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Bistro In Vitro: A Virtual Playground To Ponder The Future Of Meat

The bistro imagines the day when will be possible to culture "meat thread" made from long strands of muscle tissue. On a "special knitting machine," meat is thread into a steak.

Flowering meat that unfolds when plopped into hot broth, beef "yarn" that can be knitted directly onto your plate and fried nuggets made from the extinct dodo bird are just a few of the menu options at the Bistro In Vitro.

But don't expect to leave this place with a full belly. As the project's director, Dutch artist Koert van Mensvoort, tells The Salt, "It's a virtual restaurant so we strictly serve food for thought."

The central issue van Mensvoort wants to get diners chewing on is how to reconcile eating meat in an age when it's near impossible to ignore the environmental and animal welfare consequences of its production. It's time, he says, to think hard about a technology that may offer us some exciting new options: in vitro meat.

As The Salt reported, a Dutch scientist debuted the very first burger composed almost entirely of cells grown in a lab in London in 2013. With a price tag of $330,000, the burger was quite a ways off from being market ready.

But the technology, which could theoretically allow humans to be far less reliant on animals for meat, has inspired everyone from environmentalists to entrepreneurs to artists like van Mensvoort to think about how we could produce meat differently in the future.

van Mensvoort's first foray into in-vitro meat art was The In Vitro Cookbook, a 2014 collection of 45 hypothetical recipes, many of which were reproduced for the Bistro.

But there were a few things he felt were missing from the cookbook. One was the voices of chefs who might ostensibly cook with in vitro meat someday. The other was a sense of interactivity. Though readers could flip through recipes, the virtual bistro forces them to actually choose which one they'd like to eat. So he included both in the Bistro site.

The menu also gives each item a rating of between one and five stars (five being close to possible) to indicate its current feasibility.

When van Mensvoort first heard of lab-cultured meat, he says the scientists who "thought they could use in vitro meat to make the same steaks, sausages, and hamburgers that we all know" disappointed him. He felt that they should be reaching farther with this exciting new technology.

The concept of eating in vitro meat still gives many eaters the heebie-jeebies. But rather than trying to ease consumers into in vitro meat through a hamburger, van Mensvoort says why not imagine melt-in-your-mouth in vitro sweetbreads or scallops with cultured caviar.

When you "book a table" at the virtual restaurant, you're presented with nine different options for an appetizer, dinner and dessert — each one complete with a realistic photo or video. The images were made through a combination of technologies: computer-generated imagery for some video clips, 3-D modeling and even real foods. The video of "knitted meat," one of the most popular recipes from the original cookbook, features real strands of animal flesh knitted into a plate-sized rectangle.

Though van Mensvoort's recent work on in vitro meat may make him seem like an evangelist for the technology, he says it's only one of several possible options to deal with the growing toll meat production is taking on the environment. "I'm just trying to visualize everything that we could imagine could happen – both dreams and nightmares," he says.

"My goal isn't to be the cheerleader of in vitro meat," he says. "We just want to make a potential future more tangible."

Tove Danovich is a writer based in New York City.

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