Why Chefs Aren't Embracing Fake Meat

Plant-based meat substitutes stifle creativity, and professional chefs aren't having it.

It's no secret that plant-based meat is seeing a steady decrease in profit and also isn't resonating much with customers. But for the Beyonds and Impossibles of the world, there's another big problem at play: Chefs aren't really embracing its use, either. Why? Because it's a frankly unexceptional option compared to its less processed counterparts—that is, the actual vegetables chefs cook with every day.

I occasionally sell pasta dinners out here in Los Angeles, and I'm always trying to offer options for vegans or vegetarians, of which LA has many. Italian food is often seamlessly vegetarian: Dough doesn't need eggs and sauce doesn't need meat to be good. There is, however, an irreplaceable richness to a pappardelle bolognese that's impossible to recreate without animal product, so I sought out a suitable replacement.

For a while, I ran a Beyond Meat bolognese. Essentially, I just replaced the ground beef and pork with Beyond Meat and Impossible Sausage, following the same cooking steps I would for a regular bolognese: olive oil, soffritto, tomato paste, red wine, tomatoes, broth, "meat," herbs, then simmer. The result was fine enough—people enjoyed it—but the fake meat felt completely disjointed from the sauce itself, like it was added at the last second. The ingredients weren't melding.

After a few go-arounds with Beyond bolognese, two thoughts occurred to me: One, a different product would taste better in this dish than plant-based meat. Two, it wasn't all that fun to make. Simply put, the Beyond Meat bolognese was trite, uninspired, and lifeless.

Soon after, I pivoted to a traditional sugo finto, which means "fake sauce" in Italian. Sugo finto is essentially a ton of vegetables roughly chopped to mimic the appearance of meat (you're looking at a ton of knife work), and though it creates a "faux" solution the way Beyond Meat does, chopped vegetables encourage way more creativity and flavor. There's more imagination at play, even in selecting which vegetables to use, since the quantity of each will affect the final product (more carrots, for example, means a sweeter dish). Making sugo finto was a much more joyful cooking process, and customers were happier to experience it.

I set out to talk with real chefs to see if they might be feeling the same way I do. Are any of them making use of fake meat products like Beyond or Impossible in their cooking?

What chefs think of alternative meat

Beyond Meat is traditionally used as a 1:1 replacement for beef, and as such, it tends to stamp out any real culinary innovation. Replace meat with fake meat in any scenario—burgers, meat sauce, stir fry, breakfast sandwiches, etc.—and all you're doing is dodging a chance to get creative. This is great for the average home cook, but it doesn't do much for chefs, who pride themselves on their creativity, extracting maximum flavor from every ingredient.


"I would rather eat ground mushrooms treated the same way, for flavor's sake," said food professional Laura Hoang. Hoang didn't start eating meat until she was 21, so she didn't really see the need to use imitation products. "Knowing how processed Beyond Meat is, it feels a little silly to put that much work into creating a dupe."

However she feels about using plant-based meat, Hoang noted that it remains an important option for restaurant customers, particularly at burger joints. "When I worked at a burger spot, there were a lot of people who didn't eat beef for religious reasons, so this was a way to enjoy a burger without crossing that boundary," she said.

Still, there are a lot of veggie burgers being made without fake meat, most of which are arguably better than Beyond or Impossible patties. Take the Veggie Shack burger from Shake Shack, made with carrots, mushrooms, herbs, farro, and sweet potatoes. The burger has drawn rave reviews from major publications, including The Washington Post and Bon Appétit. Here's what the Post had to say:


[A]fter focusing on the vegetable-medley star, I realized it wasn't just a second-rate dupe of a fast-food staple, but rather a juicy, deeply-flavored (gasp!) veggie burger in its own right. I tasted earthy mushrooms and nutty grains. Beneath the griddle-browned exterior, the interior revealed diced bits of vegetable (I could spy a full pearl of farro and flecks of sweet potato, as well as bits of green that I think were scallions).

That sounds like an awful lot of tasty complexity for a fast food veggie burger. Across the board, such burgers seem to be favored by food critics and chefs alike. "Oinkster has a veggie burger made with carrots and stuff," Hoang said. "Reminds me of my mom's egg rolls."

That's the other thing fake meat is lacking: nostalgia. Because it's so new to the market, the product fails to evoke any strong memories in the person eating it, whereas meals that incorporate vegetables as a matter of course have a chance of stoking some fond associations. Nobody longs for a Beyond Burger, and no one connects with their childhood while eating one.

Even chefs like Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due in Austin, Texas, who wrote an entire book about dismembering wild hogs, has a pointed reverence for vegetables.


"I think our intrinsic need for things to taste like meat speaks to our need to consume it," said Griffiths about Beyond Meat. As for ideal non-meat alternatives, "I'd rather eat a perfect eggplant, some asparagus, or a fresh carrot," he said.

All of the best vegan sandwiches in Los Angeles are made without fake meat, too, the greatest of which was the mushroom French dip at the now closed Eszett (which also had great fries). Asked what made the sandwich so good, chef Spencer Bezaire explained that its lack of meat was almost incidental.

"I wanted to make a great sandwich, and if it happened to be vegan, great," he said. The sandwich was indeed bursting with creativity, made with a burnt leek stock, a vegan demi-glace with tomato paste (which Bezaire "cooks the shit out of"), red wine, thyme, and mushroom powder. No processed dupes, just an inspired, veggie-forward sandwich that truly achieved greatness.

Greg Barris, a comedian, pizza maker, and practicing vegan, says he supports meat alternatives, but doesn't eat them himself "because they seem to be a lot of unhealthy bullshit." I asked him straight up if he'd ever put fake meat on a pizza. The answer was no.

"There's endless, timeless, and future veggie dishes," he said. "You can make a shitake 'bacon' really easily with maple syrup and tamari. So good. You don't even have to call it bacon."


Though alternative meats are, as "plant-based" proteins, technically made with vegetables, they're processed in ways that vegetables are not. All chefs have a loving admiration for produce, and Beyond and Impossible meat simply does not evoke the same feeling as walking around a farmer's market at six in the morning, looking for the best seasonal items. From a culinary standpoint, fake meat is just tragically uninspired. It serves a necessary purpose in food service, but it might never fully satisfy the professionals who'd rather put their skills to work transforming individual fresh ingredients into something new.