The natural light in this place is amazing.
That thought kept running through my mind last week as I checked out the combination kitchen/lab/studio coming together on a lower floor of Pike Place Market, overlooking Elliott Bay, on the edge of downtown Seattle.
It struck me because the people creating this place are known for their work on Modernist Cuisine — the epic, five-volume cookbook-to-end-all-cookbooks, featuring recipes engineered in a stainless-steel suburban lab, and photographs shot in a carefully lighted studio, created in collaboration with of one of the technology industry’s more controversial figures.
This space couldn’t be more different — with fresh fish and produce just up the stairs, the afternoon sun crossing the sky out the window, and tourists walking past the door, unaware of the magic happening inside. And no, Nathan Myhrvold isn’t involved this time.
This is the home of ChefSteps, a free online culinary school getting set for an upcoming launch. It’s also the home of Delve Kitchen, a “food product design consultancy” that will work with commercial clients and help to fund the operations of the online school.
Both projects are the work of three Modernist Cuisine alumni — chefs Chris Young and Grant Crilly, and photographer Ryan Matthew Smith — and a team of collaborators.
But for all that has changed, they still have the basic tools of the trade — including bandsaws, induction burners, commercial blenders, dewars of liquid nitrogen, Pacojets and high-speed centrifuges. When I asked for a demonstration of one of their latest tricks, Crilly and development chef Ben Johnson took me through the process of turning mung bean into a substance with the properties of an egg white, using a blender, liquid nitrogen and a centrifuge.
“What’s cool about this is at least you have the start of a plant-based protein that starts to act like scrambled egg,” Crilly explained. “There’s no other product out there right now that you can set with heat, and it’s thermo-irreversible, so it won’t melt later on.”
Meanwhile, to the south, in a machine shop in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, they’re distilling liquid nitrogen out of the air, to help provide one of the key ingredients for their work.
In other words, these are not your ordinary startup founders.
But they do share a lot in common with other entrepreneurs in this tech-centric town. They’re funding the business themselves, and trying to stay nimble and responsive as they pursue their big vision.
“The three of us are friends, and we said, ‘You know, there’s something here when you put the three of us together, we can do interesting things,'” Young said. “There is a real opportunity to do something where we can more actively engage the community, where we can iterate more quickly, where we can keep innovating because we can shorten the loop, with almost instant feedback.”
They’re also motivated by the idea of bringing top-notch culinary classes to a wide audience.
“You kinda have to want to be a professional chef to go to cooking school, but there’s a whole world of people who would like to know more about cooking,” Young said. “Where do they go? We said, ‘Well, let’s create a cooking school.’ Online seemed like the best way to reach the whole world.”
They’re inspired by ventures including online repair guide iFixit and Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity educational project. The ChefSteps site will include videos, step-by-step photo guides, and interactive recipes, with guest experts making regular appearances.
One way ChefSteps will remain free is by offering users a chance to buy kitchen tools and other products needed to make the featured dishes — part of what Young calls a “not-obnoxious monetization strategy.”
They’re clearly having fun. For example, in a post titled, “So, We Have This Pig,” they poll users of the site to decide which cuts of the pig they’re butchering should be featured in lessons on the site.
Their setting at the Market also promises to put a unique stamp on the venture.
“We have such incredible light, and all throughout the day it changes,” Crilly said, describing their video plans. “There will be so much variation. It will all be stunning, but you’ll see some stuff in the daytime, some stuff in the nighttime. We were like, you know what, screw it, we’re not going to fake it all the time. Plus it costs an arm and a leg to do that. So we’re going to roll with it.”
To get a sense for what it will be like, here’s a video from a ChefSteps preview course.