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« An Interview: Great Chefs Cook Vegan Strawberries »

Interview Fri Jun 12 2009

Those Who Make Ribs Vegan

Dan and Russ of Upton's in their factory

If you're headed to Ribfest Chicago this weekend, perhaps you're curious about the fake meat that's in Delicious Cafe's vegan ribs. Upton's Naturals is a local business specializing in seitan. They are making the seitan, portioning it into ribs just for Delicious, and packing it into buckets with a sauce developed by Delicious Cafe. The ribs come ready for Delicious to grill at Ribfest Chicago.

I sat down with the owners of Upton's, Dan Staackmann and Russ Calderwood, in their factory in Skokie's South-East Industrial District. How did they design the seitan for the fake ribs?

Russ: "We have our base recipe that we use as a jumping off point whenever we launch a new product. And then we just worked with [Delicious Cafe] as far as the size and texture and presentation that they wanted."

Your correspondent: "Do you try to get the seitan to taste just like meat, or ... a little like meat?"

Russ: "When we got started, we were not interested in the sorts of processed foods that were readily available. And specifically, we were not interested in using the natural flavors generally associated with meat alternatives. We were hoping to just have a great tasting product with a really good texture and use that as a vehicle for the actual spices that you would use at home to make sausage or prepare meat."

Your correspondent: "Give me an example."

Russ: "Well in particular, our Italian sausage. That's the sort of meat product in the first place where what you're enjoying is the garlic and fennel and red pepper and oregano - and the texture."

Your correspondent: "Would it be fair to say your product is processed or unprocessed?"

Russ: "The great thing about seitan is it's exactly as processed as a loaf of bread. It's pretty much the exact same ingredients. [but]...the proportion of [gluten to starch] in the flour is much higher to give it the chewy, meat-like texture."

A pallet of vital wheat gluten stood next to us. Probably enough to make the ribs for Ribfest Chicago. The festival expects fifty thousand people. How'd Upton's gear up to supply an event that large?

Russ: "As far as what kind of numbers we came up with of trying to predict how much we're going to sell, we don't really have any idea." Russ chuckles.

Dan (joking in a deadpan voice): "One rib per person."

Russ: "We're delivering 400 pounds of seitan to [Delicious]..."

Your correspondent: "So how'd you come up with 400 pounds?"

Russ (chuckling first): "I pulled a rabbit out of a hat and the rabbit told me 400. It worked out really well, actually."

Dan and Russ of Upton's-9This is the first time Upton's is making ribs, but they have four solid years of experience making seitan for restaurants and selling retail packs in local grocery stores. They've recently brought on three full time employees. How'd they get started?

Russ: "Dan has the entrepreneurial spirit in him. He was looking to get something going. And we'd both been vegans and friends for a long time. So we started experimenting. And it worked."

Dan: "We saw that there weren't many companies making seitan. Especially not for food service. So we just started experimenting and came up with the product."

Rolls of Upton's labels for their packages hung above a table in the distance. The labels depict an old time looking character with a mustache.

Russ: "Neither Dan nor I wanted to take the fall to be the guy on the box. So we invented our little character, Upton. I've got an old barbering book from the '40s, that just had page after page of the most popular mustache styles by decade starting in the mid 1800s. So our friend John Sampson, an illustrator, he made a composite character from this barber book. And we decided to put a different mustache on every product. That's our pledge. So every time we release a new product, you'll have a new hilarious mustache."

So why is it called Upton's? Dan told me they wanted a unique name with an "old-timey" sound. "The name is just something we liked the sound of."

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Gemma / June 12, 2009 11:10 AM

Great profile Chris. I'm tempted to trek up to Ribfest this weekend now.

Vegan H / June 13, 2009 5:02 AM

Good luck.
We desperately need more vegan food companies.

Many more meat alternatives at

twobitme / June 16, 2009 2:50 PM

Great interview. We actually trekked up to Rib Fest purely for the vegan ribs this weekend and they didn't disappoint. My pork rib-loving fiance even felt their "ribs" were juicier than some of the actual meat ribs.

desigrrl / June 18, 2009 2:32 PM

excellent interview Chris, and love the photos.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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