From Big-Tech to Startup By Way of the Kitchen

Developers often get pigeonholed, not just into technologies but into the types of companies they work for. If you start out working on financial back-ends for banks or join Microsoft fresh out of college, it is all too easy look up from your cubicle a decade later and realize that you haven’t seen the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in several radically interesting and different environments, from special effects studios, to traditional software companies, to professional kitchens. At each stop I’ve learned how to be a better engineer, how to contribute to different types of teams, and, maybe most importantly, about myself. My hope is that by describing my own trajectory and experiences, I can help you figure out whether you should consider giving up your comfortable career at a big company for something as mad as a startup.

I started programming back in the 1970s at the age of 12. My dad brought home a model-33 teletype that was connected to the Louisville Board of Education’s Honeywell mainframe, where I could write code in BASIC. Yeah, it was a freaking printer, with a 110-baud modem, and a paper-tape reader. And I was in love. Since the statute of limitations has long since expired, I don’t mind telling you it wasn’t long before I was hacking into computers all over the country — for the pure love of the puzzle. Next came DecSystem-10 assembly programming, and over the next few years I would hang out at Radio Shack stores and the University of Louisville Apple labs — anything to get my hands on computer time. By the time I was 16, my friend Dave and I had a contract to develop accounting software (with a surprisingly sweet user interface) that ended up being used for decades.

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When I went off to Brown, I hoped that the years of coding under my belt would give me a leg up in the Computer Science department, and it did. I joined Andy Van Dam’s computer graphics group as a freshman, and through that, plus a short stint at UC Berkeley, I made friends that led to 20 years of awesome jobs. If I could tell a young developer one thing, it is that pouring your heart into your work and building great relationships in your career will always open doors for you. I don’t mean that you need to be calculating in how you make friends, simply that if you devote yourself to be a first-rate programmer and a reliable teammate, your friends will want to work with you again wherever they land.

My first stop after college was Industrial Light & Magic. I showed up for the interview in a suit, but they hired me anyhow. My friend Eric was the first full-time programmer there and I was the second; prior to that, they had technical directors writing code, which was a scary thing indeed. On my first day at ILM, I got to be on set when the practical effects team blew up the giant warehouse model for Backdraft. During my stay, I worked on Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, and loved collaborating with artists and directors. It was high pressure fun: “We need a way to make the T-1000 morph up out of the floor, but if you can’t figure it out by tomorrow morning, I guess we’ll just animate it by hand”.

Moving on from ILM to Silicon Graphics was a big decision, but in spite of the excitement of the movie business, I was tired of 80-hour workweeks and ready to move on. SGI machines were the workhorses of computer graphics in those days, and once again, I had close friends working there. I joined a team building a set-top box with a ridiculous 3D interface. I had just moved to Milwaukee so I was doing an early experiment in telecommuting and thought it was pretty glamorous to be in my mid 20’s and taking fancy business trips all the time — including the first of several trips to Tokyo because our initial deployment was with NTT. When the set-top box went down in flames, I joined the VRML/CosmoWorlds team that made an early, valiant, and hopeless attempt to bring a 3D graphics standard to the web.

It turns out I had joined SGI when both the stock price and hubris were at an all time high. When competitors like NVidia started making graphics boards that were an order of magnitude cheaper, we thought they were toys. While SGI was busy sponsoring Hollywood premiers and its executives were holding company meetings with increasingly dubious levels of fanfare, those competitors ate our lunch and hired away most of the best engineers. I don’t regret my years there at all, but I learned a few important lessons: (1) having the best technology doesn’t mean you will win — and your technology probably isn’t as far ahead as you think it is (2) if what the execs are saying sounds like BS, it probably is and (3) don’t be the one left behind to turn the lights out.

Adobe was an entirely different situation. I spent 12 years there as one of the lead engineers (and, briefly, engineering manager) on the After Effects team. After Effects started out as its own small company (CoSA), founded by a group of engineers that I knew from Brown, and then it was acquired by Aldus and in turn snapped up by Adobe. In fact, funny story, when they first started building After Effects and I was at ILM, the team came by to show it to me and my first reaction was “this will never work.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. It grew into a professional tool that hundreds of thousands of people around the world love and use to make their living.

My time at Adobe reflected pretty much everything that could be great about working for a big company. I doubt that 1% of engineers have a situation that good. Especially in the early years, we had the best of both worlds. The After Effects team was pretty much autonomous. We knew our customers and built what they needed. We had ownership of our product and control of our destiny. We were a tightly knit bunch that spent lots of time with each other (and later, each other’s families) outside of work. My teammates were brilliant, and we knew each other so well that I think we could communicate whole designs with the raise of an eyebrow. At the same time, the larger company added tons of value. We had job security and stability, great benefits, and work-life balance. And because Adobe makes Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premiere, we got to build best-of-breed integration with those products, using the same core libraries they were built on.

And yet….

There were still things that gnawed at me. Big companies can’t help it. There are boring corporate meetings, and increasingly irritating product requirements that come down from on high. Executive whims and people scrambling to figure out which way the wind is blowing and align with it. Corporate buildings are still corporate buildings even when they have really well-stocked candy jars. HR processes so tedious you can actually feel your hair turning gray. Reorgs that left you needing a frequently revised cheat sheet to remember the path from you to the CEO.

When you are building desktop, shrink-wrap software, builds and QA and deployment is generally a pretty painful process. We got used to shipping every year or 18 months; even with agile processes there would still be months of excruciating bug fixing at the end of each cycle. And worse, build times could often be 10 or 20 minutes. It is pretty hard to get in the flow as a programmer when you are interrupted for that long on a regular basis.

And then there is innovation. Adding a cool new feature to After Effects? No problem at all, I could make that call myself, or over lunch with the team. But starting a new product? You’d better have some serious fortitude because you’ll need to go through N levels of executive review, and you’ll need to prove that it could generate tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Because anything less than that isn’t going to move the needle. Worse, you’ll need to keep proving the same thing every quarter, because incubating a team and a product takes a long time and corporate memory is short. All big companies talk a great game about innovation, but it mostly goes against their inherently conservative DNA.

Let me be clear, this has nothing to do with Adobe. The same is true at Amazon or Apple or Microsoft or Google (or Boeing or Ford or Bank of America). But there came a point when I knew it was no longer the best fit for me.

I had always had a great love for the creativity and physicality and human connection of cooking, but it never seemed like the right time to take the professional leap from the keyboard to the kitchen. So in 2007 I started a blog as an outlet for that passion. While I was still at Adobe, I took time off to stage at a few restaurants, and the blog led to an opportunity to write a cookbook, which became a finalist for a James Beard award.

When the book was published, I took that as an impetus to leave Adobe, do a book tour, and begin planning my own restaurant. I was excited (and, obviously, terrified) by the unknown in front of me. And still, leaving was painful, primarily because I knew I would no longer see some of my closest friends on a daily basis.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to that hypothetical restaurant.

It was November 2012, and I was in hot pursuit of the perfect space to set up my $35-per-plate, lunch-only modern vegetarian concept. Sure, the numbers weren’t exactly penciling out but I was determined to make it work. In my morning spin through the web, I saw a note about a startup called ChefSteps that was going to teach the world about cooking sous vide, with alumni of the Modernist Cuisine team as founders. I had read Modernist Cuisine cover-to-cover and was fond of filling my kitchen with the comforting smells of locust bean gum and sodium hexametaphosphate, so naturally I reached out. My first pitch was “Hey, I’m a food blogger, want me to come write a piece about you?” Answer, in translation, “Meh.” My second pitch was “Oh, by the way, I also write code.” Answer, “Can you be here tomorrow at 10?” No translation needed.

The courtship was short and intense. The first week I was hanging out, I built a feature that their contract development house had claimed was more or less impossible. The next week we fired the contract developers and I signed on as CTO.

This was a pretty big gamble on everyone’s part. My knowledge of web programming was indistinguishable from zero. I spent a few days with the contract devs before we let them go, and they would say things like “to configure SSO we need to add a route and a controller method and then disable CSRF and return the right headers, but I think there is a gem for that.” It sounded to me like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons: “Wahhh wah. Wah wahh dumbledore wahh wah.”

Still, programming is programming. Well-factored code is well-factored code. A function call is a function call, whether it executes locally or hits a web API. Any solid developer could make the switch. It took a few months before I felt mostly up to speed, but I’ve come to love modern web programming. For one thing, there are no build times. You can generally see the results of your work as fast as you can reload a web page. Since I’m incredibly impatient, that is only slightly too slow for me. Automated testing is much easier to achieve than it ever was in C++ land. And because web development is so closely associated with open source, there is a worldwide community solving problems together. I was so accustomed to needing a mental map of a proprietary million-line code base and spending hours in a debugger; it is an amazing feeling to jump on StackOverflow and be able to find a solution in minutes.

There is a part of me that feels a twinge of loss when I picture my restaurant; it is a romantic vision, expressing that creativity daily and feeding a small group of passionate customers. But, I know all too well the reality of restaurants. Ninety percent perspiration is a lowball figure. I traded that in for a situation where I can work with some of the best, most knowledgeable chefs in the world.

At ChefSteps we believe in working with “T-shaped” people. For me, the depth of the T is coding and working with a software team, and the breadth is food and writing and experience growing my own website and book. Although I usually don’t do much more than kibbitz on the actual food here, or try an occasional goofy experiment (iceberg lettuce cocktail, anyone?), my culinary experience is a huge advantage in building applications that work for both the team here and for our users.

Beyond the mechanics of code, working at a startup brings a whole different set of joys and challenges than I ever experienced in the corporate world. The entire risk/reward equation is completely different. At a big company, you mostly work on low risk, incremental improvements to grow or maintain your market and keep your customers happy. At a startup, if you aren’t betting the company, you probably aren’t taking enough risk. Because what you’ve built so far simply isn’t valuable enough to be worth protecting. It requires a very different mindset. In the early days that can cause a scary degree of pivoting, but over time you begin to converge and develop momentum as a team towards big, hairy, valuable goals.

You quickly realize that every decision you make has tremendous impact. There is no room for red tape, no room for laying back and saying “not my problem.” You are all in this together. You get mad at each other. You make up. You push each other, and find strengths you didn’t know you had. You have each other’s backs. And sometimes you all stop what you are doing and move all the furniture, because there isn’t a facilities department to call.

Working at a startup in Seattle has put me in touch with startup culture in general though, and I’ve realized it isn’t homogenous. There is a Silicon Valley-style startup culture (not limited to California) that is almost entirely focused on the “quick kill” mentality. They want to figure out something that no one else has done, market it virally, and make a quick exit. That mindset lends itself to using people. I’ve seen companies that have hired 50 programmers almost as if they hope that one of them will accidentally type Shakespeare, rather than trying to nucleate a team of a few very high-functioning engineers. The hope is those 50 engineers will get them through to the next round of VC and they can lay off the bad ones. This kind of startup isn’t built around any kind of core love for a particular product, just the thrill of money and/or power. I can’t imagine anything more boring.

At ChefSteps, we are trying to do something very different. You can see it in where we come from. Just as I came from After Effects, which has been building value since 1993, our founders, Chris and Grant, last worked on Modernist Cuisine where a team of 30+ people spent five years writing one cookbook. And you can see it in how we are funded. Gabe Newell didn’t build Valve to be a one-hit wonder, and he didn’t bet on our team to make a quick profit. ChefSteps isn’t just a business plan or a loose dream of failing fast and iterating our way to an acqui-hire; it is a philosophical experiment in allowing a group of smart, motivated people to self-organize and solve giant problems. We aren’t just a group of programmers, we are a team of cooks, writers, videographers, musicians, business people, designers, scientists, mathematicians, mechanical and electrical engineers, and maybe a stray aerodynamicist, all focused on helping every cook to cook smarter. This isn’t going to be achieved in one year or with one product, but what truly worthwhile goal is?

What Cookbooks Inspire You?

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In our recent Design a Dish project, we included a list with some of our favorite books for plating inspiration. Whether we are dreaming up new textural combinations, studying a certain style of plating, or just need to look at something beautiful to get our imaginations flowing, these books always deliver with original flavor pairings and artful photography.

Of course, there are many more books in our library that inspire us for different reasons. And we also keep a lot of perhaps-less-pretty—but equally, if not more, useful—reference guides around for when we want to develop our own Melty Cheese Slices or Chewy Candy.

But now, we want to hear from you. What books inspire you most in the kitchen? What are your favorites for recipes, plating, or just pretty pictures? Leave your mini-list in the comments. We welcome your expert suggestions, and if your picks aren’t already in our library, they’ll definitely go on our shopping list.

Join the ChefSteps community to find out what ambitious cooks like you are cooking, reading, and thinking about. Plus, get the first word on all our new recipes, techniques, and events.

Hans’ Hit List: Music Picks From Our Staff Musician

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As some of you will remember, this isn’t the first time this blog has highlighted the work of ChefSteps audio director Hans Twite—Twite told us all about his covetable job in this post from September 2013. What you might not know: One of the perks of working with Hans is that he’s a veritable wellspring of awesome music recommendations, and he’s always enthusiastic about sharing the stuff that inspires him. So we asked him to share that stuff with you. Below, Hans details the weird and fascinating tracks he’s listening to right now. Enjoy, and please share your own current favorites in the comments.

Shabazz Palaces: “They Come in Gold”
Ishmael Butler and Tendai “Baba” Maraire, the amazing duo known as Shabazz Palaces, are never far from reach in my record collection. This track—from the highly anticipated, recently released Lese Majesty—is just a taste of the amazing and creative production that these guys have to offer. The feats of musical ingenuity they pull off in the studio are also on display during their captivating live shows . 

Oneohtrix Point Never: “Ships Without Meaning”
Daniel Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never, is lauded for his minimalist, yet multi-layered, experimental music. I am constantly gravitating towards his stuff and admire his ability to take simple patterns or arpeggiated synthesizer lines, and completely breathe life and feeling into them with his arsenal of musical machines.

Iska Dhaaf: “Happiness”
Nathan Quiroga and Benjamin Verdoes are two Seattleites with a long history in the local scene. Known locally for his successful hip hop group called Mad Rad, Quiroga found himself looking to expand his musical and artistic outlets, and formed this duo with drummer Verdoes. This hypnotic and honest music is some of my favorite to come out of Seattle in recent years.

NetCat: “The Internet is an Apt Motherfucker”
Hilarious song title, right? NetCat (Brandon Lucia, David Balatero, and Andrew Olmstead) are definitely on the edge of where technology and music meet. Equipped with both musical and computer programing backgrounds, these guys are pushing the limits of live improvisation, and humanizing the technological world of modern music production.

Swans: “Screen Shot”
Michael Gira and his band Swans are not for the faint of heart. But they are influential and compelling to me, thanks to their willingness to completely commit to whatever they are working on—no matter where that work leads them. They have come a long way since the early days, when they played with nothing but a tape recorder of samples and a wall of amps.

Tim Hecker: “Amps, Drugs, Mellotron”
A lot of my life is about plugging and unplugging cords, setting up microphones, moving amps, restringing guitars, and attempting to tune old synthesizers. When I am actively working in my studio, I need to concentrate. But I want to still listen to music. Enter Tim Hecker, who creates the perfect atmospheric background music for when you need to be able to think, but also to keep moving.

P.J. Harvey: “Black Hearted Love”
Polly Jean Harvey has always been a musical innovator—and a subtle comedian. She has the ability to make some of the most earthy and natural-sounding recordings sound completely fresh and of the future. I chose this track, from an overlooked album she created with John Parish in 2009, because it really demonstrates her thematic writing, not to mention her dry humor.

Beck: “Wave”
Morning Phase, a late follow-up to 2002’s Sea Change, has been a welcome addition to Beck’s already substantial discography. This direct and atmospheric piece exemplifies my favorite aspects of Beck’s music: his ability to find the essence of a song; his ability to craft that perfect melody on top of his music; and his ability to get out of the way of the music when the occasion calls for it.

Ben Frost: “Venter”
Are you going on a long road trip, or driving very late at night? Put on some Ben Frost to transform your journey into an epic cinematic experience that keeps you alert and makes you feel like you’re in some weird and awesome Icelandic movie.

Death Grips: “Black Quarterback”
Death Grips just broke up! I really wish I could have seen them live, but from what I have heard even if you bought the ticket, they may not have shown up anyways! These guys were pretty much the essence of punk in a hip-hop world. Vicious, unrelenting beats and polyrhythms assault your senses, but they still manage to engage listeners and create something completely unique.

Robin Guthrie: “Some Sort of Paradise”
Guitarist and founder of Cocteau Twins, Robin Guthrie and his use of live looping have always been a huge influence on what I do. I got into Cocteau Twins much later than many of my musician buddies because I sometimes found the vocals distracting when I wanted to hear more of what Robin was creating in the background. This album is always around, and a great one to listen to when you are relaxing late at night.

David Bowie “TVC15″
David Bowie—where to begin? This guy is pretty much the reason I try to do what I do. His drive to keep pushing for new ideas, and ability to never settle on a technique or hit neutral on his “gear box,” are completely inspiring. I could tell you how I feel about the albums Low, or Aladdin Sane, or Heroes, but instead I give you “TVC15” from Station To Station. I DARE you to try and get that chorus out of your head!

So there you have it folks, a new playlist for yahs from a guy who pretty much lives for this stuff. To hear Hans’ own inspiring creations (and get access to recipes, techniques, and our lively forum), join the ChefSteps community. Then, check out original Twite tracks like this recent Starburst-Style Chewy Candy composition—featuring Macklemore trombonist Greg Kramer—or the breezy, evocative score to our Kouign-Amann video.

Our New Mobile App Was Built by Unicorns

Here’s what happens when people who love cooking and learning work together. 

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It’s only a matter of time before you hear of Nick Cammarata and Andrew Hsu, so we might as well get it out of the way. Call them what you will: entrepreneurs, prodigies, unicorns. We’ve thrown all those words around here at ChefSteps, and they’re all true. Nick and Andrew spent the last four months building our brand new mobile app, and we couldn’t be prouder to show it off.

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In their combined 44 years on this planet, Nick and Andrew have done more than many will do in a lifetime. By age 16, Nick had founded his first start-up company; by 18, he was awarded a Thiel Fellowship to skip college and work on software solutions to optimize teaching strategies at the high school level.

In Nick’s 2011 Thiel class was Andrew Hsu, a former 19-year-old PhD candidate in Stanford’s neuroscience program. Andrew started undergraduate at the University of Washington at age 12, and graduated at 16 with degrees in neurobiology, biochemistry, and chemistry. He left his PhD program at Stanford four years later in order to pursue the Thiel Fellowship. Nick and Andrew bonded quickly over their passion for education and learning. They started a company together last summer committed to developing high-tech solutions for learning and acquiring knowledge.

Enter ChefSteps. And guess what? We love learning, too. So we asked Nick and Andrew to build a mobile app that would encourage people to learn more about food and cooking through our recipes and videos.

“We’re both passionate about cooking and were instantly fascinated by the quality of the ChefSteps content, and wanted to help in any way we could,” says Andrew. “When we visited ChefSteps, we kept hearing people talk about how mobile technology was often used in the kitchen to view recipes, as mobile devices are way less unwieldy than laptops. So, we started working with ChefSteps on developing the mobile experience and decided that the initial release would be a beautiful mobile recipe viewer. We knew that ChefSteps’ content, photos, and videos had to be placed in the forefront of any design, and we hope that we’ve made a first step at showcasing it properly.”

We think Nick and Andrew did a great job, and we hope you’ll think so, too. Try out the app and please, as always, let us know if you have any feedback.

The ChefSteps app is currently live for iPhones running iOS7. It allows you to view, search for, and filter recipes, and quickly gather all the information to prepare, learn, and create your own recipes.

PSST: This is only the tip of the iceberg. Nick and Andrew are already at work on their next ChefSteps project, creating a new, modern, unified forum, commenting system, and community tools. Stay tuned for more from our unicorns-in-residence.

UPDATE: We hear you, Android and Windows users! Unfortunately, right now our community traffic doesn’t support the decision to develop non-iPhone apps. Invite your fellow Android and Windows users to join ChefSteps, and we’ll do our best to get development underway. Until then, borrow your friends’ iPhones and check it out!

Movember

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It’s Movember and we’ll be growing a moustache to raise funds and awareness for men’s health. It’s going to be a hairy journey and we want you to be part of it.

Fight for your right to change the face of men’s health, enlist for Movember and JOIN our TEAM now.

A moustache is the mark of a man, and today it is a symbol to spark conversations about important health issues. So guys, pledge to grow a Mo today, or ladies, join the team to support the Mo.

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Find out more about why you should join us by taking a look at THE CAUSES WE ARE FIGHTING FOR.

Thanks for supporting and helping us change the face of men’s health.

United We Mo!

Changes Coming To ChefSteps

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ChefSteps has always been a collaboration between our team and a community of curious cooks who share our interest in the hows and whys of cooking. Feedback from the ChefSteps community is what drives us to keep improving. We’ve learned that many people enjoy ChefSteps because our videos are entertaining, the recipes and techniques are inspiring, and the explanations are helpful. And when we don’t get something quite right, your questions help us fix it.

Some people have indicated that they would like to learn new kitchen skills or master challenging recipes through a more structured class, with guidance from our team. So we’re going to try that. Beginning in late October, we will offer a paid class on preparing French macarons. Daily releases of recipes and techniques will continue to be free-to-learn.

Charging for premium in-depth classes, which are chosen by community voting, allows us to focus on creating content that benefits you, rather than sponsors and advertisers. It also helps us prioritize support for members who prefer more guidance.

Thanks to our community members for their participation and engagement. We’re so grateful you continue to seek culinary inspiration and guidance through ChefSteps.

If you’d like to be notified when the French macaron class becomes available, you can sign up here:
http://chefsteps.com/courses/french-macarons

Sincerely,
The ChefSteps Team

Favorite Cookbooks From Our Collection

We have a large library of cookbooks at ChefSteps that includes what is on hand in our kitchen and extends to the personal collections in our individual homes. Whether you follow a recipe to the letter, or like to peruse a stack of books (or our site) for ideas, it’s a great way to start the creative process of cooking. Here are some of our favorite, dog-eared volumes that you might want to add to your own collection.

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Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of CookingNamed both the 2012 Cookbook of the Year and Best Professional Cookbook of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, this behemoth—it weighs 40 lbs!— endeavored to bring a deeper understanding of food science and cooking technology into the culinary arts. It also brought our founders together as a team; Chris Young as the principal coauthor, Grant Lee Crilly as the first development chef hired, and Ryan Matthew Smith as the principal photographer and photo editor.

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook: A gorgeous tome from culinary alchemist Heston Blumenthal. His restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, was awarded three Michelin stars in 2004 and chosen as the Best Restaurant in the World in 2005. Chris Young was the founding chef of the Fat Duck’s Experimental Kitchen, the secret culinary laboratory behind the innovative dishes served there.

El Bulli 1998-2002: One of our favorites of the El Bulli series from Ferran Adrià, but they’re all worth looking at if you can find a copy and pony up for the hefty price tag.

Herbivoracious: A little change in pace with this excellent vegetarian offering from our CTO, Michael Natkin. The recipes and photos in this book have even our most carnivorous team members drooling with appreciation and there are lots more recipes, techniques, and expert know-how on Michael’s blog, Herbivoracious.

Mugaritz: This cookbook is a favorite of our Development Chef, Nick Gavin. He spent time working with the development team there before joining ChefSteps. Located in northern Spain, Mugaritz continues its reign as an influential force and Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz is much respected for his creativity and innovation.

Pierre Hermé Pastries: One of Grant Crilly’s favorites—he worked with Pierre Hermé’s team at Grégoire-Ferrandi—this book takes you through master pastry chef Pierre Hermé’s recipes for the great classics of French pastry and other definitive desserts from around the world.

The French Laundry Cookbook: Our favorite book from Thomas Keller who aptly describes one of the great challenges of cooking; “to maintain passion for the everyday routine and the endlessly repeated act, to derive deep gratification from the mundane.”

AlineaGrant Achatz is a groundbreaker when it comes to creative cuisine and his Chicago restaurant Alinea has won numerous top awards over the years. Suffice it to say, our copy is well-worn.

Bentley: Contemporary CuisineChef Brent Savage’s cookbook from his Sydney restaurant, Bentley Restaurant & Bar, includes detailed photography and instructions on modern cooking techniques such as sous vide and is a favorite of our development chef, Ben Johnson.

Astrance: A Cook’s Book: This gorgeous set includes both an exquisite cookbook and a step-by-step guide from Pascal Barbot’s restaurant, Astrance, a three starred Michelin restaurant in Paris. Another Grant Crilly favorite; Astrance is also on his resumé.

Momofuku: The cookbook from the phenom that is David Chang. Chef/founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, master of the ramen noodle, this cookbook is filed under must-have.

Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine: Named the #1 best restaurant in the world in 2010, Noma—located in Copenhagen, Denmark—is the brainchild of Chef Rene Redzepi. Gorgeously photographed, this book is a favorite of Kristina Krug, our multimedia project manager.

Tartine Bread: We love Tartine! That goes double for Tartine Bread. Reknowned baker Chad Robertson is the co-owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, where the bread sells out within an hour nearly every day.

Momofuku Milk Bar: Christina Tosi shares the recipes for her fantastic desserts—Compost Cookies, Crack Pie, and Cereal Milk™ to name a few—all from the legendary Milk Bar, the awe-inspiring bakery she started as the pastry program at Momofuku.

The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life: The quote on the cover from Marco Canora; “If you crossed Jason Bourne with Julia Child, you’d end up with Tim Ferriss.” A blast to read and a great choice to include as a whip-smart survival guide.

Soon-to-be-released titles we’re looking forward to:

D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients: Alex Atala’s first major cookbook and we can’t wait to get our mitts on a copy.

Manresa: An Edible Reflection: the long-awaited cookbook from dear friend David Kinch, utilizing classic and modern techniques plus collaboration with nearby Love Apple Farms which supplies nearly all of Manresa’s exquisite produce. Preordered!

Coi: Stories and Recipes: a new cookbook from Daniel Patterson, head chef/owner of two Michelin starred Coi in San Francisco. It’s on our wish list.

Got some of your own favorites that you want to share? We’ve got a great cookbook thread on our forum, so please join in.

Sounds from the Kitchen

My name is Hans Twite, and I’m the audio director for Chefsteps.com.

I have always been drawn in and mesmerized by music and sound. Early on, I thought I wanted to be Louis Armstrong, so when it came time to select an instrument for 5th grade band, I chose the trumpet. My relationship with the horn didn’t last long, but my very encouraging parents bought me a guitar and my first true musical voice was born.

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I obsessed over music, wanting to know the history and influences of my favorite artists. I spent many years playing in bands; developing my skills as a guitarist, and working with incredibly talented people. The more I played in bands, the more interested I became in the mechanics of making music. As I spent more time in the studio, recording albums, I learned that the studio itself could be a living, breathing musical instrument.

To support my growing interest in composition, production, and sound engineering, I started working in restaurants, eventually moving up into bartending. It was a great job for me—I loved the physical nature of creating intricate cocktails, the chance to be creative, and the fun, social environment.

Ryan Matthew Smith and Grant Crilly were regulars at the restaurant where I worked and we would talk at the bar about the various projects we were working on. They shared their vision for ChefSteps with me, and it was easy to see how driven and passionate they were about their project. I explored their work with Modernist Cuisine, and was particularly impressed with Ryan’s photography, which, to me, was remarkable because it conveyed so much of the content in just a single image. Ryan’s creativity and passion as a photographer and Grant’s proficiency and knowledge as a chef were inspiring to me. I also learned about Chris Young and his proficiency not only in the kitchen, but with science and mathematics, as well. The combination of art and science seemed to go comfortably hand in hand with the team they had assembled. I was eager to collaborate with people as creative as this, so I gave them access to my various websites so they could explore my past musical projects, and when they told me they needed someone to handle the music for their online content at ChefSteps, I jumped at the opportunity.

Hans_Music_studio_3_images_2

So here I am, working with an amazing team of dedicated people. I create and record the music to the online modules and high-speed videos for Chefsteps.com, but I also self-produce everything that I create, so the recording, mixing, and mastering is done in my studio. I have collaborated with local musicians on some of our videos, and record and edit the lectures and presentations we make as well.

One of my ongoing challenges is to find a way to musically convey the essence of the content we produce. I’ve created a database of sampled sound recorded around the kitchen at ChefSteps, which I then incorporate into the music I make. The object itself, like a sharpened knife blade, liquid nitrogen gas rushing out of a tank, or a kitchen sink, can become a musical object. We get to experience the essence of the object in a new way and with a different perspective.

What I do at ChefSteps is not a new approach by any means. It originates from the musique concrète concept of the early twentieth century, which was developed into a compositional practice by Pierre Shaeffer in the 1940s. In 1955, Hugh Le Caine—another pioneering composer—made an entire piece of music entitled Dripsody using the sound of a single drop of water hitting a sink, and hand splicing it into extremely intricate rhythms and pitches.

This approach is central to my musical philosophy here at ChefSteps: Both for the historical perspective, and for the appreciation that science and art coexist in wonderful ways that can surprise us and take us into uncharted territory.

I look forward to evolving and refining my approach for you as I continue my journey here at ChefSteps, and I couldn’t ask for a better team to inspire me to do so.

Cheers!
Hans

 

A Word to the Geeks – What We Are Building at ChefSteps

Looking at ChefSteps today, you will see a gallery of beautiful recipes, our first several courses, and a thriving community of members eager to cook better than they ever have before. We are proud of what has come thus far, but we also want to share what we hope to build in the future: a radical change in the way recipes are documented, shared, and evolved.

Superficially, presenting recipes looks like a simple problem. Cookbook authors have been doing it for decades. You have a list of ingredients and equipment, and a series of steps you apply, and dinner is made.

As soon as you scratch the surface though, there are all sorts of interesting problems and opportunities to make recipes better, both for end users and for recipe writers (which ultimately could be anyone who cooks).

Take ingredients, for example. If you look at a recipe and see an unfamiliar ingredient—maybe smoked paprika—you’d like to be able to click and quickly research it. You might want to know where you can purchase it, of course, but also where it comes from, how it is traditionally made, what substitutions to consider, what it pairs well with, whether it is gluten free, etc.

But it isn’t as simple as linking the ingredient name to a page of text. Is an apple an ingredient? A green apple? A Green Winter Pippin? What if it is peeled, cored, and diced? Dehydrated? The answers matter, and they aren’t simple: if we consider them all to be different ingredients, we’ll miss out on opportunities to share information that is consistent across the various forms. If we consider them to all be the same, you might end up making apple pie from a variety that doesn’t bake well.

Can we be both precise and tell you that you need 500 grams of diced apple, but also help you out for shopping and let you know that that is about 3 apples? Can we scale that quantity up or down in a sensible way depending on the overall context of the recipe?

It is going to take both a sophisticated model and the contributions of a passionate community to fully capture all of this complexity.

If you take a look at other websites that have tried to structure recipes, they’ve hit the same issues and basically punted into just marking up text. The semantics aren’t really captured at any deep level. There are sites that are trying to solve the ingredient problem with natural language processing, because they want to be able to sell you the ingredients for an existing recipe, but as you can imagine that falls apart pretty quickly, presenting inaccurate or incomplete information.

And what about recipe steps? Everyone writes them over and over as plain text, but they tend to have a repetitive formal structure. When professional chefs share recipes, it takes just a few words because of a shared understanding of what it means to sear or hydrate or emulsify. Can we deliver that kind of concision to home cooks and provide them with deeper explanations and videos just-in-time when they are lost? Can we help them troubleshoot when it has all gone wrong?

On the authoring side, I’ve written hundreds of recipes, and yet when a professional recipe editor works on them, they always get better. You can imagine how bad recipes are when they are written by folks who have the gift in the kitchen but not at the keyboard. Can we make it much easier for cooks to express their formulae in a way that other people can replicate?

Recipes are hard to optimize because ingredients and techniques interact, so you can’t just vary one thing while holding everything else constant – in many cases it is a full combinatorial problem, with multiple local maxima. What is the equivalent of github for recipes? Can we create that same sort of environment where recipes can be shared, co-authored, forked and improved? Can we make it possible for groups to self-organize around the development of the ultimate barbecue sauce or baguette?

We’ve made some baby steps on all of these problems – our existing recipe display lets you scale and change units on recipes in a way that, while simple, hasn’t really been done before. Users can enter their own recipes in an intuitive, structured WYSIWYG format with as much or little detail as they like, and they can “fork” an existing recipe to create their own variations. But as you can see, this just barely scratches the surface of what we plan to build. There are years worth of good problems here.

And by the way, if you are reading this and thinking “boy, I’d love to be a part of that development team,” and you’ve got the chops to back that up, we’d love to hear from you at jobs@chefsteps.com.

Week 46

New homepage! You get that yet? You should have. The new homepage is solving a few different problems for us, and hopefully you.

The top layer gives you the latest content from ChefSteps, regardless of our categorization of it. We’re thinking about doing away with that categorization all together (recipes, techniques, science) because it seems to mean more to us than to users. Can anyone confirm that? In any case, you’ll always see the latest up there.

On the left side, we’re highlighting a few of our courses. If you’ve enrolled in a course and haven’t yet finished it, we’ll show you the course and give you a chance to continue it, because we really want to make sure you get 100% of the content there—We’ve put a lot of work into our courses and will only continue to get more.

Lastly, we have an activity feed! This shows you everything that anyone does on the site. It’s sort of a firehose right now, but the reason why is because there’s always activity happening on the site and this lets you see what other Steppers are interacting with. We UXers like to call that serendipitous discovery. Later, you’ll be able to filter that list based on who you follow (yup, following coming soon) and by trending areas.

Okay, easter egg: Click on Community Activity to take you to the page that loads just activity, then on your iPhone (yeah, unfortunately only for iPhone right now) click Bookmark > Add to Home Screen to get a sweet app icon to save on your phone and have the community activity on ChefSteps a tap away. Week 47 coming fast. Peace.