SEATTLE – Down at Pike Place Market, below the produce stands and fishmongers and spice merchants, sits an unusual business called ChefSteps.
Peek in the windows, and you’ll see ovens and knives, pots and pans and stainless steel all around. Obviously a kitchen. But what’s with the tanks of liquid nitrogen? And is that a centrifuge?
OK, a science lab, right?
Actually a little bit of both. What we have here is a newfangled cooking academy – one that specializes in “modernist cuisine” – that uses recipes developed in-house by mad-scientists-cum-chefs. Most important, it is offered online, for free.
“We’ve built something only a handful of restaurants have tried: an experimental kitchen,” explained co-founder Chris Young. “It’s a totally insane thing to do.”
Actually, the whole business plan seems a bit, well, ambitious. Some of the recipes themselves are quite unusual. (Um, liquid nitrogen? “We go through it by the boatload,” Young says.)
The company isn’t offering much of anything for sale at this point, lest they “monetize” too early and screw things up. They employ not only cooks but also a full-time video staff, who can shoot on demand. There’s a musical composer to write scores – scores! – for the videos. Meanwhile, a team of developers is in the back pounding out code, because the software ChefSteps really wants doesn’t even exist yet.
The ultimate goal is to create a community where users cannot only comment on recipes but play with them, annotate them and tweak them to make them even better.
“We’re trying to teach people to be better cooks than they ever thought they could,” Young explains.
That’s because ChefSteps sets out to explain the science behind the recipes, or, as Young put it, “the why behind the how.”
Kind of like Food TV, he says, only smarter.
One thing is clear: The guy’s got confidence.
Young, along with co-founders Grant Lee Crilly and Ryan Matthew Smith, probably earned it. They’re all alumni of the acclaimed cookbook project called “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.”
A mammoth six-volume set masterminded by Microsoft’s former chief technology officer, Nathan Myhrvold, it was called by The Wall Street Journal “the most astonishing cookbook of our time.”
Young was the principal co-author; Crilly its first development chef and Smith its chief photographer.
It is a cookbook like no other. It covers a topic that hadn’t really been explored before in book form.
Actually, the techniques hadn’t been practiced by most cooks at all, other than in a few edgy, high-end restaurants.
Well, what is modernist cooking? It explores ingredients and techniques with the precision and depth of bench science.
Often, it re-imagines recipes in a way that turns something old into something entirely new and playful (and hopefully, delicious).
As the Modernist Cuisine project came to a close, Young, Crilly and Smith wanted to do more.
Yet they saw cookbook publishing as a flawed business model. “Modernist Cuisine” took a team of more than 30 people five years to complete.
And it was expensive, both to produce and to buy, at $450 a set – something you can get away with if you’re a self-financed hotshot from Microsoft but not if you’re a typical publisher.
So, the trio decided to go virtual.
“You don’t need to make a physical book to share your ideas anymore,” Young said. “We can create the idea, document it and publish it – sometimes on the same day.”
The website is full of step-by-step instructions on everything from sharpening knives to making elegant sous vide dishes. It’s all honed and honed into deceptively simple videos.
Already, tens of thousands of users have logged on, some chiming in with a lively debate.
A few years ago, this wouldn’t have even been possible. Now it cannot only be done, but done cheaply while maintaining quality. And ChefSteps knows right away if something’s not going to fly: Online users will tell them.
“They work harder than any editor would to make your ideas more awesome,” Young said.
Crilly, a former chef de cuisine at Mistral Kitchen who runs the ChefSteps kitchen, works with his staff to develop new recipes.
One day, it might involve finding the perfect infusion for root beer. Another, he’s turning carrots into a flourless, otherworldly cake.
Or figuring out how to make the perfect French fry – a process that begins by testing individual potatoes for their starch content in saltwater baths.
Once he has perfected the recipe, and the technique, he makes an instructional video, right in the test kitchen. On the list of upcoming videos: licorice custard, carrot butter and rocky road ice cream.
“It sounds normal but when you see it, it’ll be really funky,” Crilly promises. The inside scoop? Think visually: less ice cream, more rocks.
There are other online cooking schools, but many ask users to sign up for a subscription. Not ChefSteps.
They are being encouraged in this model by Gabe Newell, who runs a Bellevue company called Valve, which has struck gold with free-to-play online video games.
Newell is also helping ChefSteps financially, although the initial startup capital came from the co-founders’ pockets.
“We think the first job is really to build up that community and develop something of value,” Young said of the online audience.
Only then will they figure out what users are willing to pay for.
“If you build something people find valuable, working your way toward a business plan will happen automatically,” Young said.