At Founding Farmers, a popular D.C. restaurant just a few blocks from the White House, I recently ordered a veggie burger. For $16 (these are D.C. prices) what I got was not your father’s soy and lentil burger, but a plant-based product that looks and tastes as close to actual meat as anything I’ve seen.
Called the Impossible Burger, it was crisp on the outside and pinkish on the inside, like a meat burger cooked medium rare. Impossible Foods Inc., the Silicon Valley startup that developed the burger—thanks to funding from Bill Gates, Google Ventures and others—touts its flagship product as “the world’s only burger that looks, handles, smells, cooks and tastes like ground beef from cows—but is made entirely from plants.”
Greetings from Washington, D.C., Beacon readers
This is the first of what I hope will be regular dispatches from the nation’s capital. I’ll write as one Rochesterian to another, because though I now spend part of the year in D.C.—my kids and grandkids all live here—Rochester is still home.
I’ll report from Congress, the courts, and the White House; talk with former Rochesterians pursuing careers here; and explore a host of other connections—some official, some off-beat—between this “power city” and our own Flower City.
Be in touch. Are there aspects of the D.C.-Rochester connection you’d suggest I explore? Is a friend or family member doing some “top secret” work in D.C. that we should all know about? Drop me a line at [email protected]
To get started, I wanted to tell about a new and little-known Rochester connection—not to the centers of power but to what I recently found in the center of my plate.
And it has a Rochester connection: Impossible Foods recently hired as its chief science officer Dr. David J. Lipman, a Rochester native and 1971 graduate of Brighton High School. If the Lipman name is familiar, it may be because generations of Rochesterians have bought fresh beef, lamb, chicken and turkey from Lipman’s Kosher Market, a business founded and for decades run by David Lipman’s father.
Curious how the son of a kosher butcher ends up as chief science officer for a firm that produces perhaps the world’s best veggie burger? So was I.
In a recent phone interview, I asked Lipman about his Rochester roots, his family’s meat market, and his current work with Impossible Foods. But first, some background.
After high school, Lipman received his undergraduate degree from Brown University and his M.D. from SUNY Buffalo. At the National Institutes of Health, he did research in molecular evolution and computational biology, work that has proved important in understanding the molecular basis of human disease, vaccine development, and food safety.
He also worked on the groundbreaking Human Genome Project. Later, as a founding director of NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, he and his staff pioneered the creation of publicly accessible databases of medical and biotechnology information, including PubMed and GenBank. Every day, millions of people use these databases to download health-related information and DNA sequences.
In recognition of his work, Lipman was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. In 2013, he was honored as a White House “Open Science” Champion of Change.
Announcing Lipman’s hiring in 2017, Impossible Foods founder and CEO Patrick O. Brown said, “David has contributed more than any other scientist in the world to building the infrastructure and tools that made genome sequences an enabling resource for discoveries that have transformed biology and medicine. He will make an immediate, positive contribution to Impossible Foods’ leadership team—and become an inspirational role model to our growing team of world-class scientists.”
Following is an edited version of my interview with Lipman:
So, David, I remember at Brighton back in the late-’60s and early-’70s, one of the Lipman brothers was quite an accomplished tennis player. Was that you?
I played on the high school tennis team, but my brother, Marty, was the real player. He was nationally ranked.
Jumping ahead to your long career in Washington at NIH, what gave you the most satisfaction?
We opened up the (medical) literature to make it more available to people, so people could search it themselves, but overall it was just a privilege to be able to do research there, to be a scientist. I didn’t enjoy the politics, but I did enjoy the work.
And now you’re in the private sector with Impossible Foods. On a typical day, what do you do there?
Well, I’m not doing lab work. Mostly I’m in meetings that involve test results, business discussions, and what direction the company should go in. I have wonderful colleagues—an unusually nice group of people, idealistic, dedicated—and it’s exciting to watch how quickly things move. We’re a mission-oriented company.
And what’s the mission?
It’s to eliminate the need for animals in the food system because that’s one of the greatest—if not thegreatest—source of damage to the environment in terms of carbon footprint, water usage, etc. That’s what drove the founders to start the company, but they had to give people a reason to eat plants instead of animals and their insight was simply to make the product delicious.
Your company has just introduced a new version of the Impossible Burger. New York magazine calls it “Impossible Burger 2.0.” Were you involved in this?
Yes, I’ve been there a year and a half and that project started about a year ago, so I’ve been very much involved.
I just had one in D.C. at Founding Farmers restaurant, and it was delicious.
That would most likely still be the old version. The new one, which is starting to work its way across the country, is significantly better in every way in terms of taste, texture, and with lower salt, saturated fat, and calories, and a better protein profile. If you liked the other one at all, you’ll like this one much better.
Your website says a key ingredient is heme (pronounced “heem”). Can you say in plain English what that is?
Heme is a molecule that’s in everything we eat; it’s essential for life. It carries oxygen in the blood for hemoglobin. It’s in very high concentration in animal muscle, and particularly in cow muscle. What we discovered is that heme is quite important in key aspects of meat and beef flavor. And so we needed to be able to make a plant-based product that had high enough concentrations of heme that could convey—along with some other simple molecules that we add—that same flavor as beef.
And is heme also the source of the red or pink color?
Well, all these heme proteins—whether hemoglobin or myoglobin—are red when you have enough concentration of them. They’re red like in blood or muscle, and so secondarily to the fact that heme generates the beef flavor, you get the color.
Do you get pushback from the meat industry for using the term “meat” to describe a plant-based food?
Yes, there are efforts in various states—just like there was with use of the term “milk”—to limit the use of “meat” to animal meat, but as chief science officer I don’t have to deal with that; that’s someone else’s problem.
I understand the new product—Burger 2.0—will be available not just in restaurants but also supermarkets. Will that include Wegmans?
Our goal is to have it everywhere so I’m not sure who are the folks we’re negotiating with, but Wegmans is a great supermarket, so if it gets in there that would be fantastic. By the way, what a strange paradox that Rochester, at least when I was growing up, had such a paucity of interesting foods but is also the home of such a pioneering supermarket.
Well, speaking of paradoxes, your Dad, Al Lipman, founded and ran Lipman’s Kosher Market and now you’re the chief scientist for one of the nation’s top veggie burgers. What can you tell us about your involvement with your dad’s store when you were young and the irony of your now helping create a cutting-edge meatless burger?
Well, when I was very young—five or six years old—I’d go to the slaughterhouse with my dad and I’d see all that went on there. We also had farms with cows and I’d go out there with him all the time. When I got a little older—eight or nine—I’d help at the store, sweeping sawdust, wrapping packages, next thing you know at 10 or 11 I’m using the band saw to cut meat. I also helped make pickled tongue and corned beef. Eventually, I waited on customers. Even in medical school in Buffalo, if it was a holiday, I’d drive back to Rochester to help out.
But a few years after I left home, I decided, for a range of reasons, I didn’t want to eat beef anymore. You could never be sure what my dad’s reaction would be, but when I told him he right away said, “Oh, I can see that.” I can tell you for sure that in regard to what I’m doing now with this company, he’d find it fascinating, would have a million questions, and would be really excited about it. He’d probably want to sell our product in the store.
Do you get back to Rochester much these days?
I haven’t been back in a few years but I love the countryside, the farms and the Finger Lakes. Thinking back on Rochester and the farms we had there gives me a nostalgic feeling.
While we wait to see if Wegmans or other local supermarkets will carry Impossible Burger 2.0, you can enjoy the original version at several area restaurants. According to Impossible Foods, these include: Bar Louie (two locations), the Distillery Restaurants (four locations), Cinelli’s Pizza Ristorante, Genesee Brew House, Hettie’s Delights Café at the Rochester Public Market, Dave and Buster’s, and the Blossom Road Pub.
And if for any reason the Impossible Burger doesn’t satisfy your beef cravings, you can still buy the more traditional products at Lipman’s Kosher Market. Nearly 70 years after it’s founding, the store—now owned by former employees of Lipman’s late father, Al—remains open at 1482 Monroe Ave. in Brighton.
Peter Lovenheim, a journalist and author, is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. You can reach Peter with comments or suggestions for his “Letter from Washington” at [email protected]