Ashley recently chatted with Chef Chris Young, famed chef-scientist, co-author of Modernist Cuisine and co-founder of ChefSteps, a technology company working to help people cook better.

Ashley Daigneault: How has cooking evolved over the last few decades and what role do you think technology is playing in those changes?

Chef Chris Young: Well that really depends on how you define cooking – in the commercial kitchen, technology drove the modernist movement in the late 90s and 2000s, where chefs were leveraging technology and a scientific understanding of cooking to create novel dishes, things that people never ate before. Technology drove innovation in the kitchen.

Some of that has trickled down to the consumer level, but a small amount. Sous vide is a good example of this – a device really borrowed from the laboratory from professional chefs. The other way technology has changed is not in cooking but in eating is the rise of mobile devices and apps – the ones that help you find a restaurant, choose the food you want to eat – technology has made it easier than ever to NOT cook. Between meal delivery service, Uber delivering food, Yelp-type apps, in the last decade, technology has done more to disconnect us from cooking.

Ashley Daigneault: What innovations happening around the kitchen have the best chance of becoming mainstream?

Chef Chris Young: The microwave is the last big technology that became a mainstream consumer product. It came out around 1968 and then in the 90s they were finally in every kitchen; mainstream has a long lead time. You’re talking two or three decades. Now we’re seeing the rise of gadget cooking, like sous vide cooking – but the interesting thing there isn’t the water bath or the immersion circulator, but the way mobile phones, content and community are making it easier for people to connect and cook.

The devices that succeed are ones that are more responsive to humans; we’re still going to eat hot food – what will change is how we interact with the devices doing the heating. You should be able to say – I want to cook this certain thing, this certain way and I’d like to eat it at this time – and that would trigger a whole series of actions behind the scenes in your appliances. Human interaction will be more in charge.

Ashley Daigneault: ChefSteps introduced its first hardware product – the Joule sous vide cooker. Why did you decide to create a physical product, a cooking device?

Chef Chris Young: We’ve always been focused on listening to our community. When ChefSteps was founded in 2012, we took the spirit from Modernist Cuisine and demonstrated that people were hungry for info on how cooking works. We initially started with YouTube videos and interacting with viewers and built a website to aggregate the content. And we continued to listen – what did the community want from us?

We found that our community was passionate about cooking. Even for people who were really good at cooking, the tools in the kitchen were pretty painful. The typically didn’t help them be creative or help them innovate. We could solve problems by giving people tools that were better, helping them be more successful and creative in the kitchen. And this has always been our mission: to help them to choose to cook better food at home instead of eating out.

Ashley Daigneault: What were the challenges in bringing a device to market?

Chef Chris Young: It’s expensive to do hardware right – but we wanted to do it right. We looked at the tools out there but we saw that sous vide cooking hasn’t changed much since 2003 other than price. Since ChefSteps creates the content, we can show people how to cook the foods they want, the way they want and connect it to a device that heats and stirs the water and makes that happen.

Good direction will get more people cooking – people feel more in control, and more importantly, by leveraging mobile apps, we can learn. Our community gives us feedback about what they like about our tools vs what they don’t so we can make changes in software and not make folks buy new devices every time we learn new things. Ultimately, the drive is about getting people to cook and at some point you have to move beyond the phone to cook the food.

Ashley Daigneault: As a chef, do you think technology can make people better cooks?

Chef Chris Young: Absolutely. There’s this viewpoint that things were better the way our grandmother did things, but that’s not really true. For one, food poisoning was rampant as there were no safety standards. Technology has definitely made that better. We have access to better ingredients than ever before, food is healthier now than ever before. Actually, it’s pretty damn amazing what’s possible.

Ashley Daigneault: What’s your go-to gadget or product in the kitchen that you can’t live without?

Chef Chris Young: The thing that has done more to make me a better cook – a digital thermometer. It’s really allowed us to have consistency and control and make sure we were giving people the best possible food. Humans are really good at certain activities – but measurement is NOT one of them. Give me a simple digital thermometer, a scale, a good knife and a decent pan – I can pretty much cook everything.

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