Darren Vengroff, Chief Scientist for Hestan Cue

Michael Wolf: Hey, we’re really happy to have Darren Vengroff, the Chief Scientist from Hestan Cue Smart Cooking on the podcast. How are you doing, Darren?

Darren Vengroff: I’m doing well. How are you?

Michael Wolf: Great! We saw you a couple of weeks down in San Francisco Williams-Sonoma headquarters. You were on a panel. You came down for that. Brian Frank, who’s a really smart guy, was interviewing you. It’s interesting his first question. He goes, “What is a scientist doing in the kitchen?” I thought that was great. What is a scientist doing in the kitchen?

Darren Vengroff: Yeah, so well having a lot of fun first of all. But no I think it’s a great question and the interesting part of it for me is that for your average everyday person whether they’re scientists or not or particularly if they’re not, the kitchen is actually where they probably do more science than just about anywhere else in their daily lives. There’s chemistry going on in just about everything you cook and how different molecules interact, how heat affects them. There’s physics and how the heat moves through things and how all the various cooking process work. There’s biology coming in as soon as we’re talking about bread or any sort of fermented product really of any kind, you know the pickles in your fridge.

There’s really a lot of science going on in putting together meals day in and day out and I think what we’re really trying to do is let’s understand some of those processes a little better. People have been researching these processes for years, but let’s try and understand them in a way that will enable us to help people cook better meal for themselves. That’s really how we approach it here and sort of the end-result, the end-goal is always not the science itself so much as how do we make a delicious healthy meal at the end of the day.

Michael Wolf: We first met when I’ve read of a company called Meld, which was acquired and we’re going to get into that story, but I want to work up to it because I think it’s an interesting one. I’ve heard you tell. I’d love our audience to hear it. But I want to go back further because I think you’re one of the few people that’s uniquely positioned to talk about why ‑ we’re both here in Seattle – why we have this market [unintelligible 0:04:40] in Seattle, the modernist cuisine movement, you’re kind of there early when you were working there with eGullet, and there was kind of this little hotbed of interest around something sous vide. Talk about those early days because you’ve been in tech but then you also have this interest in cooking and talk about the early days of eGullet.

Darren Vengroff: Sure, yeah. eGullet in the early 2000s was this website that was – websites back then weren’t quite what they are today, but it was a discussion forum where people who were interested in food from any variety of angles could kind of get together and talk about things. It is still around to this day. It’s actually a nonprofit foundation now running it. But the idea was people who were interested in food, whether they’re diners who are interested in what’s going on in restaurants, or they’re chefs who are working in those restaurants, or they’re home cooks who are interested in learning more about how to cook various things at home or even just bragging about the things that they’ve done. There were big different cook-offs and things where everyone post pictures of what they’ve done.

This really incredible community kind of developed in and around the site including people who maybe weren’t household names back then but are today, so you could see people like Grant Achatz, who is very well known chef in Chicago at Alinea. He was there. People who were all over TV and other media, Richard Blais early in his career. At some point, there was a guy named Nathan, turned out to be Nathan Myhrvold, who was getting involved in some of the conversations, and he was interested in this new technique called sous vide. There were several others of us who were openly interested in it. I think there was more interest than actual experience at that point. You sort of either had go and buy laboratory equipment that hopefully nothing too toxic had get in ‑

Michael Wolf: Yeah, yeah.

Darren Vengroff: Before you went and bought it on eBay. You could sort of rig up your own things and there are some people doing that. There was one book available about sous vide that was in Spanish. I think Nathan actually had it translated, so he can read it, but we started talking about all these things and what could and couldn’t be done. There’s a famous, or at least by eGullet standards, famous thread that’s still there to this day where Nathan started asking about times and temperatures and at some point, he decided, “Well, I’ll go do some additional research and maybe even put the results into a book.” Well we sort of all know what happened, he ended up not just writing a book about sous vide but going much deeper and broader.

Michael Wolf: Yeah.

Darren Vengroff: That led to a modernist cuisine set of books. It was a really interesting time back then and it’s particularly interesting to look back now and see where some of these people are today and what they’ve done since.

Michael Wolf: At the time, looking at this I think this evolution I think of precision cooking, which I think sous vide is a big part of that and I think along that same line Meld is and then what you’re doing at Hestan is as well. But during your career, though, I think this was the time I think you were at Amazon, so you were working at least immediately after that you were working in Amazon, so you were working in software development along this way and you never lost interest in this idea kind of science in the kitchen. Talk a little bit about your career before you got to Meld.

Darren Vengroff: Sure. Again through this interest in sous vide, and sort of having a technical background and having done a fair amount of software to simulate various processes. I kind of decided it’s great that people are doing a lot of experiments and figuring out okay the time and temperature for different things. You can do experiments and evaluate hundreds of different scenarios, carefully measure things, and temperature and thickness of the steak or chicken breast or whatever, or you can do what sort of modern engineering practice does, which is you say, “Well, instead of doing 100 different careful experiments, if I can build a software simulation of how a process works, I can try out millions of different combinations. In fact, maybe there are millions or trillions or more than I could ever even care about or run, but if I package this up just right, anyone who has a particular scenario I’ve got a steak, it’s exactly the steak, I want medium rare could run a simulation and they would say set your circulator for 54.4 degree Celsius and put the steak in there for 57 minutes or whatever the appropriate number was.

Again on the side, this was kind of a hobby. eGullet was the same thing. it wasn’t my fulltime job. I wrote some software to do that. Around that time, well we’re all carrying around these smartphones and tablets now that they’re actually powerful enough to run these simulations and so I wrote an app called SousVide Dash where you could do those things I just described. You could say I have chicken breasts and it’s 1-inch thick, and what are the recommended cooking time and temperatures.

Then we went beyond that and sort of added other features like a model of pathogen. At the time, health departments were super concerned about people using this low temperature cooking in their restaurants. The idea was you might be growing bacteria in this thing; in fact, in the laboratory down the street, it’s actually been used specifically for that purpose running it at different temperature and different conditions of course. And so we added a pathogen model that would show how different bacteria either grew or were destroyed at certain temperatures much more elaborate model than this sort of real basic health department guidelines of in this temperature range for this amount of time. Instead, we actually modeled it at discrete temperatures and what would happen. The app plotted all these nice curves that then people in restaurants could show to the health departments and convince them that what they were doing was actually safer than the sunny-side-up eggs at the diner down the street that the health department hadn’t cared about in years.

From there, I ended up connecting with Christoph Milz, who was at PolyScience at the time in their culinary division, so they had always produced laboratory circulators and had been doing so for many years. Philip Preston, who was running the company, was very interested in cooking as a hobby, sort of in the same vein that I was, went a step further and actually adopted some of these devices, worked with some chefs, and got them in. anyway, we got the other and did a version of this app with them. That was quite successful. It was exciting for me because it wasn’t a full time career but it was a hobby that paid for itself essentially.

Michael Wolf: This was around 2010 and this was at the time when PolyScience was coming out with really kind of the first circulators. Like you said, they kind of made targeted devices preferably to use it for cooking purposes rather than in a lab somewhere, right? I think [unintelligible 0:13:36] right then, but this relationship with PolyScience turned out to be critical later in your career, and we can get to them a bit where Meld ultimately ended up at Hestan. You were with Spot Dash and you were also RichRelevance, right? That was kind of your main day job?

Darren Vengroff: That’s right, yeah.

Michael Wolf: And so ultimately, you were working. You got together with a guy named Jon Jenkins, who we all know as JJ. You met him at I believe when you were at Amazon, right? He ended up running product over at Pinterest but you guys decided to get together again.

Darren Vengroff: Right, so we had known each other for 10 years or so going back to our time together at Amazon and personalization there. Like you said, he ran the engineering team at Pinterest for a while. He was interested in doing a startup of his own. We had talked about various startup ideas over the years and some of them were probably really good ideas we should have done, some of them were probably terrible ideas that I’m glad now we didn’t try, but we got together and this was now about 2-1/2 years ago.

I started with this question, “Well, if sous vide can offer this level of temperature precision and be great at the things it’s great at, cooking steak and sous vide is great, it’s a terrible way to make a grilled cheese sandwich, right? It’s not built for that. There are many different ways of cooking and each is good at what it’s good at and terrible at what it’s terrible at. We kind of thought, why is sous vide the only method that has this level of temperature control and what would it mean to bring it to other forms of cooking?

We started this company and we ended up calling it Meld, and early on we really again going back to the scientific side, we really just started investigating some of these questions. You’d look on the Internet and you’d see things, millions of recipes and cookbooks.

Then they all say something like, “Okay, put a pan on medium, right?” What does medium actually mean? And so we hacked up a pan that we invented some temperature sensors in, and we took it around to different stoves and set it on medium, exact same pan, and let it come to temperature. What we found is depending on which model, which burner you used, medium varied by 200 degrees Fahrenheit to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Michael Wolf: That’s huge, by the way.

Darren Vengroff: That’s huge, right.

Michael Wolf: It’s crazy.

Darren Vengroff: What that means that you and I could follow the exact same recipe, do every step by the book perfectly, both put our pans on medium, and yours would be burned and mine would be raw and neither one of us would be happy about that, right?

Then our next step was we said, “Well, what if we could hack up this pan we’re measuring the temperature? What if we tell people your pot is too hot or too cool and they could do something about it?” And so we did that and we found in user research that people would turn it up and they’d overshoot. They’d turn it down and they’d go back and forth and they would eventually get to the right temperature, and over time they’ll get a little bit better at it. But overall, the biggest feedback we got was, “You just showed me how terrible a cook I am and gave me tools to do anything about it,” right?

That’s when we realized just like in sous vide, it’s the feedback loop that makes all the difference and so if we could get that temperature transmitted wirelessly to the heat source, to the stove, we could actually then adjust the heat. You can’t adjust temperature on say a gas stove but what you’re adjusting when you turn the knob is the rate at which heat is being added by the flame.

And so we also knew that people only buy a new range every 15 years, so that’s a long product cycle for a startup, and so our solution was to do an add-on that would let you control the temperature with a knob. You take the knob off your stove put ours on. It had a little motor in it. It had a little microcontroller to run the algorithms, and it can wirelessly talk to the temperature sensors in the pot or pan.

Michael Wolf: There’s two things I thought were interesting about Meld. One I’m a big fan of retrofit solutions in the connected world. If you look at all the waste like the Nest Protect smoke alarm, if you want to like retrofit all your smoke alarms, you’d throw in all the smoke alarms into the trash, which goes into landfills, and big iron things like stoves, you can’t just replace those very easily, right? Then so this was good. We talked about early how sous vide was one of the first steps in this idea of precision cooking and you kind of talked about it here, I felt like this was a next evolution. We’ve seen them.

We can talk a little bit later in the podcast about this explosion in things like what you’re doing with Hestan and what you’re seeing in things like this Pantelligent and the software cooking services, stuff like that. I think that’s an interesting conversation but I love for you to talk about like the story here because I think it’s fascinating when you were working on this and ultimately this relationship you developed with PolyScience and Christoph ended up playing a very critical role in what happened with the company.

Darren Vengroff: Right, so at some point last year, Christoph was aware of what we were doing. We continued to be friends over the years, and he called me up and he said, “Hey, I’m doing some consulting for Meyer,” which is a very large company that makes cookware under quite a wide variety of brands. People don’t necessarily know the Meyer name but they know the brands of their cookware. They make everything from the world’s number one cookware ‑ Anolon, Circulon, things like Rachel Ray, some high-end really nice cookware under the Hestan brand, so a very wide variety of things. He said, “Stanley Cheng, the CEO of Meyer, would like to come up. I’ve been talking to them and would like to come up and see what you’re doing.”

And so, I said, “Sure, great.” This was on a Friday afternoon. They came on Monday. We gave them a little demo of what we were doing. It was interesting. It was Christoph, whom I had obviously known for many years, Stanley Cheng, the CEO of Meyer, and then Philip Tessier, a chef who I have heard of but I have never met before who actually worked for Thomas Keller at Per Se and The French Laundry and had represented the US in the Bocuse d’Or competition, which is kind of the culinary Olympics, where he won silver in the year before, which is the best the US has ever done. He now coaches the team. But anyway, to have him in the kitchen kind of seeing what we’re doing was slightly intimidating. I think you’ve actually ‑

Michael Wolf: We had talked about intimidating in the podcast actually. I had a cook-in in front of Philip, so yeah that is intimidating. It’s like playing basketball in front of a Michael Jordan basically.

Darren Vengroff: Right, right. But he’s a fantastic guy.

Michael Wolf: He’s a great guy.

Darren Vengroff: Yeah, a pleasure to work with absolutely. Anyway, we talked them through, answered a bunch of questions, and to make a long story short, we shared a lot of common ground on the vision of where smart cooking and what we now call guided cooking was going, and we decided to join forces and Hestan Smart Cooking is the result of that.

Michael Wolf: And it was interesting because you guys had a successful Kickstarter and I was excited about the product, but you pulled it back. You gave everyone their money back, which was an interesting thing because that often doesn’t happen like a successful campaign but you guys went in a different direction, which we can talk about, but was that an interesting day you decided to give the money back to your Kickstarter backers?

Darren Vengroff: Yeah. I mean it was a really tough decision. I mean we wanted to be very careful about it and I think we made the right decision. We gave the money back. Clearly we did not want to go the way of some of the other big name Kickstarters where people have actually not only not got the product but never got their money back and sort of the whole ship sank. We weren’t going down that road. We I don’t think at any point we’re even near falling off the path, but we wanted to make our backers whole on supporting this. I mean I owe them tremendous thanks even to this day for what they helped us do. We gave their money back and we’re discounting new product to them as well.

Michael Wolf: Which puts us to where we are basically today. It’s a secret thing you guys got acquired. I was like what happened to Meld and you and JJ kind of talked about it but you kind of had a coming-out party I think in March when you guys went to Housewares. That’s when I was in Chicago, and I swung by at the Meyer booth and that’s when I got a cook in front of Phil Tessier with this Hestan Cue smart cooking system and we couldn’t describe it quickly. I mean you probably do a better job than anybody, but I saw this system that help me guide my cook with some visual guidance. We had a nice app. He had Bluetooth connect the pan and this induction heating system, and I actually made the best salmon I’ve ever made. I’m like I usually don’t do very good with fish. Of course having Phil there helped a little bit but what did you guys ultimately come out with. Tell everyone what Hestan Cue is.

Darren Vengroff: Yeah. Great. We’ve been talking a lot about temperature control, and temperature control is a great way to help people be better cooks. I think layered on top of that though is this concept of guiding, which I think is critical in helping build confidence and helping people essentially leveling up their games, so what we have in the app we think of it as sort of a GPS for cooking is the analog.

There are a bunch of recipes to choose from. That’s like deciding where you want to go, and then once you decide where you want to go, I want to cook that salmon recipe, then it guides you step-by-step, and I think the key thing is it’s literally every step from the prepping to the plating. If you don’t know how to chop an onion, there is a video there that shows you how to chop an onion, how to dice it, or whatever you may need for this recipe. You go through it step-by-step and when you get to a step, which in a normal recipe or an old-fashioned recipe would say put the pan on medium, well it says the pan on the induction burner and you do that. Then it says warming up the pan, and you get a little progress bar and it shows you when the pan is warm. If it’s going to have to go to a pretty high temperature, we may save a couple of prep steps so you can keep doing those prep steps while it’s warming up, so you don’t waste a lot of time.

Then once it gets to temperature, it will hold it at the right temperature and tell you, “Okay, now, now it’s time to add a tablespoon of oil or now add the onions or put the fish in skin side up,” whatever the appropriate thing is. It will then manage the temperature so you don’t have to, but you’ve done the various other steps of the recipe and it’s guided you through them all.

It’s sort of giving out that guidance and also giving you that confidence because you know when you get to the step where the fish hits the pan. As you experienced in Chicago, it’s going to tell you to do the right thing. It’s going to tell you when to turn it over. It’s going to adjust the temperature appropriately and you’re going to end up with that nice crispy skin and the tender moist interior that when you go to a good restaurant who knows how to cook fish, that’s what you get. When someone like Phil Tessier cooks fish, that’s how it comes out. He knows what he’s doing. Most home cooks don’t cook fish often enough and don’t have the skill to produce that resulted and are intimidated and afraid and won’t try it, but this gives that guidance and confidence and sort of guaranteed results.

We had a bunch of people come through in Chicago. We didn’t do kind of the classic trade show demo where you have a chef standup and demonstrate the cookware and then hand out those samples. We actually let people cook for themselves and I think it was a much better presentation of the power in the future of this kind of guided-cooking approach.

Michael Wolf: Yeah. I would say anyone who’s creating a product like what you guys did there, it was powerful for me, and I think it’s just a good way to approach it. I mean I came on a piece about it and this idea like I saw this thing. I called it guided cooking or guided-cooking system because it was this combination of obviously precision cooking, but I thought it went beyond precision cooking because there was a guidance system and that GPS was a good analogy there. But when you take the combination of high-precision to very precise cooking were on heat, you have this guidance system with regard to like the visual guidance whether that’s an app like you said all the way from prep to plate.

The combination of like the Bluetooth pan as well as the induction heat system, all to me like you couldn’t name one just appliance. We’re so used to doing like with housewares and small appliances just pointing to like one thing, I don’t think you could do that. The system word I think is appropriate here. I kind of rolled like I think we’re seeing the rise of like a new category and I think you guys would agree.

Darren Vengroff: I agree.

Michael Wolf: And is this the heir apparent for like sous vide or just kind of one of the line? I think it combines a few different things and it’s not just one device. What is this here? Is it an evolution or something?

Darren Vengroff: Yeah, I think what you’re getting at with the system, with the idea that it’s a system is kind of the key. The three main components again like you said there is the app with the guidance. There is the cookware with the embedded temperature sensors and the ability to communicate over Bluetooth, and then there’s the induction burner, which can communicate over Bluetooth as well and adjust the heat and power level accordingly.

I think if you had anyone of those things by itself or even any of those, you’re nowhere near what you have with the three put together. That’s how we will sell the system when it comes out as a package like that to get you started. I think once you have that system obviously, you can expand upon it and you can potentially add new things to it that work within the context of the system, but I think you’re absolutely right. The way people cook, they just don’t cook with one thing, right? They cook with a combination of different tools that are in their kitchens. Bringing the right tools together in the right way I think makes a tremendous difference.

Michael Wolf: It’s modularity to a degree. You guys have the base of the pan, but you also have like base of the pot. I think there can be ultimately a degree of modularity, depending on what type of cooing you’re cooking. You might have water. You might just be frying something, and I think that modularity is an important component to it.

Darren Vengroff: Yeah, absolutely. We support a variety of different variety, both wet and dry cooking modes, some really cool things actually you can do in the pot that we’ll be talking about in the not-too-distant future. But there is some really interesting stuff that we’re doing there in our test kitchens that we’ll sort of be revealing soon. But I think you’re right. It’s modular and it’s extendable, and I think it’s not it slices and dices. This one component does everything. I think again going back to where we started in sous vide and where we are now with this, it’s this recognition that certain tools are really good at certain cooking techniques and terrible at others. Let’s take the best of the way people traditionally cook or people with a ton of skill traditionally cook and some of the pieces that will let people up their game.

Michael Wolf: Why is it – here’s a bigger question and it’s around a piece I’ve been thinking of writing and I’m curious to get your opinion because I think I see an opportunity here. I feel like this is an interesting category and there’s other new categories. If you look at the broader food tech world and like maybe this is in your area of expertise, but just be interested [unintelligible 0:32:52] the money in investment when you look at companies that follow the steps, the vast majority of it has been around delivery. When you start to kind of look at the food tech investment like ‑

Darren Vengroff: Sure.

Michael Wolf: Things like plated and those types of services, Blue Apron, the bulk of that but I see like an equally potentially big opportunity in this reinvention of the kitchen because that’s where everything happens. Sure there might be like a big component around delivery, it’s fairly low margin. Ultimately, I think these things are tied together I think what’s interesting is this idea of subscription and delivery tied together with connected devices in interesting combinations. Do you think that it’s an underserved area right now in terms of like people looking and investing in like reinvention of natural cooking systems?

Darren Vengroff: Yeah, I do. I mean I think the food delivery in its various forms ranging everything from fairly raw ingredients.

Michael Wolf: Chopped.

Darren Vengroff: But then you have the chop yourself pretty close to ready to pop in the oven meals. That will continue to be big, and I think the guided cooking though, the ability to cook at home, whether you want the items at a grocery store or whether you have them in the fridge or whether they came from Blue Apron or service like that where the recipes were integrated with them, I think that creates a tremendous additional value. And to come back to sort of your higher level of question why there has been maybe less investment in the kitchen itself or the tools that are used for the cooking, I think there has been this kind of rush to connect with things as opposed to sort of a careful study of how we cook and how we could cook and what might be better or worse.

I mean going back to the idea of connected versus smart, connected means, okay my toaster can talk to the Internet. What exactly does that for me as a consumer of toast actually got me. Yeah, it means I wake up in the morning. I come into the kitchen. I say, “I wanted some toast, but I left my phone charging in the bedroom. Let me go back and get it. Okay, got my phone. Where’s my toast app? Okay, select medium. Push the button. Drop the bread.” Versus today’s UI on my toaster is I put the bread in and I push the button and what you’ve done is connected my toaster and made the experience worse.

And so I think starting at the other site, starting at how do people cook and what variation of techniques they’re using could or what techniques could they do that they’re not doing today by and large at home if they have the right tool for it, and then what’s the science and technology and connectivity and digital logic that can create that experience for them versus Wi-Fi chips just get getting cheaper so I should put one in everything.

Michael Wolf: Yeah. I agree. I think like stepping back and taking it from the other direction and that’s why we have a scientist in the kitchen like yourself, so I appreciate you coming on, Darren, and talking about what you’re doing and why is a scientist is in the kitchen. It’s been a great conversation. I think this journey that you had obviously I’ve used this for like you’ve kind of been like a Forrest Gump. You’ve been to a lot of historic places of this evolution, and I don’t mean to insult you by calling you Forrest Gump, by the way.

Darren Vengroff: No, I’ll just keep running down that road [laughter].

Michael Wolf: Hey, Darren, this has been great. Thanks, man.

Darren Vengroff: Yeah, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be on.