A new era of vegan cheese is quickly unfolding, one where the complexities of dairy are no longer derived from animal products. Instead, artificial intelligence comes together with human know-how to create a new way of making cheese.
This deep tech approach is how Climax Foods—founded by data scientist Dr. Oliver Zahn—makes its vegan cheeses. “Human intuition and computer performance interact in that humans teach computers how to set up the search space, and computers vary a large number of parameters and measure the outcomes, replacing enormously large panels that would be required to do the same,” Zahn tells VegNews.
“As a result, we can find hidden trends—the needles in the haystack of an infinitely large ingredient and process combination space—that are particularly good matches for the target animal product functionalities,” he says.
These AI-powered cheeses are already gaining a fanbase among food industry luminaries, including Michelin-starred chefs Dominique Crenn and Jean-Georges Vongerichten and celebrity chef Matthew Kenney.
VegNews editors sampled the company’s vegan blue and brie cheeses earlier this month during trade show Natural Products Expo West. They tasted unlike any vegan cheeses we have ever had, and we’re not the only ones who think so.
“Climax Foods Inc. represents what I have been waiting for after 20 years as a plant-based chef,” Kenney said in a statement. “The impact of incredible tasting with addictive textural characteristics, which are uncompromising and satiating foods, made solely from plants, cannot be over-emphasized in the future of consumerism.”
Climax Blue impresses French chef Dominique Crenn
French-born chef Dominique Crenn has been a pioneer in many ways throughout her decades-long career. Known as the first woman to receive three Michelin stars in the United States, the chef is also a trendsetter when it comes to sustainability. Back in 2018, Crenn removed land animals from her menu, choosing instead to focus on less environmentally damaging products.
She is also a culinary advisor to Upside Foods, the first company in the US to gain FDA approval for its cultivated chicken—which Crenn plans to put on her menu once all other regulatory approvals are in place.
When it comes to Climax Foods, Crenn also sees the vast potential of its vegan cheeses. Starting this month, Crenn will put Climax Blue on the menu at her three Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco to give her customers a taste of the future.
“I am very impressed by [Climax Foods’] masterfully crafted specialty cheeses, which are made from plants but indiscernible when compared to the finest dairy-based cheeses,” Crenn said in a statement. “We are committed to providing unparalleled quality and flavor in every dish we create and are equally as conscious about our ingredients’ impact on the environment.”
“I appreciate that Climax aligns with our values on many levels, and I believe our guests will be delighted by their products,” Crenn said. “Climax Blue is one of my favorites, it is soft, buttery, and surprisingly rich—beyond imagination for a vegan cheese.”
In addition to Crenn, Climax is working with other Michelin chefs to put its vegan cheeses on their menus. Kenney is also adding it to his menus 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—at parity with its dairy counterparts—later this year.
Gaining support from top chefs, particularly those with deep connections to French cheeses such as Crenn, gives Climax a boost at the beginning. “These chefs have worked decades on their reputation to only serve the pinnacle of food, and they have no bias toward plant-based diets,” Zahn 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 outcompete the 6,000-year-old animal domestication technology approach at scale, within the next couple of years,” he says.
The next generation of cheese, made from plants
Prior to founding Climax Foods, Zahn was a data scientist lead at Google and SpaceX. The Bavaria-born astrophysicist was inspired to apply his vast knowledge of time and space to improve the food system.
Continuing to rely on animals as a food source, Zahn explains, is a process in which 90 percent of calories produced are wasted. “Climax has created a more efficient way to harness the full potential of plants as the planet’s most natural resource, offering tastier, more nutritious, and more affordable dairy products across all categories,” he says.
“Our mission is to affect positive change on a global scale, not only for consumers but also for the producers that have had to navigate and cut corners due to the enormous inefficiency posed by animals in the food system,” Zahn says.
Removing inefficiencies in food production with the help of technology allows Climax Foods to eventually outprice the animal products it recreates with plants. “Once flavor, texture, and nutrition are perfect, the only conceivable hurdle to consumer acceptance is price,” Zahn says.
In addition to Climax Blue, the company is working to commercialize other specialty cheeses such as the brie it previewed at Expo West, along with feta and chèvre. Ultimately, Zahn says, the company will expand its reach beyond cheeses and into other animal food categories and potentially textiles.