Still, chefs around the country are fawning over MeliBio’s honey. Dan Rothman, the NYC corporate executive chef at The Butcher’s Daughter, a plant-based restaurant in New York and Los Angeles, spied the honey on LinkedIn before ordering a jar. As soon as it arrived, he dipped a spoon in and did the classic honey twist. “I licked it off and was completely jazzed by it,” he says.
Last winter Rothman used it in a honey, garlic, and chili glaze on roasted brussels sprouts, topped with toasted hemp seeds. Now he’s using the same delicious glaze on sugar snap peas with pea tendrils and shaved radish. “My guests can’t believe it’s vegan honey,” he says. The only problem is supply. MeliBio is making about 2,000 lbs of honey a week, which is primarily sent out as samples across the country for feedback. Until he’s able to buy in bulk, Rothman says he’s “chomping at the bit to unleash it fully.”
In Williamsburg bee-free honey is a new staple at Little Choc Apothecary, a vegan and gluten-free crêperie. “It was a dream to have honey at our place,” says Elena Beresneva, the managing partner and a former chef. “We use agave, but it lacks the honey texture and clover taste,” she says. But when Beresneva tried MeliBio, she couldn’t tell the difference. “We made baklava crêpes and people were going nuts about it,” she says.
Other restaurants are catching on to lab-made honey’s improved sustainability, because it’s made in the U.S. and could supplant the need for importing the sweet treat. The startup is in talks with chefs and restaurant groups around the country, including Matthew Kenney Cuisine in Los Angeles, Scen in New York, and Baia in San Francisco. And in honor of World Bee Day on May 20, MeliBio hosted a four-course lunch at Eleven Madison Park, which featured its honey in dishes like spring onion broth, crispy chickpea panisse, and marinated white asparagus.
The second time I tasted MeliBio’s honey was at Future Food-Tech: San Francisco in March 2022. I was on stage for a cooking demo with Mandich and Schaller. Tim Wong, the executive chef at Meta, was standing next to me. For the demo Schaller made cornbread using vegan butter and subbed the sugar with honey. On top he drizzled MeliBio’s latest creation: hot honey spiced with aji limo rojo chile peppers. Wong thought the honey was great. “I like the heat, just a little touch to give a flavor profile to the cornbread,” he told the audience.
Bee-free honey is tasty, and it’s a win for vegans and new moms. But whether or not it could solve complex food system problems, like pollinator biodiversity, remains unclear. Still, there’s appetite for this tech-driven alternative: the startup has raised $7.2 million from investors who see this as climate positive. And the brand dreams of helping companies like Kind use its bee-free honey in their bars or General Mills in making vegan Honey Nut Cheerios.
But McAfee wonders: Will we still be able to enjoy one of nature’s most delightful foods knowing it was engineered in a lab? “The fact that honeybees can gather so much nectar from different places, put it in their neat little combs, and ripen it for long term storage, all before we get to enjoy it in our tea and cereal is a near-magical feat.”
In my experience, that same surprise and delight can come from science too. We needn’t pit one sweet nectar over the other, but rather consider bee-less honey a solution that may be additive to our lives. I’m not vegan yet, but the deeper into food tech my reporting takes me, the more possible it seems. In the meantime I have all the ingredients to whip up that spicy, delicious, “honey’-drenched cornbread.
Larissa Zimberoff is a bay area journalist and the author of Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.