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Valve's Gabe Newell at the Consumer Electronics Show last year.
Gabe Newell during a Valve event at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last year.

Valve Corp. co-founder Gabe Newell, one of the most influential people in the video-game industry, has quietly invested in a high-tech cooking startup called ChefSteps, based in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and led by a team of chefs who worked previously with former Microsoft technology chief Nathan Myhrvold on his Modernist Cuisine cookbook.

Chris Young, far left, and Grant Crilly, far right, with other members of the ChefSteps team in the startup's Pike Place Market space. (GeekWire File Photo.)
Chris Young, far left, and Grant Crilly, far right, with other members of the ChefSteps team in the startup’s Pike Place Market space. (GeekWire File Photo.)

The investment by Newell, whose company operates the widely used Steam video-game platform, has never been announced publicly, but it was discussed by two of ChefSteps’ co-founders, Chris Young and Grant Crilly, on the most recent episode of the GeekWire podcast. The size of the investment wasn’t disclosed, but they said Newell is their sole outside investor.

The ChefSteps co-founders credited Newell’s investment for giving them the ability to focus on the long-term goals of building and serving a large, high-quality community of users, without the short-term pressures of monetizing that community or generating a quick return for the investor.

That long-term focus is a hallmark of Newell’s approach, they said.

Valve itself has benefited from that philosophy, Young said. “On some levels I think Gabe sees the way Valve is built as a thing that can be done again. Traditional funding and access to capital won’t allow that, so there’s actually a really big opportunity for funding companies that are capable of following that pathway.”

Why haven’t they talked about this publicly before?

“We don’t normally see a lot of value in talking about it,” Young explained. “We’re only interested in talking about it now in the sense that we agree with him, that the traditional way of building companies often tends to be about minimally viable product, and scaling it as quickly as possible. That’s very, very good for a lot of investors. It’s not necessarily very good for a company or very good for its community.”

Young added, “We think that the way Valve thinks about it is really interesting. We’d like to see more companies taking that approach.”

“If you relentlessly focus on the quality of what you’re doing but also really engaging with your customers, and letting them steer you toward the real problems that your team of talented people can solve, you’re going to actually build a much better business in the long term,” he said. “It’s going to be much more sustainable.”

Young and Crilly are known in part for their past roles collaborating with Myhrvold on the epic Modernist Cuisine cookbook. Young previously was the founding chef of Heston Blumenthal’s influential Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen. Crilly’s experience includes serving as chef de cuisine at Busaba in Mumbai and Mistral in Seattle, and head development chef at Delicious Planet.

ChefSteps serves a community of 500,000 cooking enthusiasts with online videos and practical advice for everyday cooks. They also like to experiment with new ways of cooking, with one of the boldest examples being their recent adventures creating a vertical rotisserie from a wall of 30 burning steel drums.

The company has 28 employees, in addition to contractors — not just chefs but also filmmakers, musicians, editors, applied mathematicians, a variety of different types of engineers, and even an aerodynamics specialist.

Young explained that they don’t think as much about the specific roles as they do about the quality of the individuals they hire.

“We look for people who are among the very best in the world at what they do — whether it’s software or cooking or writing — but also have this incredible breadth that allows them to be successful with other aspects of running the company,” he said. “That makes it painfully slow for us to hire. Very, very few people meet this criteria. But every time we find one of those people and add them, they steer the company in a really interesting direction that we believe is adding more value to our community.”

In that way, Newell’s role as ChefSteps investor makes him just one more surprising member of the team.

We’ve contacted the Valve co-founder about his ChefSteps investment but haven’t yet heard back. Listen to the full  interview with Young and Crilly on the GeekWire radio show and podcast in the audio player below, starting at 9:10.

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