Australian start-up Fable has created a plant-based meat alternative that’s caught the attention of British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. He was so impressed that he added it to the menu at his world-famous restaurant, The Fat Duck, in London.
The entrepreneurs behind Fable are Shoes of Prey co-founder Michael Fox, fine dining chef and scientist Jim Fuller and organic mushroom farmer Chris McLoghlin. They’ve certainly found their match in Blumenthal who is as intrigued about mushroom innovation as they are; ever keen to find a way to introduce a meat alternative that still tastes like meat. They’ve hit the jackpot with their shiitake mushroom-based product that’s designed to have the same texture as pulled pork and beef brisket.
Fable makes its debut in Singapore this month with a spot on the menu at Empress, The Garden Club, Pixy Restaurant & Bar and American Taproom. There’ll be a distributor deal signed very soon; bringing this plant-based phenomenon to the mass market for consumers to indulge at home. But for now, it’s only available at fancy top-tier restaurants, indulging diners in a new flavour sensation while also educating us on how to be more mindful with our food choices at the dinner table.
It’s all thanks to a Thai professor named Anon Auetragul (more about him later), a curiosity to save the planet, and a mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and find a plant-based alternative that inspired Fox to make a difference with his new business venture. Fable is writing its own modern-day folklore—proof that riding a plant-based wave has less to do with being on-trend and more about being kind to the planet and animals.
When award-winning company and industry trailblazer Shoes of Prey shut its doors last year, Fox knew it was time to step away from manufacturing high- end women’s shoes. After 10 years at the helm, it had become harder to survive in the competitive world of online shopping (he says women simply didn’t want to commit to creating custom- made shoes, even if they could be delivered in the desired time frame of two weeks).
“Shoes of Prey was a wild rollercoaster journey for me. Our niche idea had interest and plenty of mass appeal, but the consumer didn’t have enough confidence to create their own shoes when it came to the crunch,” says Fox, who separated from his first wife and co-founder Jodie Fox in 2012 but continued working together.
The Aussie entrepreneur moved to Copenhagen for six months last year with his wife and their first-born child to realign the chakras (they had their second child while there) and returned to Melbourne to launch the new business model with Heston’s team at Crown Towers. “I’ve been a vegetarian for four years. For me making the switch was driven by ethical, environmental and health reasons in that order,” says Fox.
“I got into reading more about industrial animal agriculture and couldn’t think of anything more I wanted to do next work-wise than explore this avenue. Getting to the point of start-up was inspired by a desire to reduce animal consumption and to get people to think beyond meat. Creating meat alternatives that resonate with mass-market consumers seemed like a natural step, and while it’s a trend and plant-based has become a huge thing, it’ll be the way for the future.”
Fable’s place in high-end restaurants proves the ingredient can survive various creative moves in the kitchen too. It’s designed to have the same texture and taste as meat and can mimic pulled pork and brisket to perfection. It can adjust to a stir-fry or risotto too. In a menu sampling of Fable’s magic mushrooms, the team at Dinner by Heston in Melbourne used the mushroom-based ingredient in a savoury porridge as well as a roast cauliflower main course with smoked brown butter and red wine.
Fox is the first to admit he doesn’t have a background in food, but was willing to chew the fat with those who did. He spent time researching the mock meat space in the USA, talking to food scientists in Australia about developing the product, and connected with the esteemed Professor Auetragul in Thailand who has been researching mushrooms since 1974.
It was via Professor Auetragul that the Fable lads got to meet Blumenthal, who happened to be in Thailand on a mission to learn more about the medicinal properties of mushrooms as well as the commercial cultivation possible. “My business partner Chris [McLoghlin] spent a lot of time with the professor in Thailand and it was happening around the time Heston was also learning about cooking with mushrooms and understanding their value,” says Fox.
“The professor knew Chris has a scientist background in mushrooms and thought the two should meet and it happened from there. They hung out in Thailand over 12 months ago, again in Singapore last year during the Grand Prix and at the Grand Prix in Melbourne in March. He showed him the product and he loved it. They spent a few days trying and testing many mushrooms.”
Fox says the idea to settle on shiitake proved the most viable in their tried-and- tested process. “We all settled on the idea of taking a shiitake mushroom and shredding it to make pulled pork and slow-cooked beef. You get a firmer fibrous mushroom from the stem, making it easier to substitute as a slow-cooked meat alternative,” he says.
“We focus on taste and texture first,” adds Fuller. “I’m Texan and grew up on BBQ so our goal with Fable has been to re-create the taste and texture of pulled pork and beef brisket, two of my favourite meats.”
From a branding perspective, Fable’s vision was to create a product high quality enough that high-end chefs would want to use, in turn inspiring home cooks to follow in their footsteps. The mushroom-based plant product is grown mostly in Asia (where shiitake thrives) and assembled with the guidance of an Australian food scientist who assists in the manufacturing process in Malaysia.
Mushrooms dominate Asian cuisine so it made sense to set up the manufacturing side of the business there. “Australians only eat 2.3kg of mushrooms per person per year, while in Asia it’s 14 percent per person per year,” explains Fox. “We really want to turn that around and get people thinking about ways to eat mushrooms that taste like meat so they’re not really missing out if it’s the flavour they’re after.”
It was upon learning that Australians consume 100kg of meat per person per year that was enough to make Fox want to convert to vegetarianism. “It forced me to look at my own diet and what I could do to help the planet by changing the way I relied on food and produce,” he says.
It also took reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and a conversation with Smith & Daughters’ founder Shannon Martinez in Melbourne, who specialises in vegetarian cuisine, for Fox to feel he was on the right path. “There was a huge campaign in the late ’80s and ’90s when mushroom was dubbed meat for vegetarians. It was an effective message and one we want to bring back,” he says.
“My journey to get to this point didn’t just happen overnight, it’s been a 10-year one. I found it weird that as humans we love and care for our pets like cats and dogs, but then we choose to eat animals. Reading about factoring farming and the torturous animal conditions got me thinking about being vegetarian and making the switch a permanent one. There’s a whole range of trends on the market right now encouraging people to go plant-based, but health is the most obvious one. Scientific data shows that we eat too much meat and it’s not good for us to eat that much in a year.
There’s more concern globally about the challenges that humanity faces with climate change too and UN data reveals that animal agriculture causes 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all of transport combined. So if you took away all the cars, planes, trains and ships, you wouldn’t have as big an impact as when everyone stops eating meat. If we want to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we need to reduce our meat consumption.”
Fox points to more data that reveals 38.5 percent of the world’s habitable land mass is devoted to animal agriculture, with a large part of that use being to grow the plants to feed factory- farmed animals, which can require over eight kilograms of plants to produce one kilogram of meat.
“It’s a very inefficient way to produce food,” says Fox. “It’s also a negative impact on other systems. The thought that you need to grow all these crops to feed one animal doesn’t make sense.” Fox says human beings need to change the way we source food. His mission with Fable is merely a stepping stone in that direction for now. If he can inspire others to cut down meat by eating mushrooms, then it’s partly mission accomplished.
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