Kitchen tech is getting more gonzo. Earlier this year, Museum of Food and Drink founder Dave Arnold unleashed the Searzall, a hand-held broiler meant for up-close meat searing. Last year, an MIT engineer announced the development of the Pantelligent, a "smart" frying pan that allows for temperature control via app. There are countless similar food-nerd toys on the market today — many spearheaded by culinary education groups and research labs — but only one has the somewhat-unexpected backing of video game mogul Gabe Newell.
ChefSteps has created and built an immersion circulator
For the uninitiated, Gabe Newell, a Harvard dropout, was the 271st employee of Microsoft. He worked on a little program known as Windows. After he cashed out of Bill Gates' computer company, Newell co-founded the Valve Corporation, one of the most successful video gaming companies in the world. Valve is responsible for gaming hits like Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal, and Day of Defeat. Two years ago, Newell invested in ChefSteps, a company founded by alumni from the Modernist Cuisine lab in 2012. This group of enthusiastic cooking geeks merge traditional cooking techniques with science and demonstrate new or classic ways of preparing a dish in well-produced videos for a growing international audience. For the first time in their history as a company, ChefSteps has developed a piece of hardware, an immersion circulator it named Joule.
So how and why did Newell invest in a company devoted to culinary education?
"It's kind of a strange story," Newell said by phone. Two years ago, Newell purchased an auction item at his son's middle school that turned out to be a dinner for 10 cooked by Chris Young (now ChefSteps CEO) and ChefSteps' Grant Crilly. Young was the founding chef of Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen — and the meal reflected his work experience, much to the Newell family's delight.
"They came over and it was easily the best food I'd ever had," Newell says. "Spectacular in its design and execution." It was looking like just another memorable experience when Newell's 11-year-old son decided, after seeing Young and Crilly in the kitchen, he needed to have the Modernist Cuisine cookbooks. "It was his bedside reading for six months. Even though, up until then, he'd never been interested in cooking at all, he suddenly decided he wanted to be a chef," Newell says. "And when I talked to him, he was talking about it like an engineer talks about it, he was talking about trade offs and fundamental principles and thermodynamics..."
"At the end of the day, you have to have a really good connection with the inside of someone's head to be good at it"
Newell's son's enthusiasm inspired him to start a dialogue with Young and Crilly, who were then just launching ChefSteps. The three men talked the same language, Newell notes. "They talked to me like a scientist, like an engineer, and this isn't how I thought people in the cooking world talked. These guys are cooking nerds. And the science is super interesting. Their understanding of what's going on in the experience of cooking resonated with my experiences in the world of creating entertainment. In the end, your target is the subjective experience of the consumer. You have to know all this hard stuff, but at the end of the day you have to have a really good connection with the inside of someone's head to be good at it. This intrigued me. Every time I talked to them I felt like I learned something new."
Formally, Valve is not affiliated with ChefSteps. ChefSteps is a privately funded company that launched with the founders' capital and eventually took on Newell as a community member who supports the culinary incubator in the form of a low-interest loan. "He gave us a small loan to keep going," Young says, a bit quietly, "He never told us how to run the company. Every six months he'd say, 'What problems are you having, what are you trying to solve?' Gabe is known as a guy who believes you will be successful if you focus on solving problems for a real community of people."
Newell has no ownership in the company and is not considered a shareholder. He's sort of like a fairy godfather to ChefSteps — advising against VC funding and "premature monetization" — and is the reason why ChefSteps was able to hire 50 people to spend three years building Joule. Kevin Finke, the hardware designer, spent 15 years at Boeing designing airplanes and engines before joining ChefSteps, but even he said that by comparison, "Joule was not a piece of cake." The trick was creating a heating element that was both small and powerful, and as it turns out there is some rocket technology embedded in this small sous vide contraption.
Sous vide cooking, which was first popularized in France and the U.S. in the 1960s as a food preservation method, has grown into both a standard cooking form in some of America's best restaurant kitchens (Thomas Keller and David Chang both use it), and a sort of nerdy hipster hobby.
Here's how it works: You seal food in a plastic bag and immerse it in water that is heated to a precise temperature for a long period of time, generally at least 40 minutes. The process cooks food slowly and gently. Any flavorings or fat you add to the food before it's sealed are absorbed as it cooks. Sous vide cooking shines when it's applied to proteins: Tough cuts of meat come out meltingly tender, moist, and are nearly impossible to overcook.
On the outside, Joule is a sleek, slender, cylindrical heating element meant to be immersed partially in water and cook food at an even temperature. The company promises Joule is "the world's smallest and most powerful sous vide immersion circulator." Joule is controlled entirely by an app which includes an intuitive interface and exclusive, ChefSteps' produced video. But why would a culinary educational company go into the kitchen appliance business?
Why would a culinary educational company go into the kitchen appliance business?
Chef Chris Young notes, "Sous vide is a big part of what we do in our kitchen, but we were frustrated by the existing sous vide gadgets, which are confusing and awkward for the home cook to use. So we decided to take the lead on creating a better sous vide experience for our community of cooks." But Young feels that after watching a video on ChefSteps, often the viewer is left in the dark. "How do you get started with this new machine? What temperature do you set it at?" He notes that different models do different things. Users in the ChefSteps community were saying the sous vide machines they've purchased in the past couple of years aren't very powerful, are large and clunky, or don't heat at a consistent temperature. So Young and his team wanted to solve this problem, once and for all.
ChefSteps is selling its new product not as a straightforward retail product, but as a tool for its growing community. Think about how Nintendo or Sony builds upon its popular products and the demands of its audience to create new hardware and software. The similarities between the video game world and the culinary world suddenly seem obvious. ChefSteps videos featuring sous vide cooking are some of the sites' most watched content. Young says they wanted Joule to live in "your top drawer or your countertop," not in the back of your cabinet with all of the other wacky appliances you buy on a whim, use once, and never pull out again.
Joule's owners' manual, for lack of a better term, is an app that will grow to become tailored to each user, depending upon the users' likes and dislikes. Young says the team hired data scientists to help develop this technology. More that this, eventually, ChefSteps will begin to crowdsource techniques.
To start Joule, you press a few buttons on your phone and, once in place inside a pot of water, it lights up briefly and hums as it swiftly heats up the water and food. It's so quiet, it cannot be heard above normal one-on-one conversation. Meanwhile, the app includes so many bells and whistles it barely resembles a cooking app. Users are prompted to pick how they'd like their steak done based on images rather than time or temperature. Related recipes are offered adjacent to operating instructions.
Joule will be available only through ChefSteps.com. Though ChefSteps is not selling this product at Williams-Sonoma or Macy's, Joule will likely become a competitor in the hot, Kickstarter-friendly immersion circulator market. Joule can be pre-ordered now on ChefSteps.com for a discounted price of $199. After January 15, the price will go up to $299. ChefSteps Premium is included in the purchase of Joule, giving users unlimited access to all of ChefSteps classes, recipes, and Joule cooking guides, now and in the future. Preorders will begin shipping in May 2016.
With its audience in the thousands, can ChefSteps use its existing, built-in market as a launch pad, and expand beyond that to create a demand? Gabe Newell and company are betting on it, and these are people that seldom fail.