When Chris Young started working on Modernist Cuisine with Nathan Myhrvold almost 15 years ago, their original idea was to simply write a book about sous vide cooking.
“I still have emails where we thought it’d be a few hundred pages, we could get it done in a year,” Young told me in a phone interview.
As most know, Modernist Cuisine would grow far bigger than a hundred pages, and take much longer than a year to write. And while much of the multivolume work is dedicated to sous vide cooking, what Young and other early sous vide enthusiasts knew was that this cooking technique with a fancy name was just a means to a more important end: mastery of time of temperature in cooking.
“If you look at Modernist Cuisine, about half of the book is dedicated towards explaining the physics of heat transfer in the kitchen,” said Young. “Because [the application of heat] often makes the difference between a meal being spectacular and a meal not [being] so great.”
So when Young went on to found ChefSteps and eventually build a sous vide appliance with the Joule, the ultimate goal was always to give the cook mastery over the two elements that are so important in creating good food.
“Time and temperature are just sort of these cheat codes to better cooking,” said Young.
If helping aspiring cooks master these cheat codes was the bigger picture and sous vide was just one means to this end, Young realized at some point he had to go beyond sous vide cooking. That meant launching a new company called Combustion Inc. and making a thermometer.
But not just any thermometer. This one would come packed with eight different temperature sensors.
Why so many?
According to Young, when cooking a roast or a chicken, it’s important to not only get the temperature inside the meat, but to get the gradient temperature throughout it, including its surface and ambient temperatures. Only then, according to Young, can you properly calculate the true cooking temperature, how fast an item will cook, and when you should take it out.
Like any self-respecting chef-slash-cooking-technology entrepreneur, Young had hacked together a solution for his BBQ that allowed him to closely monitor internal and surface temperatures, but knew the solution with all of its wires and multiple thermometers wasn’t something wasn’t exactly approachable for the average consumer.
“I have a fairly kludged together a bunch of electronics,” said Young. “It’s not what I would call productized.”
Here is where he saw an opportunity to create a thermometer that would give him the type of data to help achieve the results he wanted. While there is certainly no shortage of smart thermometers on the market, Young felt none of them were able to give him the information he wanted to cook they way he wanted.
“I started building the first thermometer in the world to actually measure the real cooking temperature which can profile your food so that it can estimate things like how big is the food and how fast is it cooking.”
Young wanted to build a thermometer that could be fairly sophisticated when it came to telling temperature and predicting when meat should be done. He also wanted the device to communicate this information with not only a paired kitchen timer (the other initial product from Combustion), but also with apps. He also knew, however, after having built the Joule, connected products can be also have their problems.
“I lived that,” said Young. “I know this probably as well as anyone at this point, because like we were all in on IoT, and we got it working pretty well, and I can tell you how painful it was. When it inevitably breaks, who’s responsible? And so the experience for the consumer is all this IoT shit that is just dumb.”
It was that experience with the Joule and the polarizing responses to connected devices that made Young rethink how to create a connected product. While he wanted to make a thermometer that is connected, with all the benefits that could bring, he also wanted one that worked out of the box without a complicated pairing and set up.
The answer was to make the temperature data freely available by broadcasting it using a built-in Bluetooth capability. That meant instead of going through a complicated pairing experience with its own app, the thermometer can utilize the beacon capabilities built into the Bluetooth spec to broadcast the time and temperature data of the chicken, roast or whatever is being cooked.
“We actually said, ‘Look, there’s nothing super secret about your temperature data,'” said Young, adding that the thermometer “advertises its data every 200 milliseconds” and all that data is just part of a beacon.
The beacon technology built into Bluetooth is what allows products like the Tile tracker other other devices to broadcast messages to your smartphone to give it updates. With the Combustion thermometer, the built-in Bluetooth beacon technology will send cooking data to the Combustion kitchen timer, (the other new product announced today) or its app (Yes, there is an app for those who want one, but Young makes it clear it’s not necessary). The device will also be able to send information to other Bluetooth-enabled appliances, like GE or BSH ovens, that want to communicate with it.
Young spent plenty of time at his last company making sure his device worked with other appliances, but it was painful. There were lots of meetings negotiating complicated technology and business arrangements for the Joule to integrate with other devices. These types of months-long negotiations were exactly what the onetime ChefSteps CEO wanted to avoid at his new company.
“This is sort of a version 2.0 business model,” said Young. “Because inevitably the old way involves a huge tussle between the appliance manufacturer’s desire to have a platform and app and the startup’s desires. I’m simply saying I make my money when I sell thermometers and I make my money when we sell other things.”
Young told me Combustion Inc. will sell the thermometer and the kitchen timer as a pair, but will also sell each separately. He wouldn’t give me pricing, saying only that they won’t be super cheap but also won’t be astronomically expensive. He said they plan to make them available by this summer via their website and not (as of yet) in retail.
In a way, Young’s efforts feel more like he’s making a tool for cooks rather than trying to monetize a venture-funded startup. It’s not unlike Dave Arnold and his Searzall and Spinzall products. That’s not to say Young isn’t looking to make money or doesn’t have big plans; he says the thermometer is only the beginning.
But, after a less-than-satisfying final chapter to the ChefSteps story, I can see why he’d want to get back a bit to the roots of what he started all those years ago with Myrhvold, which is to provide cooks with tools to better use the cheat codes to make good food.