Called the Brava, the eponymously named oven can reach temperatures of 500 degrees within seconds and is supposed to use less energy during a cook session than a typical oven uses during preheating, all by cooking with high-intensity light technology that had previously been used in industrial applications like heating metal and semiconductors.
The Brava oven, the company says, is “the future of cooking.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
Cooking For Mom
The company had its origins six years ago when one of the cofounders, Dan Yue, was having a holiday dinner with his parents and watched as his mom spent most of her time preparing the meal in the kitchen.
At the time, Yue was transitioning from away from the social gaming industry, where he was the founding CEO of a company called Playdom. Yue’s company was acquired by Disney and Yue had some time on his hands, so he started thinking about a new kind of oven that could help someone like his mom spend more time with her family and not have to bounce back and forth to the kitchen.
It was pretty early, and so the idea of a smart oven was new, but even back then Yue knew the oven should be more than smart. He thought it should also be better than traditional ovens by making cooking more convenient and approachable.
The idea stuck with Yue, but he soon became preoccupied with another new company he had started in the food space (meal kit company Green Chef), and it wasn’t long before he put the idea for a new oven on the back burner.
It would be a few years later before the idea got new momentum, which would come in the form of Yue’s former high school classmate Thomas Cheng. When Yue told Cheng about his idea, what became Brava almost seemed preordained since Cheng had been investigating new heating technologies. Before that, Cheng had also been working with smart home startup August helping to develop the company’s smart lock technology but was looking for a new challenge.
Yue was still busy with Green Chef, so it would be Cheng who would spend almost the entire next year in a garage working on developing early prototypes of what would become the Brava oven, experimenting with high-intensity lights, which up to that point had largely been used to heat metal.
It wasn’t long before these experiments led Cheng and Yue believe they were onto something. They thought they could build a “different kind of oven.”
A New Kind Of Oven
Back in the fall of 2016, Brava had just reeled in a $12 million funding round and boasted an all-start founder team that included August’s former head of hardware (Cheng), the founding CEO of Playdom (Yue) and an ex-Samsung/Disney executive named John Pleasants, who would become the company’s CEO.
But Brava was in stealth and that would pretty much be all the news the company revealed for the next two years. So when the company invited me down to visit their lab and see the top-secret project they’d been working on for the past couple years, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I’d already known a few things going in:
- Brava was making an oven.
- The company is opening a retail storefront.
- They had developed a new approach to cooking which they had explained as revolutionary.
Of course, I also knew Brava isn’t the first company interested in recreating cooking. It’d been an interesting few years in the world of food tech, and we’ve seen a variety of new and interesting approaches to rethinking the oven.
First, there was June, who made a smart oven with machine vision and software to create more precise cooking sessions. Then there was Tovala, who paired a smart steam oven with a food delivery service. Last fall Miele introduced the first consumer oven to use RF solid state technology, while this year I discovered a company called Markov had been issued a few patents to essentially make a smarter microwave. This year we also learned about Suvie, a four-chamber cooking robot that utilized a unique water routing technology to apply heat and steam food.
So when I arrived at Brava’s nondescript office in Redwood City, I was eager to learn more about exactly how the company had developed an entirely new way to cook. I checked in the lobby and was soon greeted by company CEO John Pleasants, who led me into a large room where about a dozen or so busy workers, not surprisingly, looked like they were preparing to launch a new product in a couple of weeks.
We made our way into a conference room, and we started to talk about the product.
Pleasants told me about his early days with the company and how they’d started out working in a house (“it was very much like the show Silicon Valley”) until they moved into this office building. He gave me a presentation which featured an overview of the new oven, and he talked about who he thought was the target market (he sees two main groups to start: tech-forward consumers who love food and anyone who doesn’t think cooking at home is a viable option). We even ate some food cooked in the oven (crisped cheese) that was tasty.
Before long, we got up to look at the oven.
Here’s where I was introduced to Thomas Cheng, now the company’s CTO.
During those early days in the garage, Cheng worked on prototype after prototype, most of which I saw when he took me over to a wall where they had lined all of them up on a table. There were probably ten or so prototypes, progressing from the first that looked something like a college science project to the final version that was pretty close to the final production version.
Cheng talked about those days working in the garage and how he experimented with the light-heating technology to figure out how to use it. The intensity of heat was so high (“I remember trying to simulate frying, and I blackened my fries in like two seconds”), so it would take some work to figure out how to apply it in a consumer oven.
Part of the answer would be advanced sensors.
“Heaters are kinda useless by themselves,” explained Cheng. He walked me over to another table with a variety of sensor probes on it, and he picked one up.
“This sensor probe is made of platinum, manufactured in Switzerland and mounted in gold alloy,” said Cheng. “It’s kinda pricey, but it has the performance.”
Cheng explained that the oven needed this pricey probe in the final production model because the company’s heating technology needed a guidance system to apply the heat.
The sensor probe, combined with the oven’s internal camera, send information to the oven’s computational engine, which then guides how the heat should be applied in near real time.
“Part of the magic of Pure Light cooking is we can move from pan searing to direct energy transfer to bake within three seconds,” said Cheng. “It’s almost like having an oven, an induction skillet and a special light cooking device with a robot mediating between these things.”
It sounded neat, but I was still curious about how the light heating technology actually worked. This was when Cheng showed me his whiteboard.
The whiteboard had a hand-drawn version of what is the visible spectrum. Cheng described how the Brava used different wavelengths along this spectrum from the Brava’s light bulbs to apply heat either indirectly to the food for baking emulation using longer wavelengths (“that’s how we do baking emulation like a toaster oven”) to smaller wavelengths where the photons hit the heating tray directly (“this is how we emulated induction skillet heating”).
Needless to say, it’s complicated. I asked Cheng if they’d written a white paper on the technology to explain it, and they said their patent applications went in depth into the tech (feel free to dive in).
Just as my brain reached the midway point between fried and scrambled as I tried to understand the explanation for manipulating light wavelengths for the purposes of cooking food, Cheng and Pleasants asked if I’d like to try some food. I quickly said yes.
Cooking With Light
They took me into the company’s test kitchen where I was introduced to the culinary team. They were standing a row of long metal tables that had Bravas on top and trays of food ready to go into the oven.
Pleasants explained the culinary team spends its days preparing different types of foods and concocting recipes that the Brava oven can use. Because the technology is completely different from traditional ovens, the culinary team had to with the hardware and software teams to create cooking parameters for each type of food and specific guided cooking recipes to help guide the users of the oven.
In short, I was now in the place where the company honed the raw power of light-powered cooking into a polished user experience.
Lindsay West, a chef by training who had previously worked with Sur La Table and now part of Brava’s culinary team, walked me through the features of the Brava and explained their development process. Another culinary member showed me how to start a cook and make sure the food is correctly placed on the tray.
The Brava user interface was fairly straightforward, a small color touchscreen display that allowed you to program a cook, as well as instructional videos to show you specifics for each recipe. In short, the Brava user interface is heavy on guided cooking.
You can see us walking through the interface and inserting food into the Brava in the video below:
Then they fed me.
The food was good. It included salmon (moist), steak (tasted like sous vide cooked) and even ice cream (it was at this moment I was ready to declare the Brava a miracle machine, at least until West told me they’d only roasted the strawberry topping for the ice cream).
Of course, any demo prepared with a chef in a room is going to be good, but from what I could tell the Brava cooked all the meals, did it quickly and they tasted delicious.
Building A Brand
By now we were near the end of my visit. We discussed things like business models and talked about the food delivery service they’ll be offering (with Chef’d) and how all their food will be locally sourced and high quality.
As we talked, I thought about how the company seemed like it had the potential to create a new type of cooking appliance. But at the same time, I knew that developing new companies in mature hardware markets is really difficult. Not only do you have to compete with bigger, more deep-pocketed incumbents, but you have to face other startups trying to do that same thing. Sonos, which most would agree reinvented how we think about home audio – is currently struggling to get an IPO off the ground after being beaten to a pulp by the Amazon Echo over the past couple years.
I asked Pleasants about why they thought they could be different and why they don’t just license their technology to a big appliance maker.
“We think we have something special and we think we can build a brand,” he said.
Maybe I was just still under the influence of a tasty lunch, but as Pleasants said it, it didn’t seem all that ridiculous. After all, microwave ovens sit in pretty much every home nowadays, something that wasn’t the case in the 1960s. It had been a long time since the dawn of the microwave era and, at some point, new innovations will come along and get adopted.
Will that next-generation heating technology be cooking with light? Too soon to say. I do think that at some point the company should license the technology to established brands like a Whirlpool or Electrolux and Pleasants seemed open to it … in time. But first, he thinks the company can build a brand.
“I think everyone in this company believes we can be a multi-billion dollar company that is changing the way we cook and eat at home,” he said.
If you want to hear Brava CEO John Pleasants tell the story of Brava, make sure to be at the Smart Kitchen Summit.