WASHINGTON — Chef Kaimana Chee had an audience as he made omelets at the bar at Equinox restaurant Tuesday morning just two blocks from the White House.
First, he poured in the base. Then he added a few chopped vegetables. He watched the omelet bubble, listening to it sizzle. And at the right moment, he used a spatula to roll it. He cut the golden brown omelet into large pieces, and handed them to the people on the other side of the bar who were watching his every move.
"It's really just like a scrambled egg," he told Food Dive as he started another omelet.
But it wasn't any egg at all. Chee is the concierge chef for San Francisco food company JUST, and he was showing off its latest U.S. product, JUST Egg. Made from an ingredient derived from mung bean, the vegan egg substitute looks, tastes and cooks much like the real thing.
JUST, formerly known as Hampton Creek, spent years trying to perfect the product. And now, the manufacturer best known for its vegan mayonnaise, condiments and cookie dough is cracking the egg substitute market.
"Ultimately, we want to mimic the full functionality of an egg," Andrew Noyes, JUST's head of communications, told Food Dive.
The product debuted late last year, and is not yet widely available. Currently, it is in a few restaurants in San Francisco, Hong Kong and now at Equinox. The stylish D.C. restaurant has been serving JUST Egg as part of its weekend brunch menu for the last few weeks.
At Tuesday's event, some of restaurant chef Todd Gray's creations were being shared. Taking full advantage of the ingredient's egg-like properties, attendees could try a custard or bearnaise sauce made with JUST Egg, as well as more traditional egg dishes like "huevos" rancheros and an "egg" and cheese sandwich on English muffins. Chee said the ingredient can do almost everything an actual egg can, except make cakes fluffy.
And how does it taste?
"Everyone is always looking for differences," Chee said. "As a chef and as a lover of eggs, I can taste some subtle differences. But the versatility is really what makes it."
The recipes with other ingredients tasted nearly indistinguishable from eggs. The omelet had a slightly off taste, but was close enough to the real thing to be an enjoyable breakfast.
So far, the product has been popular in the restaurants where it is served. According to JUST, adding the item to a menu increased total breakfast sales by 13%, while egg-related dishes jumped 42%.
Even though JUST Egg is rolling out to restaurant patrons in a few places, JUST is getting ready for a much bigger launch. Noyes said the company is preparing to manufacture a retail version that should be available on some grocers' shelves in the coming months. Additionally, the product — which will be available as a liquid for scrambling and as a premade patty — will be included on several more foodservice menus in the near future.
In order to get JUST Egg into consumers' kitchens faster — and take advantage of the company's enthusiastic fan base — JUST created a website that helps them ask their favorite retailer to sell it. Missing from the list of stores to petition is Target, which abruptly ended its relationship with JUST last year.
The site launched over the weekend, so Noyes wasn't sure on Tuesday if it was attracting many consumers. According to the site, the product will already soon be at some locations of stores including Lucky, Gelson's, Wegmans, New Seasons Market, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, Lunardis and Roth's Fresh Markets.
Noyes said JUST is prepared to scale up the product in a big way very soon.
"We're certainly getting there," he said.