The founder of a London steakhouse is an unlikely entrepreneur in plant-based foods. But Neil Rankin, co-founder of acclaimed BBQ restaurant Temper in London’s Soho, says the meat alternatives out there simply aren’t good enough.
His list of complaints begins with meatless protein maker Beyond Meat, which he says, is good at capturing the “texture and look” of meat, but ultimately the company makes food that’s so far unprofitable to make and sell. Quorn, the original meat substitute, is “clever and sustainable,” but “tasteless,” he says.
In 2020 the outspoken chef, now 45, thought he could do better and and started plant-based food company Symplicity Foods. His aim is to make plant-based food so delicious that even die-hard meat eaters will want to choose his burgers over beef. With the help of fermentation, a unique recipe and the pandemic lockdown, he thinks he’s pulled it off. He says his food is “like a McDonalds health food. But better.”
The start of Rankin's meat-to-plant conversion began with experiments in fermentation, a 12,000-year-old preservation technique, using vegetables in a glass jar at home, which he then pressed and minced into burger patties. Six months spent perfecting the recipe led to a pop-up plant-based burger spot in Brick Lane, which proved the concept.
Today Symplicity Foods’ home is a factory in Harlesden, West London, but the recipe today is the same as the one made in his kitchen. The “meat” is made from mushrooms grown in caves in the UK, Poland and France that are mixed with onions, beetroot and a barley miso, which are then cooked and fermented for 10 days. Next it’s pressed, minced, mixed with spices, formed into sausages, burger patties or schnitzels, steamed, frozen and packed off to London restaurants. The leftover juice from the fermentation is turned into gravy or a flavor enhancer which can be sold on.
The pandemic and lockdown accelerated the idea last year. He teamed up with Mark Wogan, co-founder of Homeslice Pizza, who offered a shuttered restaurant for Rankin to develop the idea further and expand production. Before long he’d signed up Bleecker Burger and Dishoom as customers, with make-at-home kits using his plant-based sausages getting rave reviews on Twitter. The next big customer is Soho House, which wanted a vegan schnitzel. Rankin and his partners are bidding for contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds, and he has huge airline food contracts in his sights.
But is it any good?
We tried the Soho House schnitzel, Dishoom sausage naan and Bleecker burger, which Rankin fried up on an electric grill with a bit of oil and salt in a tasting room above the factory. The burger patty has the texture of a high quality fried beef burger, but with a salty, savory kick reminiscent of marmite, which mostly comes from the barley miso.
Most miso is made in Japan by fermenting soybeans, but Rankin has already found a supplier who will make it in the UK with barley, reducing the carbon impact of shipping. Eventually, Rankin hopes to combine the cost- and carbon-saving benefits of using UK miso with food waste from supermarkets. “You can make miso with bread,” which UK supermarkets happen to have plenty of, often unsold and unsellable at the end of the day.
If he can pull it off, Rankin wants Symplicity Foods’ supply chain to be as clean as his factory’s worktops, where he can “look down the line and see that it’s sustainable from start to finish. I want to know where my mushrooms come from, I want to know where my tomatoes come from.” Then, one day in the future, maybe customers won’t mind knowing how the sausage is made.