Cell-Based Chicken Tastes Great, But It Won’t Cure Your Existential Crisis

Upside’s “cell-cultivated” chicken doesn’t hit like it should after the hottest month ever recorded on Planet Earth

Walking into two-Michelin-starred restaurant Bar Crenn, while The Beatles played on vinyl, I was sort of freaking out. It was the first night members of the public could try the only recently FDA-approved lab-grown chicken — meaning chicken grown from chicken cells in a lab — produced by Berkeley-based Upside Foods. A colorful packet waited at my seat, provided by Upside and Bar Crenn as a part of their partnership to serve the tech company’s meat at the famous restaurant. It alerted me that by 2030 we’ll need “several Earths” to feed the roughly 8.6 billion people living on this planet. Which, at least according to the company, is also why we need the “cultivated” chicken recado negro tempura offered on the menu that night.

A chef slices meat on a cutting board.
Chef Dominique Crenn partnered with Berkeley-based Upside Foods to develop recipes and serve the company’s chicken.
Brooke Whitney

The evening included a six-course meal with paired nonalcoholic drinks, and the menu of hojicha waffles and rhubarb spritzes was aces, including the crunchy, chewy, literally-smoking chicken itself. Atop a bed of orange and green flowers, the chicken provided a phenomenal few bites of rich, crackly delight. At first blush, it didn’t look or taste much different than “normal” chicken, but — possibly thanks to the moody lighting at Bar Crenn — the meat itself was less sickly white than supermarket birds, and the taste evoked the kind of nostalgic, delicate meatiness proper chicken should provide. Throughout the meal, things felt chipper; it was floral Friday, so staff sported colorful ties. But as The Beatles’s “Carry That Weight” played on, I couldn’t shake an irksome thought: No amount of lab chicken matters. We’re all doomed.

Bear with me. Finding ways to reduce my carbon footprint, including by eating less and better-sourced animal products, is high on my priority list. Afterall, NPR reported July as the hottest month ever in recorded human history. So, yes, I appreciate Upside’s chicken for its potentiality to someday, maybe spare billions of animals — along with all the water and feed needed to raise them. “Upside is opening the door to a new era in meat production,” one of the flyers inside the packet quotes chef Dominique Crenn as saying.

But…is it? Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and even Boca and its eponymous burgers have been in this non-animal-based protein field for years. Jose Andres’ Good Meat partnership, with its lab-grown chicken anticuchos, is on the same beat. But despite Upside doing something different than those predecessors, fake meat and even lab-grown meat won’t save us from the threats of climate change. The menu that night still centered animal proteins including white sturgeon caviar and roe. The Upside chicken was just one-sixth of the protein equation. And in 2023, to have 85 percent of a menu showcase scallops, oysters, and dairy while promoting the future of food seems dubious.

Mushroom, Lion Dance Cafe, and Casa Borinqueña are just a few examples — not to mention numerous Central and South Asian restaurants ahead of the trend by decades — of restaurants serving only plant-based food in the Bay Area. Many of their techniques fall into what food and water researchers call agroecological approaches in comparison to sustainable intensification methodologies. Think of agroecology as Indigenous practices, such as foraging and cooking with plants, and sustainable intensification as technology-driven innovations, such as the Green Revolution in the 1970s and, in this case, artificially created chicken.

I wasn’t seeing much about sustainable food and feeding the poor on the six-course menu at Bar Crenn, though I understand the logic of trying to do good while staying in one’s lane. It’s a similar approach to Impossible Foods, which introduced it’s original burger to the public through the menu at Momofuku Nishi in New York. As Christine Muhlke wrote in Lucky Peach in 2012, food can be like high fashion. Just as Paris runway looks ends up in the bargain bin in a decade, the hope is that so too will Upside and Bar Crenn’s efforts eventually impact the non-fine-dining menus of tomorrow.

But the effort feels like way too little way too late. Burger King already serves an Impossible Whopper, made possible thanks to investments from mega-meat producer Tyson and its environmental degradation. It’s therefore hard for me to think that this latest trickle-down initiative is the silver bullet to save the planet. After all, the $400 million investment Upside received in 2022 came in part from Tyson, known for its decades of workers rights abuses, and Cargill, the company responsible for all the eggs at McDonald’s.

“Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight,” the Beatles sing as I chomp through the chicken that never lived. Nick Vollono, chef de cuisine at Bar Crenn, says cooking with the meat blew his mind at first. “This is trying to capture the market that wants to eat chicken,” Vollono says as we talk about the complexities of this technology. It took a year of iterating to get the filets just where the chefs wanted, a meat that caramelizes and can fry just right.

But even as Prince’s “Purple Rain” ended the dinner in a flourish, a heaviness stayed with me. I kept feeling tugged out of the dreamlike experience at Bar Crenn, with its finely tuned sound system and impossibly attentive service, to the real world — one where Phoenix residents get third-degree burns from touching the pavement, and raging fires tear through Maui. Sitting in that luxurious dining room, I wanted to believe my dinner was going to help save the world. But I’ll believe companies like Upside can pull it off when I see the sea levels fall again.

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