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ChefSteps' Huy Nguyen, Jessica Voelker and Chris Young at the company's offices in Pike Place Market. Nat Levy / GeekWire Photo.
ChefSteps’ Huy Nguyen, Jessica Voelker and Chris Young at the company’s offices in Pike Place Market. Nat Levy / GeekWire Photo.

Amazon’s digital brain Alexa is learning to cook the perfect steak.

Seattle cooking startup ChefSteps unveiled at the GeekWire Summit 2016 a new Alexa skill that can talk to the company’s Joule sous vide device. Named 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 sous vide cooking technique. The device is controlled by a companion smartphone app for iPhone and Android that includes recipes and videos showing various levels of doneness for meat.

Right now, Alexa can set the temperature for Joule, tell the temperature and stop the device. But soon it will be able to cook steak and other food. Users will be able to tell Alexa how big their steak is and what level of doneness they are looking for, and Alexa will set the right water temperature and cooking time for Joule. Alexa will remember cooking instructions from last time, so users can repeat previous recipes or switch them up.

With Amazon’s new emphasis on getting the hockey puck-like Echo Dot in every room of the house, the user doesn’t even have to be in the room for much of the cooking process.

“We started thinking about voice control and it’s basically like having a second set of hands in the kitchen,” said Jessica Voelker, a former food critic in Washington D.C. and now a writer for ChefSteps. “Just the same way a chef could yell out ‘fire that dish’ at a line cook, you can do that with Alexa.”

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The Alexa skill was just approved this week, and the first Joule orders shipped recently. ChefSteps plans to add a lot more features and recipes to the app and Alexa skill. But for now, the company is waiting to see which features customers like most and what can be improved, Voelker said.

There was no “aha moment” when ChefSteps decided it wanted to add an Alexa skill for Joule, ChefSteps co-founder Chris Young said. It always seemed like a natural complement for the smartphone-controlled Joule, but the company was waiting for the technology to make voice control a viable option.

“These sort of conversational cooking techniques are likely to be an area we are going to continue to invest in deeply,” Young said. “There are more problems to solve, more ways we can interact with customers and give people a more human way to engage with their tools. Our real job is to put humans back at the center of the cooking experience, not sort of all having stock syndrome with tools we already have.”

Chris Young, co-founder of ChefSteps demonstrating the Joule sous vide cooking device at GeekWire Summit 2016. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire
Chris Young, co-founder of ChefSteps demonstrating the Joule sous vide cooking device at GeekWire Summit 2016. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire

The company would not say how many units have sold so far, but it is in the tens of thousands. Joule was temporarily sold out for awhile, and Young said it might sell out again soon. Last month ChefSteps reduced the price of the device based on higher-than-expected demand and economies of scale.

ChefSteps’ co-founders, 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. The company, based at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, has more than 50 employees, including chefs, designers, data scientists, mathematicians, fluid dynamicists and propulsion engineers.

Huy Nguyen is a software developer at ChefSteps, and he played a major role in building the Alexa skill. He knows what’s it like to have his hands full as a new father who also likes to cook. With all these various duties to manage, Nguyen immediately saw the benefits of the skill as a way to take a little bit of the load off. Many families should be able to relate to this feeling of juggling so many commitments, he said.

“Being able to develop something like this that I found useful right away during development, I knew I hit something really useful in the kitchen, and I think other people would also find it super useful,” Huy said. “Our lives are super busy nowadays, our hands are full, my hands are full with a baby, it just fit well with my life.”

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