When Kerry Song gave up animal products and switched to an entirely plant-based diet seven years ago, she wasn't thrilled by her options at the grocery store, where all she could find were bland and over-processed veggie burgers and faux meats.
"If you look at the ingredients of the products, there's a list of chemicals, artificial ingredients and additives," she said. "If you're making healthy choices, you don't want to put those things in your body. And they were also lacking taste, texture and flavor."
Song had no formal culinary training — she graduated from Princeton University with a degree in economics and had worked as an investment banker — but she started cooking up her own plant-based recipes at home for herself, friends and family to try to create something healthier and more palatable.
After starting with burgers and meatballs, her hobby has grown into The Abbot's Butcher, a Costa Mesa vegan "meat" company that produces a variety of products, from chorizo to pastrami, all from scratch out of whole, plant-based ingredients.
The idea behind the business is simple, said Song — give vegans and vegetarians healthier options that taste so good even meat-eaters will want a bite. Before launching the company, she spent a year developing recipes, testing each item on meat-eaters to make sure it had the proper taste and mouth feel.
"If you tell a meat-eater that they need to go plant-based, which means no eggs, no dairy and no meat, it's really daunting," said Song. "They think of tofu and rabbit food. But we're trying to show them that you can have tacos, meatloaf and your other favorites."
The Abbot's Butcher offers items such as "beef" and "turkey" burgers, herb-roasted "chicken" deli slices, Italian "meatballs," Spanish "chorizo," and ground "chicken" and "beef," all made of vegetables, herbs and spices. There are no artificial colors or flavors — beets and tomatoes offer color while porcini mushrooms give a savory, meaty flavor — no preservatives, and no genetically modified ingredients.
"Our meats have the taste, texture and appeal of animal protein, but none of the negative side effects," said Song, citing her 4-ounce burger patties, which have 180 calories, 4 grams of fat, 24 grams of protein — and no saturated fat or cholesterol.
"So you can still have your favorite dishes, but you're still doing it in a plant-based way, so it's better for your body, better for the environment, better for the animals."
Studies have shown that plant-based diets can help reduce the risk of heart disease, while plant-based diets also reduce a person's carbon footprint.
The Abbot's Butcher is part of a new wave of food companies taking advantage of the growing interest in plant-based diets — many of which rely on complex food technology to create alternatives to animal products.
The Silicon Valley-based Impossible Foods has created a meatless burger that "bleeds" on the grill; the Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow is working to develop 3-D printed meat; San Francisco's Clara Foods is developing chicken-less egg whites; and scientists are even experimenting with lab-grown meat.
But Song sees herself standing apart through her artisanal, small-batch approach, and her reliance on healthy, whole foods. For now, customers can purchase Song's products on The Abbot's Butcher's website or in the store Grow in downtown Los Angeles. Soon, she said, her items will be available in several shops and restaurants around Orange County, including Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop.
And the more her company grows, the more she hopes to help others make healthier choices for themselves and the world around them.
"I don't want to preach to anyone," Song said. "I just want to give people the opportunity to say 'hey, you can still have your favorite burger, you can have everything you love, just incorporate more plant-based options.' "
For more information, visit theabbotsbutcher.com.
CAITLIN YOSHIKO KANDIL is a contributor to Times Community News.