China Chilcano Executive Sous Chef Víctor Bonano plates GOOD Meat for a few patrons to eat July 31. Only a handful people a week are able to eat the chicken because it's produced in such small batches.
A D.C. restaurant started serving chicken made from cultivated animal cells this week — and DCist/WAMU was among the first customers to try it.
It's something out of science fiction: Chicken produced in a stainless steel tank without killing any birds. The meat is grown from their cells that feed on nutrients and multiply until they can be harvested and molded into what will later be served on our plate — strips of chicken that have been skewered and grilled.
That treatment comes from José Andrés' China Chilcano, a Peruvian restaurant serving it to patrons as part of a $70 tasting menu.
The restaurant is only one of two nationwide offering this cultivated chicken (also billed as lab-grown, cultured, or cell-based meat). So why serve it here? Well, for one, Andrés is on the board of directors of GOOD Meat, the California-based company that created the futuristic food. Andrés, who was not available for an interview, got involved because of his work in food and global humanitarianism.
For another, the importance of the nation's capital appealed to GOOD Meat, says co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick.
"This is such a fundamental step, I think, for the American food system and the industry. It felt like it most symbolized how historic it was," Tetrick tells DCist/WAMU.
While D.C.-area diners have the chance to try it at Andres' restaurant devoted to Peruvian-Chinese (chifa) and Peruvian-Japanese (nikkei) cuisine, the futuristic meat is still largely inaccessible to the public. It's currently made in tiny batches and at a very high cost, though GOOD Meat declined to say exactly how much.
Tetrick hopes cultured meat could take over the market and cost less than conventional meat. That future is not certain though, and Tetrick admits there are tough engineering hurdles to being able to scale up from producing a few ounces at a time to hundreds of millions of pounds — something he hopes could happen in the next decade.
But back to the present. To get to this point, Andres' team tried various versions of the chicken to give the company feedback on taste and texture before putting it on the menu, says Daniel Lugo, head chef at China Chicano. One version, for example, broke apart so easily that it couldn't be skewered. Eventually, they landed on a winner that comes to the restaurant pre-cooked; the texturizing process that GOOD Meat uses involves heat, which means its finished product does not currently come raw.
Lugo says that as a chef, he can taste the difference between the cultivated product and conventional chicken, but he suspects most people won't be able to in a blind taste test.
"You'll be like 'Oh my God, this is literally chicken," Lugo tells DCist/WAMU.
Naturally, we were skeptical of the chef's claims. So we got a reservation at China Chilcano, two of eight slots available, which were reserved within four minutes of being released. Going forward, there are only six reservations per week for the cultivated chicken tasting menu due to supply constraints.
So, is this really the future of food? Beyond how it tastes, there are a lot of thorny, unanswered questions: will people be willing to try cultured meat, and does it really live up to the hype of being a more ethical and green way to eat?
WAMU/DCist's Amanda Michelle Gomez and Jacob Fenston were among the first people in D.C. to try cultivated chicken. They wondered: would it really taste like chicken as its creators say?
What does it taste like?
Seated by the window at the flashy restaurant, Latin music blaring, we wondered what the GOOD Meat chicken would taste like. Would it really resemble chicken? What does chicken even taste like? We didn't have to wait long — the cultivated chicken skewers are the first dish to come out in the five-course tasting menu.
The chicken comes as a popular Peruvian street food: anticucho. The restaurant puts a novel twist on this humble classic, swapping cultivated chicken in for the traditional beef heart. Each piece is doused in classic red anticucho sauce made from vinegar and spices. Our two skewers were paired with potatoes and a quinoa salad.
Lugo presented the plates to us proudly. We stared in wonder — they didn't look much different than the stock images of anticuchos de pollo. When we finally bit into the piece of chicken, we picked it apart, searching for ways it was different. While the skewers had that familiar chickeny flavor, cultivated meat felt more uniform in texture than the conventional kind, in that there were no chewy or fatty parts — but otherwise it was strikingly similar.
The dish may vary in flavor from traditional anticucho in another way, however; because their cooked chicken is only marinated for a few hours — not raw overnight, as customary — they may taste less of the spices, Lugo says.
We both finished our 3.5 ounces of cultivated chicken. Since our visit, however, we've already learned of those supply chain issues coming into play. Going forward, China Chilcano's serving size for GOOD Meat will be reduced to nearly 2 ounces in the coming weeks. Reservations and portions could change based on customer feedback, a restaurant spokesperson says.
The 3.5-ounce serving of GOOD Meat comes as a popular Peruvian street food: anticucho. China Chilcano swaps the traditional beef heart for cultivated chicken. Plus, patrons get a side of potatoes and aji amarillo chimichurri.
Is it really good for the environment?
One of the big selling points of cultured meat is the promise that it can be produced with a far smaller impact on the planet than conventional meat. The global food system is estimated to account for roughly one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and meat has by far the biggest carbon footprint.
According to Tetrick, cultivated meat could eventually require about 70% less land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions.
But while those claims may eventually come true with scale, the way cultured meat is currently produced requires massive amounts of energy. One recent study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, found cultivated meat production using today's techniques likely has a significantly larger carbon footprint than conventional meat – roughly ten times the greenhouse gas emissions, in fact.
Ned Spang, an associate professor of food science and technology at University of California, Davis, and one of the study's authors, says models showing dramatic reductions in emissions from cultured meat rely on untested assumptions, and technology that may or may not work.
"I think the narrative we hear out there is that cultured meat is inherently better for the environment," says Spang, who adds that he's neither for nor against cultivated meat as an idea. "It shouldn't be taken as a given."
Other researchers are much more optimistic that cultured meat could eventually be produced more efficiently, rivaling plant-based foods in terms of small carbon footprint. Hanna Tuomisto, an associate professor of sustainable food systems at the University of Helsinki, and a pioneer in the field, says that by her analysis, cultured meat could eventually have 80% less emissions than conventional meat.
Still, Tuomisto does not see cultivated meat as a real climate solution, because she doesn't think it will be possible to mass produce it soon enough. To meet global climate targets set in the Paris Agreement, the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of this decade.
"We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially in the very short term. In that sense, I don't think cultured meat technology can contribute to those targets much yet," Tuomisto says.
GOOD Meat has not done a full analysis of the environmental impacts of its products yet, because they are still at such an early stage, says Tetrick, the company's CEO.
Will vegetarians and vegans eat it?
To be clear, GOOD Meat explicitly says its cultivated chicken is not plant-based, vegan or vegetarian. But the company thinks it might be a good option for people following those diets for animal welfare or environmental reasons.
That may be why some in this growing community are debating whether to eat cultivated chicken.
Chef Rob Rubba of acclaimed D.C. restaurant Oyster Oyster is perhaps one of D.C.'s most famous vegetarians at the moment. Vegetables are the star at this restaurant because he wants to have minimal impact on the environment, and he's been vegetarian for seven years, a decision he says he made after witnessing so much waste during his decade-plus career.
But he's not convinced that cultivated chicken is necessary for him to eat or serve — at least for now.
"I think it detaches us once again from our food source from the natural world," he says of cultivated chicken. "I think there's a lot of conscious things about it that are very nice, like 'oh, we're not harming an animal' ... But I think we just need to be more mindful of how we're eating and what we're doing to the environment. And I'm not exactly sure what that will lead to."
Chef Todd Gray of vegetarian-friendly fine dining restaurant, Equinox, meanwhile, is not only interested in trying cultivated chicken, but serving it at his downtown D.C. restaurant. Gray is not a vegetarian, but does not eat much meat and is always looking for meat alternatives for himself and the restaurant he co-owns with his wife, Ellen Kassoff, he says.
"Listen, if it is better for the environment, and we could feed more people, and obviously at a price point that is approachable for people, then I think it is a no brainer," Gray tells DCist/WAMU.
The largest animal rights advocacy worldwide, PETA, actually supports the idea. The organization is "over the moon to see" to see "slaughterless meat" become a reality, PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said in a recent statement — though the organization still advocates for strict veganism above all else.
Will it catch on?
Cultivated chicken is intended for people who eat meat but want to do so ethically, says Tetrick. But will meat eaters even try it? Or if they do, would they choose it over conventional chicken?
A 2023 poll suggests there's still an uphill battle on that front. Of 1,247 adults surveyed by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in February, more than half said they would not try "cell-based meat." Most people surveyed said it sounds weird. Younger people and urbanites are more likely to taste it.
DCist/WAMU conducted our own unscientific poll in June, asking Instagram followers if they would try lab-grown chicken. Of the 1,711 followers to respond, 56% said yes.
One of the first locals to try the cultivated chicken at China Chilcano was Seth Reed. He made a July 31 reservation for him and his wife mostly for the novelty, he says. He is also excited by the idea of a possibly more sustainable source of protein; he tries to eat meat from local farmers and believes cultivated chicken to be on par with that.
"It tasted really good, like well-cooked chicken breast," says Reed. "I would be okay buying this at the store."
As trusted messengers like Andrés convince more people to at least give GOOD Meat a try, Tetrick is trying to scale up production in order to make it more widely available and affordable — which will take capital, engineering, and time, he says.
"It is very, very small scale, and it will remain small scale until we and other companies figure out how to make it larger scale. And that figuring out process is uncertain," he says. "We might be able to do it and we might not be able to do it."
For the foreseeable future, locals who want to give cultivated chicken a try will have to head to China Chilcano.
This story originally appeared on DCist.com