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This article is a part of my What's Your Passion? interview series, providing intimate interviews with people passionate about their craft. Is there someone you'd like me to interview, or are you passionate about a certain craft? Please let me know!
I'm really excited to kick off the What's Your Passion? interview series with Chris Young from ChefSteps. After doing our ChefSteps Joule review, we were really impressed by the attention to detail in the machine and we were lucky to be put in touch with Chris, who agreed to do this interview. Hopefully you all learn as much from it as I did!
Jason: Chris, thanks so much for taking the time to join me for a What's Your Passion interview. I've followed ChefSteps for several years and really admire the high-quality work you do. I also spent a lot of time referencing Modernist Cuisine as I did research for my website and books.
Over the last 15 years you have been working in some of the most innovative and cutting edge fields of cooking. I know you have degrees in biochemistry and mathematics. What eventually pulled your attention toward cooking? How are those disciplines related, and how has your background in the sciences shaped your approach to cooking.
Chris Young: I've always enjoyed cooking, it's been a passion for as long as I can remember, but it was something I had never considered as a career. While at University, I came across an interesting book called On Food and Cooking, and it captivated me. Often, when I should have been studying science books, I was instead busy reading my copy of McGee. It was around this time that I also came to the self-realization that spending several more years pursuing a doctoral degree was not in my future. The question was, what should I do? With degrees in biochemistry and mathematics, I was reasonably employable outside of academia, but I wanted to do something completely different, so I decided to get a job as a cook. Besides, I desperately needed to subsidize my cooking hobby with a job. My grocery bill was getting out of hand!
To me, science is really a way of exploring ideas, and new ideas are the currency of both scientists and chefs. One of the joys I get from my work is getting to apply both the scientist and the chef aspects of my personality. My experience has been that this combination is the catalyst of doing innovative work in the kitchen. Fundamentally, I believe all chefs are scientists at some level because experimentation is part of the job; anyone preparing a dish is conducting an experiment, which makes them a scientist in my view.
Jason: As the main coauthor, you were heavily involved in the creation of the Modernist Cuisine book set, which covered so much information and so many techniques. What technique was the greatest challenge for you, and why? What was the most surprising thing you discovered, and your main takeaway from that project?
Chris Young: So the ironic thing is that every chapter in Modernist Cuisine could have been a lot longer. We tried to make sure we covered the most important topics, but there were a lot of hard choices about what to leave out. This was especially difficult in the Traditional Cooking chapter of volume 2, because the how's and why's of those techniques go incredibly deep with enormous amounts of myth, lore, and superstition. But one of my bigger take aways from writing that book was that most of the technology available to us today is shockingly primitive, and there is a tremendous amount of room for innovation in the kitchen.
Jason: After working at The Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen and writing Modernist Cuisine, you probably could have worked anywhere. What made you decide to venture out and create ChefSteps? It seems to be a departure from the more research-based, chef-oriented work you had been doing. What made you make the switch? What has been the most rewarding part of making that transition?
Chris Young: To me, it was kind of an obvious next step. My focus has always been on culinary invention and influencing the future of the kitchen. At The Fat Duck, that work resulted in new techniques and dishes that we served to a few dozen people per day. Modernist Cuisine was, in part, an attempt to reach a wider group of curious cooks and spur more innovation and experimentation in the kitchen. It's hard to remember this now, but we start working on Modernist Cuisine in 2007, a book was still one of the best ways to organize and share a large amount of knowledge. But by 2011, when we published the book platforms like YouTube and Facebook, and mobile tools like iPhones and iPads had changed that equation.
So, for me, ChefSteps felt like a natural evolution. The great thing about the internet by 2012 was that it's possible for a relatively small group of people to film their ideas, publish them instantly, and collaborate with billions of people around the world, or at least those who are enthusiastic about the how's and why's of cooking.
Unlike a book, sharing our work online put us much closer to our community, so that we could work on things that they actually wanted from us. That relationship has been amazing, and ultimately it was our community that convinced us to take on the enormous risk of building better tools for the kitchen. I've always been pretty disappointed by the lack of imagination being applied to basic cooking tools, and we were pretty confident that our community would value better tools if we built them. Given our history, sous vide tools seemed like the right start, so we created Joule as a tool designed and engineered to make cooks happy.
For me, that's the most reward part, helping our team create things that make a lot of people happy in their kitchen.
Jason: It's been interesting to see how ChefSteps has evolved over the years. It started out covering some traditional cooking with a decent amount of modernist techniques thrown in. For the last year or two, it seems to be focusing a whole lot on sous vide. What made you pay greater attention to sous vide? What do you look for when deciding what to focus on next?
Chris Young: What many people may not realize is that we launched ChefSteps.com with a focus on sous vide in September of 2012. And, as cooks, we know there is more to cooking than just sous vide, so we've published a lot of other great work on all sorts of other cooking techniques and technologies. But with our decision to build Joule, it was natural that we would have to deeply focus on sous vide for awhile. But we expect to broaden our work again in the near future.
Jason: You recently launched the Joule sous vide circulator. What made you decide to launch your own equipment? What were you hoping the Joule could provide that other circulators do not do, or do not do well?
Chris Young: Over the years I've spent enough time talking with appliance manufacturers to understand that they're way too afraid to fail. But if you want to invent the kitchen of the future, you're going to have to go try a bunch of things and be prepared to fail often. There are incredible possibilities of bringing science, technology, and community together to invent the kitchen of the 21st century, and so the current lack of innovation is actually pretty frustrating. So rather than just complain, we decided we would jump in and create that future.
With Joule, we wanted the hardware to be a tool, not a gadget nor a re-skinned piece of lab equipment. To us, that meant a lot of really challenging design goals, such as making it compact enough to easily fit into a crowded kitchen drawer so that it was always within reach.
That sounds easy enough, but as you shrink the diameter the heater gets small really fast, and suddenly the heater is too small for more than a couple hundred watts of power. So we had to invent a totally different kind of heater that can cram a massive amount of power into a really small surface area. Our thick-film heater actually has about 60% of the power density (watts per square cm) of a nuclear reactor core!
We also wanted it to be really durable, because things get dropped and dinged in real kitchens. Easier said than done though, because that meant doing things like extruding our housing from a single seamless piece of polycarbonate and then machining internal features on CNC lathes and mills. The result is that Joule is far more durable (and beautiful), but doing this was crazy difficult because ultimately we were pushing the technological limits of extrusion to keep it perfectly round so that gaskets and seals would fit reliably. We ultimately had to build a clean room around our extruder to keep dust from leaving blemishes on the surface of the cooling plastic.
There were hundreds more choices and challenges like these for the physical hardware, but the most controversial decision was to remove physical controls from the device and move them into software and third-party devices. Our motivation was that by moving controls into software, and onto devices like mobile phones and Amazon's Echo, we could constantly invest in upgrading Joule to make it more useful and more personal. This is analogous to how updates to your Android or iPhone unlock new capabilities that make it more useful.
One of the challenges we've seen for people who are new to sous vide is that they don't know what combination of time and temperature will give them the result they want. But now that we all carry super computers with amazing displays in our pockets, we can show people the range of possibilities and just let them choose the result they want with a service like Visual Doneness.
Another challenge of sous vide is predicting how long something will take to cook. Human intuition--even among professional chefs--is terrible at estimating the non-linear nature of heat transfer and, thus, when their food will be ready to serve. As a result, experienced sous vide cooks usually error on the side of adding a big margin of extra time. That's fine, but it often makes the cooking time so long that someone will choose not to cook sous vide because they only have an hour to get dinner on the table. With Joule, we want to make it easier to choose to cook sous vide and so our applied math team has been doing a lot of work to create Predictive Cooking tools that provide really accurate estimates of how long something will take to cook, and what choices you could make to speed things along.
At a really high level, our decision to shift controls away from the physical hardware and into software was so that we could work towards a future where augmented intelligence can play a much bigger role in the kitchen. Smartphones are great, but things like voice and gesture control are going to be even better in terms of ways we can interact with tools that can anticipate our needs and help us be more successful with whatever we're trying to cook. To us, that's where the technology is going, but the even more exciting part is how you can start to connect people together so that they can share know how, collaborate, and support one another in their kitchens. To me, that's the most exciting part of what the kitchen of the future might look like: more creativity, more people trying things that they never tried before, more people happy in their kitchen.
Jason: With the Joule, you took a number of innovative design steps including the small size, a more robust build, and the lack of physical controls. In addition to those obvious changes, my Dad, who is an engineer, was also really impressed by several of the small details that were built into the design such as the rubber bumper at the base. Why were those design details so important to you and how did you balance the desire to make positive design changes with the need to still produce an affordable circulator? Was there anything you had to shelve in order to keep the Joule affordable?
Chris Young: I think the answer is really, that's just the kind of people that choose to work at ChefSteps--the details matter to them. People might not be able to articulate why something feels better, but our experience is that sweating all of the small details adds up into a superior overall experience and product. In terms of affording these choices, that requires a combination of engineering a solution that's just on the edge of practical, and a mindset focused on longterm profitability rather than short terms profit margin. The ultimate success of ChefSteps will come from years of good choices that benefit our customers, rather than cutting a few corners to make a bit more money right now.
Jason: Now that you've tackled the sous vide market, where do you see ChefSteps going next? Are there other tools in the kitchen that you think could function more efficiently? Do you see another technique or tool influencing the food scene in the next few years in the way modernist cooking and sous vide have?
Chris Young: The kitchen really hasn't changed very much in the last several decades, so there's a lot of opportunity for inventing the next few decades. We have some things in mind, but nothing to announce just yet.
Jason: Thanks again for taking the time to answer some questions from me, I really appreciate it!
Is there someone you know that I should interview for What's Your Passion? Have any follow up questions you want answered? Let me know in the comments.