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Frank Hsu: Fresh Meals Solutions and Sous Vide Magic

I recently had the opportunity to interview Frank Hsu from Fresh Meals Solutions, maker of the SousVideMagic. Frank was kind enough to answer some questions I had, I hope you all find the answers as interesting as I did.

1) You were really the first to take a PID controller and brand it specifically for sous vide. Can you give us a little about your history and background that helped you to see that opportunity?

When I first heard the word "sous vide" it was from a local Toronto newspaper in the mid-80s. The paper described an upstart restaurant in the Yorkville area (an upscale high fashion shopping area) with two French chefs promoting "sous vide" cuisine. They were ahead of their time and the restaurant soon closed. A little research convinced me buying a double chamber Bizerba vacuum pack machine using boil-able bags for use at my Young Lok restaurant (known as the first restaurant in Toronto to introduce Sichuan cuisine). We were doing well over a thousand covers per day then, and I saw sous vide as a way to do just two popular dishes (smoked tea duck and pork belly) that I found challenging to control: moisture, texture consistency and spoilage. At that time, we use water bath/thermometer method without getting into expensive imported sous vide equipment. My sous vide endeavor's major call came in 1989, when I founded the Dragon Ball with Dr. Joseph Wong (A charity ball for the Yee Hong Wellness Foundation) and with the help of sous vide technique we were able to serve well over a thousand Ball attendees with a 10-course traditional Chinese banquet. And, I ran the Ball's kitchen for its first 3 inaugural years raising over five million dollars, all with the help of sous vide technique!

In 1995, I built BackAlley Woodfire BBQ and Grill around a custom-designed woodfire oven complex consisting of eight ovens dedicated to the art of grilling, BBQ, flatbread making, smoking and pit roasting. The key to good BBQ is low temperature and slow cooked over many hours. But this is easier said than done and I had to deal with same challenges all over again. One day, I realized that the sous vide technique I had used a decade before is the same as BBQ technique: low and slow. What if sous vide can help my BBQ better with precision control over temperature and vacuum seal method can help with labour saving batch cooking, safe storage and ease of final-serve cooking.

I never felt that scientific bath equipment was right for restaurant use. There had to be a better way!

SousVideMagic was born out of necessity.

My original background was in computer software engineering. My first software company, UX Software Inc., developed one of the first commercial programming languages for AT&T's UNIX in the 80s. Our first major user was NASA and our UX-Basic was the language NASA chosen to develop payload applications on board of space shuttles. We later licensed the language to AT&T, IBM (AIX-Basic), Siemens and many other OEM customers. So using my background in software and food, in 2007 we developed SousVideMagic for our own use and later packaged it as a commercial product when we saw there was a market for sous vide equipment if priced economically.

All PID temperature controllers at that time and, even today use thermocouple and PT100 sensing technology. They are good for wide temperature range measurement but not suitable for sous vide cooking in terms of accuracy, responsiveness, narrow range stability and cost effectiveness. We first field tested SousVideMagic in November, 2007 and Nathan Myhrvold (Modernist Cuisine) was among the first to test our first generation sous vide controller. Now we with the help of my partner Bill Wolske, a renowned process control engineer, known for his process control work for the SkyDome stadium's retractable roof (World's first), we are now at the SousVideMagic 4th generation stage and will continue the quest for new innovative culinary solutions.

2) What is your favorite dish to cook sous vide? What is your favorite "fast and easy" sous vide dish?

My favorite dishes are things I cannot do very well using conventional cooking method like BBQs, steaks, pork belly and confit. Actually the most favorite thing I use sous vide for is to ferment sweet "rice wine" (34°C for 36 hours in a rice cooker without bags!). Everybody may say eggs, but my "fast and easy" sous vide dish is poached (sous vided) ocean-fresh fish where secondary cooking for maillard reaction and seasonings are not required.

3) As someone plugged into the sous vide community, what do you feel the future of sous vide is?

Sous vide is just another cooking technique. It can make conventional cooking better and safer by solving its many inherent problems with precision control over temperature and vacuum packed cooking. Future is very bright for the whole sous vide industry, because once people understand the many compelling benefits that sous vide bring to the table, there is a place for sous vide in every kitchen in the whole world! This temperature-centric style of cooking and mentality is something lacking now in our kitchen.

4) What makes the SousVideMagic unique among all the sous vide options out there?

First, to put our product in proper perspective, SousVideMagic is not an appliance. It is an enabling device, so with it your existing appliance can be turned instantly (like magic!) into sous vide bath (aka constant temperature bath). Our challenge is to precisely control a cooker's bath with unknown thermodynamics; whereas companies with fixed size built-in bath design only need to deal with known thermodynamics.

SousVideMagic is unique, because:

Universality- Anyone, anywhere can buy SousVideMagic for $159.50USD (shipping included) from one virtual location (freshmealssolutions.com aka sousvidemagic.com) and after acquiring a cheap local cooker one can start cooking sous vide right away. Our biggest problem to overcome in the marketplace is "it is too good to be true" kind of mentality!

Green- When paired with a rice cooker, it is the most energy efficient way to cook long term sous vide recipes. Use of "off the shelf" cookers also reduces the proliferation of more redundant appliances in our already gadget cluttered kitchen.

Versatility- With SVM one can change the size and type of cooker/bath anytime, anywhere. Unlike other sous vide equipment, you can sous vide soup and stew without bags with the SousVideMagic method. With a fixed size sous vide appliance you are locked in and cannot switch to another cooker. In sous vide cooking, temperature matters, but size can matter too.

Performance- With proper pairing with an appropriate cooker, you can easily set up a constant temperature bath meeting professional sous vide performance standards. SousVideMagic out-performs all-in-one sous vide appliances for the simple reason that its sensor is actually measuring water temperature and not the temperature of the pot. This gives precise temperature control and stability consistently required for professional sous vide cooking.

Serviceability- because it is external to the cooker and not built-in, the main components (i.e., controller, sensor and cooker) are easy to replace, service and maintain. We have a worldwide network of shipping and support centers, so the whole business model is seamless and simple to our international customers.



5) Can you give us any insight into what new innovations we can expect from you in the future?

Six months ago, we introduced FreshMealsMagic (FMM), world's first submersible heater/bubbler for sous vide cooking. It is a scalable technology to control pots up to 120L. We have upped the ante, now FMM when controlled by SousVideMagic, one can allow any pot (not just any cooker) to cook sous vide with precision. FMM when connected to an ozone generator, when it is not sous viding, it can be used to sanitize fresh fruits and vegetables, thus the name FreshMealsMagic. Immersion circulators are great at temperature control but cannot do the things that we are doing.

We are working on a "green" sous vide cooking system using insulated pots, Since so little energy is used to maintain set temperature in a well-insulated vessel, we are able to develop very economical harnessing technology from wind/solar energy and heat from kitchen equipment, so energy used in SousVideMagic cooking system can be virtually free. We are working with a world famous restaurant in Europe to install a pilot 1 kilowatt green sous vide cooking system.

Other interesting projects involve finding a better way to manually seal a bag for sous vide cooking without expensive vacuum machines and also successfully using microwave ovens for sous vide so you can cook sous vide fast and yet with some form of temperature control over the food item without destroying its nature texture and drying it out.

The holy grail of sous vide cooking is sensing food core temperature without physically punching the bag. If we can do that we can do away all the sous vide thickness/temperature/time tables.

Stay tuned!