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To create a plant-based egg substitute that would appeal to the most discerning consumers and home cooks, Hampton Creek Foods paired its scientists with an in-house culinary expert. Chris Jones, who was previously the chef de cuisine at Chicago’s innovative Moto restaurant (and who appeared on “Top Chef”), works closely with the rest of the lab to test the products in a real kitchen.
“Chris is a blazingly talented chef,” Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek Foods’ CEO, told “TechKnow.” “He doesn't know anything about biochemistry, though. But [he has] the subtlety that comes from experiencing food on a visceral level that the biochemist would never, ever be able to touch.”
“TechKnow” contributor Marita Davison spoke to Jones about his unusual mix of formal and nontraditional training, why he’s done cooking for “the 1 percent” and his relentless push to make an egg alternative that’s even better than the real thing.
Chris Jones, chef, Hampton Creek Foods: I am the culinary director of innovations here. I walked in the door and I put my suitcase down and I literally started making Just Mayo [the substitute now sold by Hampton Creek] during my interview. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I didn't want any review. I just wanted to get the project done. So that's been my role. I've been working hand in hand with the emulsion team on getting the project done.
Marita Davison, “TechKnow” contributor: What were you doing before you came to Hampton Creek?
CJ: I had 16 years in my industry as a chef, worked anywhere from a Max & Erma's, which is like a T.G.I. Fridays, to Michelin star restaurants, one of which was La Francais underneath Chef Banchet. And I was at Moto Restaurant underneath Homaru Cantu.
MD: What brought you here?
CJ: As a chef, there's very rare opportunities in life where you can make a huge impact on something that is global. Sometimes you get PR and you have a platform and you can make, you can make some things happen. When I got the opportunity to join Hampton Creek, a light bulb came on and it kind of was like the wind just said, “Go here. Make something beautiful.” I cooked for the 1 percent of the world for a very, very, very long time. This gave me an opportunity to cook for 100 percent of the world — and in a better way for them and a better way for our planet.
I cooked for the 1 percent of the world for a very, very, very long time. This gave me an opportunity to cook for 100 percent of the world — and in a better way for them and a better way for our planet.
Director of culinary innovation, Hampton Creek
MD: Before you came here, what were some of the favorite ways that you had of cooking eggs?
CJ: I'm a breakfast kind of guy. I like my eggs sunny side up on a piece of toast with a little piece of bacon on there to dip in. That's probably my favorite way to cook an egg.
MD: Tell me a little bit more about Just Mayo. What was the process of actually coming up with that final product?
CJ: When I first got here, we didn't really have much in terms of mayo. We'd have emulsion that would hold maybe one or two days and kind of just fall apart quickly. There are other alternative mayos out there that don't use egg. A lot of them sometimes will contain gums or hydrocolloids. Others will contain milk solids. None of them really have the right texture or taste that a mayo has. Having tasted all those products when I walked in here, I was like, well, we can do better than that. As we were screening through proteins, a lot of them didn't work out. They would just break or they wouldn't work at all — they would just die on impact. But each failure leads to success. After about 200 tries we found a yellow split pea that actually worked really well as an emulsifier. And then from there, we started doing iterations on flavor, taste and texture, and really started going, “Can't we make this a viable mayo product?” And the answer is yes.
MD: What's it like as a chef to cook with these nontraditional products?
CJ: Coming from Moto, we were kind of considered the mad scientists of the cooking world anyway, so I always had this kind of out-of-the-box thinking experience. Taking that seven years that I was at that restaurant, bringing it here and putting that flux — that “Hey, anything can be done as long as we try and work at it” [approach] — I thought everything was possible, so it was very natural to me in this environment.
MD: Are there major differences with the way you would prepare something?
CJ: I don't want there to be any major differences. I want it to be exactly the same. I think as a consumer you're used to cooking egg, and I don't want to reteach you how to cook an egg. I want it to scramble up just how it would be. I want it to flip. I want it to make an omelet. I want it to be made on the same equipment that a regular mayo would be made on. It can be universal. And that’s when we win. [If] it has to be special, mainstream doesn't want it. And I'm not here for the 3 percent of the world. I'm here for everyone.
MD: Is your aim to make it virtually indistinguishable from traditional real mayo?
CJ: My aim is to make it better.
MD: Do you think you're there?
CJ: We're getting there. Better for me is: can it last three years? Can it never be refrigerated? Can we bring the oil count down? Can we make it healthier for you? Can we find a plant protein that'll actually be able to remove the preservatives that are chemically put into mayo in the first place? So I think there’s farther we can go. As flavor goes, I think since we've taken the egg out we actually have a better-tasting mayo. That's my personal opinion as a chef. I don't like the flavor of egg in mayo. I think it kind of has a citrified taste to it. If I want an egg on a sandwich, I can fry one up and put it on there myself.
We were kind of considered the mad scientists of the cooking world anyway, so I always had this kind of out-of-the-box thinking experience. I thought everything was possible.
MD: And what about the baking products, like this cookie dough?
CJ: My daughter is 3, and she only eats Beyond Eggs cookies at this point. I think maybe it's because she can eat the dough. She sees that it's good for her, and the fact that she can eat it raw kind of signifies that, oh, this is OK.
MD: I love to cook. For me there's something so visceral about cracking that egg and hearing it sizzle. Do you think that there will be a segment of the consumer population that would say, you know, it's taking away the —
CJ: The romance?
CJ: Well, look at wines. Now they have synthetic corks. They have screw caps. One out of 10 bottles is corked [with natural corks]. Now they have synthetic corks, none of them are corked. You get a full case and you enjoy every one. I think it's going to take time for people to adjust. But when they see it's more affordable, it's better for them, it's better for the world — and it tastes the same — they're going to start to win them over. It's just going to be a thing of the past that we used eggs in these products.
MD: What do you love the most about what you do here?
CJ: My little girl is a huge inspiration for me. I'm working 12 hours a day, but I have an opportunity to make a huge difference. I want her to grow up and say Daddy did something very special. That's my driving force every day. It's the reason I run that machine over 2,000 times. It's the reason I can't sleep at night sometimes. I want to make her proud.
To learn more about Chris Jones and Hampton Creek Foods, watch "TechKnow," Saturday 7ET/4PT.