A swanky restaurant in San Francisco isn’t my usual haunt for reporting on climate and energy. But I recently paid a visit to Bar Crenn, a Michelin-starred spot and one of two restaurants in the US currently serving up lab-grown meat. The two morsels on the plate in front of me were what I’d come for: a one-ounce sampling of cultivated chicken, made in the lab by startup Upside Foods.
Small wisps of what looked like smoke rose from the dish mysteriously. I wondered if this was my imagination playing tricks on me, adding to the theatrics of the moment. I later discovered a small reservoir for dry ice inside the cylinder the meat was brought out in. As I pondered my plate, I wondered if this could be a future staple in my diet, or if the whole thing might turn out to all be smoke and mirrors.
Lab to table
Cultivated meat, also called cultured or lab-grown meat, is meat made using animal cells—but not animals themselves. Upside Foods, along with another US-based company called Good Meat, got the green light from regulators earlier this year to begin selling cultivated chicken products to consumers.
Both companies chose to roll out their products first in high-end restaurants. Good Meat, a subsidiary of Eat Just, is serving up its chicken in China Chilcano, a DC spot headed up by chef José Andrés. Upside Foods landed its products in Bar Crenn.
Neither restaurant could be accused of being cheap, but the placement of these products on a commercial menu is still something of a milestone in affordability for cultivated meat. The world’s first lab-grown burger, served in 2013, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. Upside hasn’t shared how much the chicken on my plate cost to grow and serve, but Bar Crenn sells the dish for $45 on an a la carte menu.
I ordered a few other items, including a pumpkin tart topped with what appeared to be gilded pumpkin seeds and a grilled oyster dish comprising two oyster bellies with smoked cream and pickled tapioca. (Yes, apparently it’s possible to butcher an oyster.)
Bar Crenn removed most meat from its menu in 2018, a decision attributed to “the impact of factory farming on animals and the planet,” according to the restaurant’s website. It does still serve seafood, though (hence, the oyster bellies).
So Upside’s chicken is the only land-based meat available on the menu. It’s only served on a limited basis, though. Reservations are available once each month for a special Upside Foods night, and they sell out fast.