Overhead, tourists swarm Pike Place Market on a sunny Friday afternoon. But one level down, in a former day-care center with shimmering views of Puget Sound, its century-old beams now artfully whitewashed, Chris Young is storyboarding a trailer. It’s the kind of short video usually produced for movies. But this is for something else entirely, and he’s pulling in some serious star power for it—at least star power to a certain demographic.
“Neal is totally cool with lending us his nerd cred,” he announces, striding over to a small group assembled at a round table pecking at MacBooks. “Neal” is Neal Stephenson, the bearded, fanatically popular sci-fi author who is just as obsessed with technology and science as the people Young hopes will watch his video. Every year during Seafair, Stephenson throws a party and enlists Young and his partners to help perform some extreme culinary feat. This year, they dipped hundreds of pounds of meat in 800 liters of liquid nitrogen, then roasted it over 16-foot-high towers of fire. An entire truckload of wood burned down to ashes in a mere 15 minutes, says Young. “You actually have to buy carbon offset hours to come to Neal’s parties.”
Food cognoscenti might recognize Young’s name as one of the three authors of the culinary opus Modernist Cuisine, the world’s first comprehensive reference of science-driven cooking. On this day, the Seattle native sports cargo shorts, a T-shirt, utilitarian Keen man sandals, and the hearty, self-assured air of a young suburbanite presiding over a backyard grill he knows is way better than any of the neighbors’. His 45-second video will introduce cooks around the world to ChefSteps.com, a web-based culinary school he founded with two fellow Modernist Cuisine vets. Its aim: Break down the techniques gathered in the book’s six volumes and 2,438 pages, and make them easy for culinary mortals to understand—and even master.
A copy of Modernist Cuisine costs $625; online lessons from three of the guys who made it are free.
If Young were to storyboard how he first connected with Nathan Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer at Microsoft and mastermind of Modernist Cuisine, it would make for a fine bromance. In 2005, Young was a 29-year-old chef (albeit one with degrees in mathematics and biochemistry from University of Washington) heading up the experimental kitchen at Heston -Blumenthal’s restaurant Fat Duck about 30 miles outside London. Most chefs who practice such arts prefer the term modernist to molecular gastronomy, but whatever you want to call the movement, Blumenthal is one of its pioneers. After Myhrvold came in for dinner, he and Young struck up an email friendship, trading ideas on scientific barbecue techniques. So when Young made plans to return to the U.S., he sent the jolly-looking genius a note letting him know he was leaving Fat Duck.
Myhrvold’s response hit his screen less than three minutes later. The subject line read simply, “Crazy idea.” The sole line of text: “Why don’t you come work for me?”
Young flew to the Mediterranean to meet Myhrvold on his yacht to discuss what, exactly, that meant. Maybe a book. Myhrvold had envisioned a 300-page volume about sous vide, the hyperslow, vacuum-sealed cooking method known for producing impossibly tender and flavorful results. He also suggested Young find a kitchen job, since the project couldn’t possibly occupy him full time.
The chef headed to Bellevue, where Myhrvold runs his think tank and idea lab, Intellectual Ventures (that’s where he met Stephenson, who worked there part time). Myhrvold funded the research, writing, and publication of a tome that collected a decade’s worth of techniques being practiced in a few intrepid kitchens. He, Young, and Maxime Bilet, another Fat Duck alum, are named as the authors, though a team of nearly 40 worked on the volume. The result is a triumph of science, of art, and above all of culinary progress.
The book was published in spring 2011 and Young left Myhrvold’s com-pany in May 2012. Having run two development kitchens for other people, he wanted one of his own. Last November, fellow kitchen-lab chef Grant Crilly decided to join him. So did Ryan Matthew Smith, the book’s photo editor
and principal photographer of its eye-popping shots of cross sections of flaming woks, boiling pots, and even a sizzling grill. With funding from Gabe Newell, the cofounder of influential video game developer Valve Corporation, the three alums formed Delve Kitchen, a start-up with a pedigree that includes hobnobbing with famous authors and scoring coveted Pike Place Market real estate.
Delve boasts a full-time staff of six and all the same equipment from the cooking lab: the immersion circulators for sous vide cooking, the high-precision convection-steam combination—“combi”—oven. Without a billionaire boss to fund the endeavor, the guys scored $30,000 cryogenic freezers used for a few hundred bucks at UW surplus auctions and bought Ikea shelving to hold rows of medical-grade sieves and clear plastic canisters full of fastidiously labeled spices.
Having that book on their resumes means Young, Smith, and Crilly could easily use their facility to prosper in perpetuity, lending their brains and camera lenses to various consulting projects.
But primarily, they consider this 4,000-square-foot space a culinary school. And not the kind with desks and classrooms.
ChefSteps.com is debuting at a time when some of the country’s bastions of academia are no longer giving the side eye to online coursework. The University of Washington recently started offering “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes in high-caliber online lessons, enough to invest in the nonprofit Khan Academy, a library of 3,400 videos (all free) that provide 10 minutes of instruction on topics from graphing trigonometry functions to the electoral college.
Young drew inspiration from Udacity, a school begun by a Stanford professor who offered a free online course in artificial intelligence last year. More than 160,000 students signed up, prompting the professor, Sebastian Thrun, to give up his tenured job at Stanford to launch a start-up dedicated to disseminating university--caliber education to the online masses. “He showed that the whole world is out there,” says Young. “Even if you can reach a hundred people or a thousand through a culinary school, the world’s much bigger than that.”
After spending three and a half grueling years codifying modernist cooking, Delve’s partners agree that the techniques are nearly as opaque as they were before the book was published. In fact, it’s hard to find owners who actually take theirs in the kitchen. “It just became this big art project,” says Crilly, who worked at Mistral before answering the Craigslist ad that led him to Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures—“a big, expensive book that people don’t want to mess up.”
For a line cook making $30,000 a year or a home grilling enthusiast interested in scientifically upgrading a rib recipe, a $625 cookbook is a stretch. So are the trips to modernist culinary temples like Chicago’s Alinea and WD-50 in Manhattan.
ChefSteps.com breaks “basic” modernist techniques into about seven lessons. Each module gets further divided into microsteps, complete with extensive photos and videos, shot by Smith. Quizzes and assignments crop up frequently, giving the user a chance to cement this knowledge before it evaporates. Sous vide was the catalyst for Modernist Cuisine, and it’s the first course that ChefSteps.com offers online. Young and Crilly consult for the well-regarded culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University and find this is the first topic most students—and teachers—ask about.
Though it’s free to learn, the school isn’t exactly free. If you lack a piece of equipment, all you have to do is click on that item on the syllabus’s prep list, and you’re whisked away to a website that will sell you one. Anyone can watch the videos, but virtual office hours or a certificate verifying your course work will cost (how much is still in flux). The demos, homework, and quizzes add up to 40 hours of work—the same as a typical college credit. Standing in the Delve kitchen deboning rib eyes and vacuum sealing them in plastic bags to the tune of Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me,” Crilly explains that users can watch, pause, rewind, and repeat videos to learn at their own pace. Faraway students won’t merely learn a sous vide recipe, but will absorb the science behind the technique so thoroughly that they will be able to modify times and temperatures for any portion of fish, fowl, carrot, or potato.
The space around the corner from the kitchen serves as Smith’s photo studio, and he’s busy creating the image that will appear at the head of the syllabus. His lens is trained on a microwave-size aquarium filled with water. Smith tips a pitcher of water over the tank and snaps a photo of the ensuing riffle of underwater bubbles. Pour. Snap. Pour. Snap. He too came to Myhrvold through a Craigs-list ad. Smith had never photographed food before, but his background shooting nature and architecture resonated with Myhrvold, since wildlife photography is one of his many hobbies.
ChefSteps.com’s home page bears the phrase “From creators of Modernist Cuisine.” And yet Young, Smith, and Crilly say they haven’t asked their former boss what he thinks of their venture. But they had an attorney comb through the extensive confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements they signed before joining Myhrvold’s lab. And as authors of the book who still share in its proceeds, they hope their venture inspires more people to buy it. “This business doesn’t actually make sense for Nathan,” says Young. “He kind of has a whole day job.” Myhrvold published a new volume of recipes for home cooks, Modernist Cuisine at Home, in October, and Young predicts more books, and maybe television shows will soon be in the works. “Those make sense for him; they’re fun; it’s what he wants to do.”
While Young, Smith, and Crilly are well versed in culinary spectacles, their classes won’t teach you how to be the next Heston Blumenthal. They will, however, show home chefs how a sous vide machine can produce the most delicious steak or perfectly cooked salmon possible.