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Imagine a whole cut of salmon hitting the pan, releasing its unique aromas, turning semi-translucent and flaking as it cooks. Now imagine that salmon never swam in the water.

If New School Foods founder and chief executive Chris Bryson’s bet pays off, such a plant-based alternative could be served in select North American restaurants by early next year.

“You shouldn’t have to relearn how to cook a piece of salmon,” Bryson said of one of the challenges of getting meat-eating consumers to try a plant-based alternative.

Meat alternatives have been around for a decade now but still struggle as an acceptable mainstream option over animal meat, the industry-scale production of which makes a significant contribution to climate change.

In fact, New School Foods’ arrival comes as early entrants to the alt-meat game grapple with a broad retrenchment in supermarket sales of meat alternatives. Beyond Meat Inc. and Impossible Foods Inc. have both cut staff in recent months, with Bloomberg this week reporting more reductions are likely at Impossible. McDonald's last year ended its trial of plant-based burgers.

New School Foods claims to be the first to develop a product with the exact texture, mouthfeel and raw-to-cooked transition of conventional fish. Bryson said human psychology is why his team spent nearly three years engaging in sponsored research with six academic institutions — including Toronto Metropolitan University, McGill University in Montreal and Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University — to make its vegetarian dishes act just like whole-cut meat.

“I don’t think that people need the meat to come from an animal, I don’t think that’s a checkbox on someone’s checklist,” said Bryson, whose company went public Thursday to announce a US$12-million seed funding deal and invite restaurant chefs to join its pilot program.

“Fundamentally, they want it to be nutritious, they want the right level of protein, they want, in the case of salmon, their Omega 3s (fatty acids), they want all those nutritional benefits, and they want the experience that feels, that reminds them of whatever their customs or habits were,” he said. “Because change is difficult.”

New School Foods says it has created the first plant-based whole-cut salmon filet that cooks the same as the fish. Photo supplied by New School Foods

Most existing plant-based meat alternatives are produced using a process known as extrusion that heats all component ingredients at a very high temperature and then stretches them through a long tunnel. Bryson and the company’s lead scientist Auke de Vries say this process means those plant-based alternatives will never be able to cook like meat does.

Imagine a whole cut of salmon hitting the pan, releasing its unique aromas, turning semi-translucent and flaking as it cooks. Now imagine that salmon never swam in the water.

Instead, their offering starts as a block of algae-based jelly that is chilled in a process called directional freezing. This turns it into a clear product that acts as a scaffold, with open pores that can be filled with fats, proteins, colours and flavours.

The research that has helped New School Foods get to this point was conducted at the renowned food science program at Wageningen University in the Netherlands as well as the universities of Virginia and Massachusetts in the United States.

Each had a particular task, Bryson said, with one university engaged to identify so-called “key volatiles,” chemicals produced when cooking salmon that create its signature cooking smell and resulting flavour. The company then backtracked to find the precursors needed to replicate these chemicals.

The raw plant-based product has similar white lines of fat as the fish it seeks to replicate, which helps to mimic salmon's cooking profile. Photo supplied by New School Foods

The deals with the universities were each structured differently — some will receive a return on future revenue, while others got a stake in the company — but all allowed New School Foods to own the intellectual property, a key requirement for attracting seed investment, Bryson said.

Those investments came from Lever VC, Blue Horizon, Hatch, Good Startup and Alwyn Capital, as well as grants from Canadian government agencies including Sustainable Development Technology Canada and Protein Industry Canada, and will help fund the doubling of the company’s staff of around a dozen mostly food scientists and engineers by the end of 2023.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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It'll be interesting to see the complete nutritional profile ...

It'd also be interesting to find what the carbon footprint of these highly processed foods is, compared to their animal inspirations.