A new era of vegan cheese is rapidly unfolding, where the dairy complexities are no longer derived from animal products. Instead, artificial intelligence combines with human know-how to create a new way of making cheese.
This deeply technical approach is how Climax Foods—founded by data scientist Dr. Oliver Jahn—makes its vegan cheeses. “Human intuition and computer performance interact so that humans teach the computer how to set up the search space, and the computers measure a lot of parameters and measure the results, replacing a lot of large panels that have to do the same thing,” Zahn told VegNews.
“As a result, we can find hidden trends — needles in an infinitely large material haystack and process combinations — that are particularly good matches for target animal product performance,” he says.
These AI-powered cheeses are already gaining a fanbase among food industry luminaries, including Michelin-starred chefs Dominique Crane and Jean-Georges Vongerichten and celebrity chef Matthew Kenny.
VegNews editors sampled the company’s Vegan Blue and Brie cheeses earlier this month during the trade show Natural Products Expo West. They taste different than any vegan cheese we’ve had, and we’re not the only ones who think so.
“Climax Foods Inc. represents what I’ve been waiting for after 20 years as a plant-based chef,” Kenney said in a statement. “The incredible taste impact with addictive textural properties, which is uncompromising and satisfying, food made only from plants, cannot be overemphasized in the future of consumerism.”
Climax Blue impressed French chef Dominique Crane
French-born chef Dominique Crane has been a pioneer in many ways during his decades-long career. Known as the first woman in the US to receive three Michelin stars, the chef is also a trendsetter when it comes to sustainability. In 2018, Crane removed land animals from its menu, choosing instead to focus on less environmentally damaging products.
He’s also the culinary advisor for Upside Foods, the first company in the U.S. to receive FDA approval for its farm-raised chicken—which Crane plans to put on its menu once all other regulatory approvals are in place.
When it comes to Climax Foods, Crane also sees huge potential for its vegan cheeses. Starting this month, Crane will put Climax Blue on the menu at Crane’s, its three Michelin-starred Ateliers in San Francisco, to give its customers a taste of the future.
“I am very impressed [Climax Foods’] Masterfully crafted specialty cheeses, made from plants but pale in comparison to the finest dairy-based cheeses,” Crane said in a statement. “We are committed to delivering unparalleled quality and taste in every dish we make and are equally conscious of the impact our ingredients have on the environment.”
“I appreciate that Climax aligns with our values on so many levels, and I believe our guests will be delighted by their products,” said Crane. “Climax Blue is one of my favourites, it’s soft, buttery and wonderfully rich – beyond imagination for a vegan cheese.”
In addition to Crane, Climax is working with other Michelin chefs to include vegan cheeses on their menus. Kenny is also adding it to his menu at Plant Food + Wine in Venice Beach, CA; LIORA in Baltimore, MD; and VEG’D in Costa Mesa, CA. Climax will make its retail debut – on par with its dairy counterparts – later this year.
Gaining support from top chefs, especially those with deep connections to French cheeses like Crenes, gives Climax a boost in the beginning. “These chefs have built their reputation for decades on serving only the top of the line food, and they have no bias toward plant-based diets,” Jahn says.
“Serving Climax Specialty Cheese—not just any food product, but arguably the most complex in terms of flavor, texture and appearance—is the ultimate stamp of approval that our products are true successors that will outlast 6,000-year-old animal husbandry. In the next few years the technological approach scales,” he says.
The next generation of cheese, made from plants
Prior to founding Climax Foods, Jahn was a data scientist lead at Google and SpaceX. The Bavarian-born astrophysicist was inspired to apply his vast knowledge of time and space to improve food systems.
Continuing to rely on animals as a food source, Jahn explains, is a process in which 90 percent of the calories produced are wasted. “Climax has developed a more efficient way to harness the full potential of plants as the planet’s most natural resource, providing tastier, more nutritious, and more affordable dairy products across all categories,” he said.
“Our goal is to affect positive change globally, not only for consumers, but also for producers who have had to navigate and cut corners due to the enormous inefficiencies created by animals in the food system,” Jahn said.
Eliminating inefficiencies in food production with technology allows Climax Foods to eventually surpass the value of animal products reconstituted with plants. “Once taste, texture and nutrition are perfected, the only conceivable barrier to consumer acceptance is price,” says Jahn.
In addition to Climax Blue, the company is working to commercialize other specialty cheeses such as brie, which was previewed at Expo West, along with feta and chèvre. Eventually, Jahn said, the company will expand its reach beyond cheese and into other animal food categories and potentially textiles.