Where's the Beef?: Has Allison Burgess created faux food, fad food — or a groundbreaking meat substitute?

Where's the Beef? Has Allison Burgess created faux food, fad food — or a groundbreaking meat substitute?

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Nearly ten years ago, during a business lunch at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, Allison Burgess realized her reverence for animals made it nearly impossible to enjoy dining out. "I have a profound respect for life," she says. "I could never be comfortable knowing something I ate suffered."

That afternoon at the Ritz, she ordered the veggie burger. "They gave me a deep-fried vegetable fritter, smothered in cheese on a giant bun, with fries," she remembers. "It was so unhealthy. I couldn't eat that." She sent it back. When the restaurant offered to make her something else, Burgess declined. "There was nothing on that menu I wanted to eat. A salad? Forget it."

Burgess later discussed the incident with a chef she knew. "He told me it's a challenge to serve people who don't eat meat or chicken," she says. "You're forced to piece together sides into a meal."

The prospect of a lifetime wasting money on vegetable plates or deep-fried veggie patties and leaving restaurants still hungry disgusted her. "If I never eat another portobello-mushroom sandwich again," she declares now, "it will be too soon."

Burgess wanted variety when she went out, something she could sink her teeth into. She wanted meat — or, rather, meat that didn't come from an animal.

Her lunch at the Ritz and the chef's comments got Burgess thinking about vegetarian meat. "I looked at Boca and Morningstar products," she recalls. "The meat had no texture and was overly seasoned and pre-formed. There was nothing there that would help anyone cook. You can't take a Boca burger and make meatballs."

An experienced St. Louis businesswoman who ran her own company, Medical Video Productions, for many years, Burgess now saw an opening to make a meat substitute of her own, one that imitated the texture of meat and allowed chefs to add their own seasonings. "There was a real opportunity for restaurants to provide food for vegetarians and for people who don't want to eat fatty or unhealthy foods," she explains. "If I could get this up to gourmet quality, chefs would use it."

In 2001 Burgess began working on her meat substitute in the kitchen of her home in Westwood, a tiny residential enclave near Creve Coeur. Today there are six varieties of Match Meat: beef, chicken, pork, crab, and Italian and breakfast sausage. Made from soy protein, wheat gluten, water and natural flavorings, Match comes frozen and unseasoned, as bland as any supermarket meat.

Chefs cook and serve Match in more than 30 St. Louis restaurants, ranging from the formal Vin de Set, Terrene and Lucas Park Grille, to the more casual Schlafly Bottleworks and Chris' Pancake & Dining. It can be found at Washington University, in Busch Stadium and at St. John's Mercy Hospital. All 23 Dierbergs stores carry the product, and three months ago, Whole Foods increased its order to serve its 31 Midwest locations.

"We're on the verge of a major sea change in food culture toward more healthy foods," Burgess predicts. "We're on the verge of seeing a lot of vegetable protein in the American diet. To feed a cow for seventeen months, to water it and clean up after it — a lot of time and oil resources go into one pound of beef."

It's generally agreed among nutrition experts and food historians, most notably Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, that Americans are too reliant on artificial foods, manufactured from chemicals and artful rearranging of corn and soy. (The apotheosis of this, Pollan believes, is the indestructible Hostess Twinkie.)

"When you create an artificial food supply and create artificial flavors, the body doesn't know how to behave itself," explains Joan Gussow, a self-described "foodist" who teaches in the department of Health and Behavior Studies at Columbia University's Teachers College. "You're lost. You need some kind of balance."

Gussow and other experts recommend a return to "whole foods" that can be found in nature: fresh produce, eggs from pasture-raised chickens and grass-fed beef.

Match, made in part from soy and produced in a factory in Fenton, certainly qualifies as more "industrial" than "whole" food. "Match is processed food, no doubt about it," Burgess concedes. "But Pollan's way is not the only valid way to start making changes. Our taste buds and appetites change slowly. Very few people can make dramatic changes on a dime. Match gives you something you're used to eating. It's meat from a different source."

Back in the days when Burgess was still choking down portobello-mushroom sandwiches, a few St. Louis chefs were trying to make their own faux meat. Johnny Branze, kitchen manager at the Royale in south St. Louis, experimented with veggie burgers made from wheat gluten. "It took days," he recalls. "It's a long process: soaking, draining, baking. The burgers I made were good, but overall, not worth the effort."

"I couldn't get the consistency right," remembers Jim Voss, executive chef at Duff's in the Central West End, who tried to make his burgers with soy. "At first it was too wet. A few hours later, it'd be perfect. But by the next day, it would be too dry."

Voss was one of the first chefs Burgess contacted early in 2004, when, after eighteen months experimenting and testing, she was ready to put Match on the market. At the time Voss was using Boca burgers, but was unsatisfied. "It was hard to find wholesale," he explains. "When [Burgess] came in, I was immediately interested. I tried the beef Match as a hamburger and liked it immediately. It's not cheap, but it's high quality and made here in the city of St. Louis. It's a double whammy."

For chefs, Match is a lot like Play-Doh. "It's like a blank canvas," says Clint Whittemore, executive chef at the Market at Busch's Grove in Ladue. "You can do anything to it. You can play with it. You can mold it into any shape. It's definitely not meat, but it's very close to meat in texture." Whittemore likes to display his Match meatloaf beside the real thing to see if customers can tell the difference.

In its raw form, Match does not look especially appetizing. The beef is reddish-brown and slightly watery. The chicken, pork and crab are all beige and virtually indistinguishable, except by smell. (The nori used to flavor the crab gives it a marine odor.)

Whatever the variety, Match feels clammy and glutinous in your hands. You can pack it into a patty or flatten it into a cutlet. You can stuff it into sausages. You can roll it out on the counter, spread a filling on top and roll it back up again to simulate a stuffed pork loin or roulade. It will not collapse. Unless you blend in spices and herbs, it will have a bland soy flavor. Cooked, though, the outside caramelizes into a crust, and the inside becomes textured and chewy, even slightly juicy, not unlike real meat.

"You need to add fat," warns Whittemore. "That's where people go wrong. It's a very lean product."

"The product is as creative as the person using it," says Freddie Holland, Match's executive chef and general manager.

Holland, 40, is, in Whittemore's words, "the master of Match." Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, he previously worked in a commercial bakery in Boston and, not very happily, as a private chef for the family who moved into the Gianni Versace mansion in Miami Beach after the designer's murder in 1997.

Near the end of 2003, Holland met Burgess at a food tasting in St. Louis, where he was working for a caterer. He had already gotten his hands on a sample of Match beef and started experimenting with different ways to cook it. "I was looking for a product like this," he says. "There's nothing like it in the culinary world. I started making my own breakfast sausages. Allison found out about it and called me. I like to tell people I stalked her until she gave me a job."

Holland has created an extensive list of recipes, such as crab cakes and Mediterranean stuffed chicken, which he has posted on the Match website and demonstrates for shoppers at Whole Foods. Lately, he's been taking recipes to Gourmet and Bon Appétit, substituting Match and comparing the results.

"Because it's such a new concept, we really have to get it in people's mouths," he explains. "People see the in-store demos and then they want to get home and have success with it. There's a lot of teaching involved." Many of Match's customers, Holland notes, are not strict vegetarians, but omnivores who are looking for ways to eat less meat.

"That's the trick," says Whittemore. "If a meat-eater will eat it, that's half the battle."

"Match does really well in St. Louis once people taste it," says Marcia Whelan, the marketing team leader at Whole Foods in Town & Country. "They just need a little urging, but once they taste it, they're hooked."

Match is not inexpensive. At Whole Foods, a pound of Match beef goes for $8.99, nearly twice the cost of beef from a cow. (On average, it's about a dollar less at Dierbergs.)

Gary Suarez, executive chef of Washington University's dining services, keeps his Match costs down by rarely serving it as a main dish. Instead, he uses it as a filling for burritos and tacos, or in chili or meat sauce. "It gives us options," he says. "People are excited to see it being used, to have more than beans and rice."

Whelan says the price of Match has never inhibited Whole Foods' customers. "We find that as people's diets shift, they eat mostly raw foods, so they spend a lot less for cooking ingredients in general," she says. "When I buy Match, I feel that I've bought something special that I want to share. It's like having an artisan cheese or bread."

But unlike artisan breads and cheeses, Match is not a "slow food" which can only be prepared with lots of patience. Burgess is too much of a pragmatist for that. "As a busy, full-time working person, I like a meal I can prepare in a few minutes," she says. "It cooks up quickly, and I don't have to fool with bones and skin and stewing. Time is a resource, too."

"We're Americans," observes the Royale's Branze. "Our culture is based on convenience. I don't care what anybody says about slow food."

Match adds a new wrinkle to what Michael Pollan calls "the omnivore's dilemma."

For environmentally and health-conscious eaters, Match would seem the ideal meat substitute. It's low in fat and cholesterol, good for the environment, and its manufacture doesn't necessitate the killing of animals. But it is also not a natural "whole food."

"When it comes to food, I never eat anything artificial if I can help it, and this would definitely fall into that category," Marion Nestle writes in an e-mail. Nestle is a professor in the department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, and the author of a number of books on nutrition, most notably, What to Eat.

"Delicious as it may be — never having tasted it, I couldn't say — it reminds me too much of Soylent Green," continues Nestle, referring to the 1973 cult film about an artificial wonder-food that turns out to be made from people. "People eat these things because they think they are healthier. Personally, I think a little meat from humanely raised animals has an appropriate place in human diets, and that these things are not necessary."

Joan Gussow, the foodist, goes further: "I am disturbed by, alarmed by, put off by and do not eat highly processed food," she says firmly. "I don't believe in catering to people's tastes. I would much rather see someone make the effort to find a rational, moral source of meat than go through the trouble to make pretend meat."

Gussow gets her meat from a farm in upstate New York and keeps pictures of the cows and pigs she eats on her refrigerator door.

Burgess finds Gussow's suggestion entirely impractical. "Sure there are happy cows out there," she says. "But it's highly doubtful that there are enough happy cows eating grass to sustain 6 billion people."

Most of the meat Burgess hopes to replace with Match does not come from those idealized, sustainably raised animals. The majority of the meat, she notes, comes from animals raised on factory farms and killed in slaughterhouses. "There are only eight plants that produce more than half the meat in this country," she says. "They each process 3,000 cows a day, and it all goes into one big mixture. In one handful of hamburger, you have flesh from a thousand different towns."

Connie Diekman, director of nutrition at Washington University and a past president of the American Dietetic Association, believes that because Match contains both soy and wheat protein, it is a fully adequate replacement for meat. "Soy is a comparable source of all amino acids," she explains. "It's comparable to animal protein. Wheat and corn have the amino acids that the beans are missing. Now it becomes easy to get more protein."

Recently, a number of studies have raised questions about whether soy is indeed healthy. It has been found to raise estrogen levels in men, cause asthma and allergy problems in babies, and increase rates of dementia in old people.

When Burgess first started her research, she attended a three-day conference on soy. "I realized that there is a lot of soy in a lot of different foods we eat," she recalls. "It is used in, ironically, many meats that are sold to school lunch and other programs, to increase the level of protein content. There are a myriad of studies on the benefits and downsides of eating soy, and both seem to require eating extreme amounts of it."

Diekman concurs. "You're supposed to eat between five and seven ounces of protein per day. That could be from meat, fish or nuts. Or you can replace all your protein intake with soy. The problem is that some people look at soy in a typical American fashion: If some is good, a lot must be better."

But Susan Allport, author of The Queen of Fats, is not sure Match contains the omega-3 fatty acids she considers necessary for a healthy diet. "Meat substitutes, such as soy and wheat gluten, do nothing towards providing us with the essential fats we need," she writes in an e-mail. "Grass-fed meats have more omega-3s and fewer saturated fats than their grain-fed counterparts and pose much less of a health problem."

Much as Burgess tries, Match itself is not made from completely nutritionally unimpeachable sources. For one thing, it uses genetically modified soy.

Says Burgess: "Given the soy markets, we have to buy what we can buy. We can get 100 percent non-GMO [genetically modified organism] soy, but we would have to import it from Europe, and that would be counter-sustainable. I have mixed feelings about genetically modified food anyway. If we're able to make a crop stronger and use less water and herbicides, we should do it."

For the growing number of people with wheat-gluten allergies, Match is still not an adequate meat substitute, as Burgess is well aware. "We have three products right now that we can make gluten-free," she says. "But I haven't been able to contract with a gluten-free plant."

The main question raised by Match's detractors is why there exists a need for fake meat — even sustainable and nutritionally balanced fake meat. "There are so many ways to cook plant products. I don't feel a need for a meat substitute," says Alanna Kellogg, a St. Louis food columnist who writes the blog A Veggie Venture.

But the Royale's Johnny Branze, a lifelong vegetarian, thinks it is human nature to be carnivorous. "Everyone still has their eyeteeth," he points out. "They want the texture of meat to tear into."

Burgess agrees. "There's a very pragmatic side to me. Could I really go through the rest of my life without eating a burger again? Now, I don't have to. There's a very selfish aspect to this whole thing."

One week every month, Allison Burgess rents out the Lucia's Pizza factory in an industrial park in Fenton, near Gravois Road and I-270. There, a small crew of Lucia's employees, supervised by Holland, mixes up 7,000 pounds of Match meat. They alternate monthly between retail and wholesale packaging.

"We schedule the production well ahead of time," Burgess says, pausing to pull a hair net over her chin-length blond hair. "We're hyper-efficient. We send Lucia's the ingredients and tell them how many pounds we want, and they package it according to our instructions. They've been phenomenal."

Though Match is still a relatively small company, Burgess has planned for its expansion since the very beginning. "We do everything as if we're a $100-million company," she says. "We had the option not to put the nutritional information panel on the packaging. There's an FDA rule that it's not required for small businesses, but we did it anyway. We wanted to get set up for significant growth. We know exactly what we'll need to do when the time comes."

Burgess walks briskly down the hall past an industrial chopper. The shiny metal box looks innocent enough, but inside are several blades sharp enough to sever a person's hand. "I don't let anyone operate that one but me," she says.

At the front of the factory, a large room dominated by a twenty-foot-long conveyer belt used to make pizza, four workers pull one-pound chunks of Match pork from an industrial mixer and stuff and seal them into plastic bags. From here, they will go to the freezer, which, Burgess says, is kept at 1 degree Fahrenheit, and then to the trucks for shipping.

Fifteen feet away, Holland peers into another 200-pound capacity industrial mixer, checking its progress.

"Are you ready to collapse?" Burgess greets her chef cheerfully.

Holland grimaces. Production began today at 5 a.m. Now it's nearly 3 p.m., quitting time, but he still must finish up a special order of bratwurst for the Royale. Burgess, meanwhile, needs to pack up twenty cases of Match to ship to Whole Foods stores in Chicago for cooking demonstrations and deliver an order of Match pork steaks to Schlafly Bottleworks.

The product inside the mixer contains the ingredients that give the meat its density and nutritional value. It looks like dog food. From one of the buckets, Holland pours in a golden gel that resembles applesauce. As the machine churns, the gel breaks down into tiny globules interspersed throughout the meat.

"That big blob is the body of the product," Holland explains. "That's what gives it its meaty texture. It'll freeze, and then when it's cooked, it will dissolve and make the meat juicy."

Later he'll add a mixture of spices for flavor, and then he'll use a sausage stuffer to jam the meat into vegan casings. This box, three feet square, will produce 200 pounds of meat in just a few hours.

"Imagine the amount of land it takes to raise animals," he says. "All that water. Imagine how much waste they must produce. Where does it go? I was raised on a farm in southern Illinois, and we butchered. Here we have all the elements of a slaughter. There's gore and tissue and muscle that goes into it, but it's all vegan. Our blood is red from beet juice. [Burgess] did it instinctively without knowing what she was doing."

The walls in Burgess' home office are decorated with portraits of animals. She has three horses, a dog and four cats — some who live with her in Westwood, and some on the farm in Dittmer she bought five years ago with her husband, Roger Kepner.

All were rescue animals. She and Kepner plan to eventually convert the farm, which lies 40 miles southwest of St. Louis, into a rescue facility. "Originally, [Match] was about saving the animals," Burgess says, "but now it's also about sustainable food."

Very little in Burgess' background prepared her for a career in food production. Raised in Ladue, she attended Washington University and got an MBA in corporate finance. For 21 years, she owned and operated Medical Video Productions, which recorded and sold video demonstrations of surgeries by some of the world's top doctors.

Now 56, Burgess had planned an early retirement. "I was going to spend the rest of my life doing community work," she says. Her mother, Louise Golman, had been a philanthropist and recently, posthumously received the Legacy Award from the Saint Louis Planned Giving Council for her prodigious fundraising.

Burgess has come to consider Match her own form of charity. She doesn't take a salary, and the venture has yet to turn a profit. "As soon as we make any money, it goes back into the company," she says. "I've invested a substantial part of my savings. At the end of your life, you want to have a picture of what it's going to be like. Are you a net producer or a net consumer?"

She had her epiphany about the need for a gourmet-quality meat substitute while she was still running Medical Video. She didn't sell the business until Match's development was well under way. "It's not rocket science," she likes to say. "It's not even food science. It's just common sense."

It was also, she adds, "a very intense intellectual process. When I first started thinking about it, I looked at the ingredients in Boca and Morningstar products. I wanted to find out more about how the ingredients were put together. I called the director of protein research at the University of Illinois. I went up there to spend a day. In the test kitchen, I saw a big bag of soy concentrate. The bag said, 'Central Soya,' and there was an 800 number. I called right then and there."

Burgess traveled to Central Soya's headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and explained what she was planning to do. (The company has since merged with DuPont, moved to St. Louis and been renamed Solae.) The food scientists agreed to help her with her project.

"We spent a year and a half developing formulas," Burgess recalls. "We had 60 different samples of just the ground beef. They would mix them up, send them to me and wait for feedback.

"I studied meat," Burgess continues. "That's why I can't say I'm a vegetarian. I'd line up a Match burger and a hamburger side by side and take little nibbles of each. I'd handle them and cook them, and think through every detail of what a hamburger is. I analyzed every attribute of meat and tried to duplicate it. There was a lot of trial and error."

By late 2003 Burgess had found a formula that satisfied her — not just for beef, but for chicken and crab as well. (The pork and sausages would come later.) She returned to Fort Wayne to learn how to manufacture the product, then called AuraPro. Then she began to look for a place where she could set up production.

"So many places said we were too small," she remembers. "One day I was wandering around DiGregorio's market on the Hill and feeling so dejected and depressed, like this would never get off the ground. This woman came up to me and said, 'Can I help you?' For some reason, I told her about how I was at a loss. She said, 'You should talk to Frank DiGregorio.'"

DiGregorio, the older brother of the market's owner, gave Burgess space in his sausage plant on Shaw Avenue, taught her how to use the equipment and helped concoct the recipe for Match Italian sausage. As Burgess learned more about production, she continued to make adjustments.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about changes," she says. "Once I got into the plant and learned how things worked, the realities of production determined what I could and couldn't do."

She talked her way into restaurant kitchens around St. Louis, starting with Helen Fitzgerald's Bar & Grill in south county. She sent samples to chefs, asked for their thoughts and incorporated their suggestions into the formula. She signed contracts with restaurant distributors, and in 2006, Match began to appear on local menus. "I didn't intend to go retail," she says. "But then Whole Foods called."

"We were very excited," recalls Matthew Mell, store team leader at the Whole Foods in Town & Country. It was Whole Foods' interest that forced Burgess to overhaul her entire product. For one thing, her ingredients had to meet the chain's stringent quality standards. For another, while her faux meat was popular with store employees, the grocer's management felt it needed a more exciting name than "AuraPro."

Burgess took a year to revamp and rebrand. She chose the name Match because she wanted her meat to be an accurate stand-in for the real thing. Whole Foods' managers helped her design the logo and marketing materials.

Match hit the grocer's freezers late in 2007, just in time to compete with tofurkey for the holidays. Sales have grown steadily since then, reports Kate Klotz, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, with beef, chicken and Italian sausage leading the pack, and crab bringing up the rear. (Klotz cites "competitive reasons" for why the company will not release precise sales figures or say how Match's sales compare with other meat substitutes.)

The store in Brentwood remains the epicenter for Match sales, mostly because it has stocked the product the longest and because Holland regularly demonstrates Match cooking in its classroom. The second most profitable store for Match is the Whole Foods in Chicago's South Loop, which is staffed by a large population of vegetarians who promote the product with an evangelical zeal.

Toasted ravioli aside, St. Louis is not generally known for cutting-edge gastronomy. "What's ever been new out of St. Louis for environmentally sustainable food?" Burgess asks rhetorically. "Nothing comes from here. Nothing good, anyway."

In the past year, Match's sales have doubled, forcing Burgess to leave the DiGregorio plant and move to Lucia's, which is large enough to accommodate demand.

"This is a totally groundbreaking product," says Whole Foods' Mell. "It's not like the way you look at tortilla chips, like someone makes a cilantro-lime flavor, and then everybody is doing it. It's not like [Burgess] reinvented the wheel. It's like she created a completely new wheel."

Still, when most people think of meat substitutes, they think of products like Boca and Morningstar. "I find these foods never taste very good," e-mails Martha Rose Shulman, who writes the "Recipes for Health" column in the New York Times. "There's always a salty or manufactured aftertaste.

"I can't predict what the success of Match meat might be," she continues, "but I can tell you how I myself feel about vegetarian meat products: I see them as processed food and no healthier than meat that has been raised in a humane and sustainable fashion."

Other meat substitutes have hit the market and failed miserably; the founders of the industry pioneer Gardenburger declared bankruptcy in 2005 before they sold out to Kellogg. Still, some food writers think Match may have a chance, even in the face of the whole-food movement.

"A product like Match targets a very different group than the locavore movement," observes Andrew Smith, a food writer who teaches courses on culinary history at New School University in New York City. "There are 8 million vegetarians out there, and most are not locavores. Vegetarians don't have much of a choice about what they eat. A large number are into locavore and organic food, but animal rights is the biggest factor, and that's the target market."

"It's a niche product," agrees Laura Shapiro, the author of several books about food history, most recently Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. "Everything is a niche product. It's what the food revolution has brought us. [Burgess] definitely has her finger on the pulse of a few niches. She's in closer touch with the consumer than people in focus groups. [Match] is not in any food category. It's something else, and something else is a popular choice for Americans."

However, Shapiro is not completely convinced that Match will change the way people look at meat. "It requires you to think of food in a slightly different way, and people adopt changes that radical very slowly." She notes that the anticipated microwave-cooking revolution of the 1980s never happened. "It was so different from cooking — it was too different. People didn't glom onto it. They had no reason to."

To get people outside of St. Louis to eat Match, Burgess and Holland will have to continue to do what they've done here: Put the product in people's mouths. To that end, they're hiring culinary liaisons in Chicago, students at local cooking schools who will introduce Match to chefs and consumers through restaurant visits and in-store cooking demonstrations.

"We don't want to get it in supermarkets and then have it just sit there," Burgess explains. "Which is what would happen if we didn't have a sustained marketing effort."

So far, Match remains a very local product. Burgess has only recently begun to send out press releases to the Chicago media, which is the only reason food writers at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine have even heard the name. "What is it again?" asks Kim Gracen, executive chef at the Chicago Diner, a vegetarian institution in Chicago for more than 25 years. "I've never heard of it. I make my own stuff in-house."

"We would have grown a lot faster if we'd been on the coasts," Burgess admits. "But that's OK. We needed time to test it."

Predicts the Market at Busch's Grove's Clint Whittemore: "If it can do well in this market, in California, Oregon and Colorado, it'll explode."

So confident is Burgess that Match will extend beyond the Midwest in the next year or so, she's begun to scout locations for another production plant, on the East or West Coast.

Meanwhile, Burgess is still tweaking the Match formula and plans to expand the product's range to include lamb, ham and bacon. "One of the hardest things to develop — one of the things we haven't done yet — is those long muscle strands, like you find in filets and tenderloins. Another thing we haven't done is duplicate the flavor of saturated fat in the mouth."

Nothing has altered the primary goal of Match since the first day Burgess sat down in her kitchen. "It's got to taste good. If it doesn't taste good, people aren't going to want to eat it." She leans forward, as she's wont to do when making an important point. "This is going to be big."

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