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.

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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.

Week 44-45

The last two weeks: I’ve been busy doing user interviews with a lot of great people here in the Seattle area — It’s been super amazing to talk to people and hear what they like best about ChefSteps. All of the feedback I’m getting has been great, and we’re learning a lot about how to prioritize our efforts. Thanks to Alex, Nicole, Julian, Quoc, Chuck, Zack, and Amanda for taking time out of their day to hang out and talk with me about ChefSteps.

I’m re-examining the value of a carousel around here. I like it, because it’s really beautiful, but I’m not sure it’s helping people find content that is relevant to them. In fact, the more I talk to users, the more I’m seeing that that is a recurring problem. Because we have so many different levels of cooks at ChefSteps, the experience needs to be more guided so that people can find content that helps them take their skills to the next level. For a lot of people that are in the industry, even though some of the knife sharpening stuff is cool and relevant from a science standpoint, they already know how to sharpen their knives because they have to do it for work all the time, but spherification is new and exciting, so they’re more likely to be helped by that new technique.

Equipment continues to be a barrier for a lot of users as well, with a lot of folks not having all the cool tools we have in the kitchen (but wanting them). I think we’re doing a good job listing the substitutes and different techniques to achieve similar results. If we’re not, let us know.

One of the other things I keep hearing is that people don’t document their recipes. I was talking to Michael about this and it’s a big barrier. There are people that do it because it’s their job; recipe development is something they do and they want people to use their recipes, but for most home cooks and for users outside the industry, they cook mostly by feel, taste, texture. Is that a barrier that we can overcome? If we made it easy enough to upload a recipe or made it super-easy to get the bones of a recipe started so that you can edit it later or, better yet, someone else could do it for you or work off your idea and make something different and amazing, would that be good enough for users to really find value? I’m not sure yet, but I’m working my way towards an answer the more people I talk to.

In any case, that’s mostly what I’ve been up to. Lots of good content went up these past two weeks, so make sure you check it out. We’ve still got a lot of things coming soon as well and we’re working at making it more obvious when our stuff is going to come out so stay tuned. Have you uploaded your avatar yet? Get rid of those gray boxes!

Have a great weekend. Remember: <whisper>chefsteps!</whisper>