Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson might be one of the hardest working people in show business—drumming with The Roots, serving as the Tonight Show bandleader, writing books, and DJing, but the man still has to eat. His celebrity status and affable nature have not only brought him the cache to host his anything-goes “food salons” with famous chefs and showbiz friends, but also the opportunity to get into the food game himself. After previously trying his hand at fried chicken and a catering service, the native Philadelphian is taking on his city’s most beloved food item—the cheesesteak. But Questlove’s newest venture comes with a twist, as he’s using Impossible Foods‘ plant-based meat substitute to create his own version of the classic sandwich.
Despite being an avowed carnivore, the prolific musician was amazed by Impossible burgers when the company first brought them to one of his salons. Now, he’s using its products for Questlove Cheesesteaks, debuting them at the Phillies home stadium Citizens Bank Park this year and soon at 40 Live Nation venues around the country. The goal is simple: offer red meat lovers a healthy alternative and make the Philly jawn (as locals say) all-inclusive for vegetarians and vegans—without the cheese, of course.
Questlove recently caught up with Fortune to discuss the steaks, testing them out on skeptical friends, and the titanic risk of bringing this meatless dish to the City of Brotherly Love.
Fortune: So where did the idea for these cheesesteaks come from?
Thompson: These salons I have [give] you a chance to explore different … avenues you haven’t thought of before. A year or two into it, people were calling about various ideas they had in the food world because it’s a creative space. Impossible said they felt they mastered the age-long question of why vegetarian or vegan food wasn’t as appealing as the blood-soaked standard red meat we’re all familiar with. We did a blind taste test with Impossible Burgers and Shake Shack and, honest to goodness, people really couldn’t tell the difference. I didn’t feel like I found the next big thing—I felt like this was going to be a revolution. Even I, the king of red meat, would gladly come to the other side. And I’m saying this as a non-vegetarian, as a non-vegan, as a person that is more health-conscious than I’ve ever been in my life.
When was that?
2015, maybe 2014. Once the window of opportunity came up to make the steaks, I was a little apprehensive but I felt like it would probably be responsible of me to figure out the missing pieces. I spent the last year and a half going to sports events and at most stadiums I go to, even if it’s concerts or the Grammys, there’s really nothing for those who are trying to watch what they eat. I figured, what better way to make an entry in the food world as a Philadelphian than to try to master the cheesesteak, especially the vegetarian one? They found the right Philadelphian to be the mascot for this rollout.
How did you go about creating the recipe?
We worked through many versions of taste tests, experiments, focus groups. It took a good two years. We were even tweaking it even two days before we unleashed it and we retweaked it again after that. One of the first things I insisted on was a partnership with Amoroso’s rolls. Any true Philadelphian will tell you that there’s various steak that’s used but there’s only one roll and that’s Amoroso’s. Once we struck a deal with them and they were mindblown at the product, I knew this could be something.
Philly’s a tough crowd and the cheesesteak is an emblem of the city. What kind of pressure do you feel doing this? If it doesn’t hit, you’re going to be in for it.
I have those concerns, but we’re extremely thorough. Of the few naysayers I’ve had, a few of my friends were like, “Man, it tastes so authentic that it’s not even built to my vegetarian palate.” People really want me to provide proof that they’re not eating red meat. Some of them refuse to believe it, like I’m playing a prank… That’s a good problem to have.
Again, this is not meant to replace the true-blue cheesesteak at all. We’re just trying to give you an alternative so that other people can be included…. Ultimately this is just the beginning. I have a few other tricks up my sleeve, get ahead of the curve, and figure out other products that will be all-inclusive.
So who did you test them on? The guys in the band, Jimmy Fallon, your foodie friends?
Well, my food salons are more of my peers, chefs and other creatives. The majority of the SNL cast people. Chris Rock. One time Björk came over. She was so early, she actually helped set up the place. It was a little weird. David Cross, Amber Tamblyn, Olivia Wilde and her husband Jason Sudeikis.
Are they fussy eaters?
Nah. The one thing I can humblebrag, it’s just a casual level of like, “Yeah, [Eleven Madison’s] Daniel Humm is coming to my house to cook.” These guys are at the top of their game, so no one’s complaining when Daniel is serving them hot dogs. It’s like seeing Bruno Mars as a subway busker. It’s a treat.
How was the reaction at the first Phillies game?
I was a little nervous. I got a few tweets, like some morning-radio shock jock going, “blehhhh!” But it’s like dude, again, I’m making them for people that decided that they might want to live to like 70 or 80. You’re chugging your beer and eating your steak—we’re not taking that away.… You don’t tend to think of the person that goes to sports games to be health-minded, but a lot of them participate in sports or watch what they eat… the across-the-board consensus was, “Finally. Our prayers have been answered. Someone’s thought of us. Thank you!” It was almost like, “Why didn’t someone else think of this?”
Were you more nervous about the steaks or throwing out the first pitch at the season opener?
When I saw how far the Philly Phanatic was from the mound, I was like “Oh, God. I don’t think this is going to work out.” And then thought, “Well, what true Philadelphia notable has not experienced a Philadelphia boo before?” Right before I got on, my friend told me about this kid who lost his arm in an accident and the University of Penn Hospital made him a special prosthetic. One of his wishes was to throw out the first pitch and the Phillies got him on the mound, but his prosthetic wasn’t strong enough to throw 60 feet—and the Philadelphians booed him. I’ve been there for those ugly moments. I was there when Beyonce got booed at a basketball game for wearing a Lakers top. My goal was not making it to SportsCenter‘s not-so-top 10 the way that 50 Cent made it. He has hands down the worst celebrity first pitch.
So, I did a slight grounder at home plate and got booed. I’m still more concerned about making an impact on my city and giving health-minded people a better food option. Everyone forgot about the pitch, but they’re still talking about those cheesesteaks.