Measuring just 11 inches tall and 1.85 inches in diameter, with no digital display of its own, the cylindrical white device may not look revolutionary.
But its developers — drawing from their experience in top restaurants and advanced aerospace labs — believe this high-tech tool could launch a new era in the kitchen, which they say hasn’t experienced a true transformation since the introduction of the microwave.
The precision-controlled immersion circulator was unveiled this morning by the Seattle startup ChefSteps. Dubbed “Joule,” after the measure of heat energy, the device heats water to precise temperatures to cook meat and other food evenly over extended periods of time — using the increasingly popular cooking technique known as sous vide. The device is controlled by a companion smartphone recipe app for iPhone and Android.
Joule was created by a team of chefs, designers, data scientists, mathematicians, fluid dynamicists and propulsion engineers — with a financial boost from one of the top executives in the video-game industry, Valve’s Gabe Newell.
Update, Feb. 1: Joule is currently available for pre-order for $229, and it’s ultimately expected to retail for $299.
The move into hardware is a surprise twist for ChefSteps, which makes videos and interactive features to help its online community of home cooks learn the secrets of top chefs. The company’s co-founders, Chris Young and Grant Crilly, are known in part for their past roles collaborating with Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft chief technology officer, on the epic Modernist Cuisine cookbook.
Hardware is a difficult business, both technically and financially. The development of Joule is a multi-million dollar project, and the company says it doesn’t expect to profit on the product at the outset.
But ChefSteps says Joule represents the beginning of a long-term effort to transform the kitchen. In addition to making its own products, ChefSteps plans to open-source elements of its underlying technology, and make APIs and a software development kit available to other companies to build their own smart cooking devices.
The kitchen is “an enormously important room in the house,” Young said. “It’s much more important than, say, the living room in terms of dollars that flow through it.” The idea, he said, is to bring the kitchen out of the 1970s and into the 21st century with “tools that act smartly to help you through the hard parts but don’t take away the passion of cooking.”
“If you can build those technologies, you are going to be in a very powerful position to reshape society, and that’s worth doing,” Young said.
Joule is far from the first circulator for sous vide cooking. However, at a little more than a pound, the device is less than half the weight of the smallest immersion circulator currently on the market, according to ChefSteps. The company touts the device as “the world’s smallest and most powerful sous vide immersion circulator.”
Joule was developed in-house by the ChefSteps hardware team, led by a former Boeing 787 engineer, Kevin Finke. The company says the device has achieved 99.8 percent energy efficiency, resulting in faster heating times than any other device on the market, using a solid state heating element invented by the company.
The proprietary water circulation system is modeled in part after the air intake system of a commercial jet engine. The water pump runs at a whisper, and the device comes with features including a built-in gyroscope that detects when it’s pulled out of the water.
With a magnetic base, the device stands solidly on the bottom of magnetized pots and pans, or attaches to the side of non-magnetized containers with an interchangeable clip. The company says it’s completely waterproof, so it won’t be damaged if it takes a full plunge.
ChefSteps is also banking on its software and cooking expertise to differentiate the product from existing devices. Joule is controlled via WiFi or Bluetooth by a smartphone app that features instructional videos and images. Young calls it “just-in-time learning.”
In another novel twist, users can browse images to pick the level of “visual doneness” of their food, and then automatically set the circulator to achieve the desired result.
A simple on-screen power button in the app starts the device. In a sign of the attention to detail that went into the product, the app detects automatically whether the user is entering the desired temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius, based on the number.
“We think sous vide has the potential to go mainstream,” said Young, the ChefSteps CEO, during a recent demonstration at the company’s headquarters at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. “Everything we see says sous vide might be the first technology since the microwave that eventually — in some form, probably a bit different than what it looks like today — will become the next ubiquitous cooking technology in the kitchen.”
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 was founded in 2012 and now has more than 328,000 registered members who view videos and take online classes, representing an increase of more than 170 percent over the past year. The company’s videos — covering everything from steak to donuts — were viewed more than 23 million times in the third quarter of this year.
“The content is still an incredibly important part of our business,” Young said. “It’s what brings millions of people to our website and to our various online properties. It’s what gives us our credibility. We’re delivering this value. We built a very big passionate community.”
ChefSteps didn’t originally plan to get into hardware, but felt compelled to take the plunge, based on the opportunity they saw to create a better user experience for sous vide cooking.
“It’s really expensive to do hardware,” Young said. “It’s really time-consuming. It’s really high-risk to do it right. But we looked around and we said, ‘We don’t see anyone else who’s in a position to pull all these things together,’ and so we decided we had to take the lead.”
Young says the company will rely heavily on feedback from its members to further improve the Joule device and software. Anyone who buys a Joule device will get a complimentary ChefSteps Premium membership, offering unlimited access to the company’s content.
ChefSteps has grown to 50 employees, including 10 dedicated to the Joule hardware and 15 working on the associated software experience. The company still occupies its original home on a lower level of the Pike Place Market and has expanded across the street.
The company was initially bootstrapped by its founders, but as reported previously by GeekWire, ChefSteps’ sole source of outside funding is Gabe Newell, the Valve Software chief whose company is known for the Steam video game platform.
However, in a statement this week, a company representative clarified Newell’s role: “Gabe Newell is not a ChefSteps’ shareholder or an investor in the traditional sense; Gabe has provided ChefSteps with funding in the form of a low-interest loan, but he has no ownership stake in the company.”
See if you can spot Newell’s cameo in this tongue-in-cheek video released by the company, featuring Crilly saving the world from outdated cooking technologies.