Smart and Gets Things Done Are Not Enough

Once upon a time, hiring programmers began with making a list of things they needed to know. Actually, you can still see plenty of job descriptions today that read like a snooze-inspiring checklist.

Requirements: Bachelor’s Degree or Military experience — At least 12 years of experience with Enterprise application design and construction with an emphasis on web architectures — At least 7 years experience in SOA environments working with SOAP or at least 7 years of experience with RESTful web services- At least 7 years of -.NET (C#), ASP.NET- — At least 5 years of experience with UI Design — At least 5 years of experience with -HTML.

That is excerpted directly from an actual, live job posting. And it keeps droning on like that for several more paragraphs. Painful, no? Do you wonder how its authors decided that it should be 7 years of .net, but only 5 years of HTML? Should you really not apply if you have 7 years of HTML and 5 of .net? Do they really not want you if you are the author of a major open source library but don’t have a bachelor’s degree?

On the plus side, pretty much only big, ossified corporations think this way anymore, which means that they are missing out on smart, awesome people. Cue evil laugh and nefarious rubbing-together-of palms — this means lots more smart and awesome for the rest of us.

Way back in Y2K, when otherwise normal people were avoiding elevators and stockpiling canned chicken, Joel Spolsky wrote an incredibly influential article called The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing. It is still well worth a read, but the biggest takeaway is: stop hiring for predefined skills. Instead, hire for two traits: Smart and Gets Things Done.

At ChefSteps, we take this advice seriously. You should hire smart people because they do smart things that make your products better. Smart developers write clean, concise, well-factored, reusable, tested, DRY, performant code. And you never have to give them the same feedback twice.

Smart is necessary but not sufficient. Your hires must also be people who get things done, because if they only sit around and theorize about smart things, you’ll never ship. And all that not-shipping is going to make you pretty darn stabby.

So where does experience come in? Great programmers pick up new stacks in short order. So it rarely makes sense to hire someone based on his or her familiarity with a particular language or tech stack. There are two exceptions to this rule. Actually, there is one full exception, and one half one.

First, the full exception: Sometimes, deep expertise just matters. Someone, for example, who has worked extensively on web-scale services — and wrestled with all of the SLAs and security issues they entail — just knows things on a visceral level. And that knowledge may well keep you from cutting yourself with very sharp objects. Sure, you can ask a great frontend developer to learn that stuff, but expect it will take them a year or more to be truly fluid at it. So when the stakes are high enough that stabby-ness is in play, go ahead and hire for expertise.

Onto the half exception. Let’s say you’ve got something absolutely urgent to do on a particular stack. Your iOS app is six weeks from shipping, and the critical new user onboarding experience isn’t done. Okay. This is not the time to bring in a phenomenal backend developer and get her up to speed on Swift. But if you find yourself with an immediate need, and don’t believe you will have an ongoing role for the person who can meet it, or know that hiring him means compromising your normal standards, you should use a contractor or agency to solve the problem. That solution has its own headaches, sure, but it’s better than forcing a lackluster hire on you and your team. Once the crisis is past, you probably should figure out how you got yourself in that mess in the first place.

So, Smart and Gets Things Done are great criteria for new hires. Let’s add a third: Not a Jerk. No matter how smart someone is, no matter how good his code or how fast he writes it, we’ve got no place for him on our team if he makes everyone else miserable. Frankly, I don’t care about the beer test or even the Sunday test. They can actually work actively against diversity and lead to a team of code bros. But if you find yourself interviewing the type of programmer who always has to be the smartest person in the room, or that gets his jollies from insulting coworkers, or — worst of all — shows himself to be ethically challenged, the door shouldn’t even have a chance to hit him on the way out.

The problem is: Smart, Gets Things Done, and Not a Jerk are table stakes. As competitive as the market is for engineers is these days, it is tempting to hire people who just hit those marks. But hire based on those criteria alone, and you may end up with a team of highly fungible, tremendously boring robots.

The context of your company or team matters a great deal. At ChefSteps, being part of a startup with a big vision means our hires need to gracefully embrace ambiguity and change. We are trying to reinvent the kitchen, not disrupt inventory management for janitorial supplies. If you expect to always have complete specs and perfect design docs before you build a feature, this isn’t the right place for you.

And you know what? I know myself as a manager and leader. If a developer is only productive when I hound her to keep her backlog organized and her bugs under control, and I can’t trust her to make important tradeoffs, we won’t work well together. My job is to help my team understand the overall context of what we are building as a company so our decisions are aligned. I do my best to make sure they have what they need to be successful, and shelter them from distraction. I find them awesome coworkers to execute with, and help them work through the inevitable human issues that pop up. I’m also super-excited to talk through technical issues, but I’m nowhere near smart enough or patient enough or in-enough-places-at-enough-times enough to coach anyone through her job on a daily basis. So to thrive here, engineers have to relish autonomy along with massive responsibility.

Beyond these fundamental requirements, every great engineer that I’ve worked with brings distinct additional strengths. Just to pick a few examples, they might:

  • Know every line of a multi-million line codebase and be able to diagnose a bug without even looking at any code.
  • Be unrelentingly optimistic and never give up on a goal, even if it takes years to come to fruition.
  • Crush any obstacle that comes between them and done. Before lunch.
  • Be a grizzled vet who has shipped so many things that they help the whole team make great tradeoffs…
  • … or be relatively new, but so motivated that if you take a chance on them, they will repay it 10x.
  • Bring a completely different perspective that changes how you think about a problem or a whole project.
  • Reduce your stress level because you know that anything that lands in their lap is 100% handled.
  • Make the team so fun that everyone can’t wait to get to work, or loves to hang out together outside of work.
  • Have a knack for isolating and eliminating the nastiest, most difficult to reproduce bugs.
  • Have the empathy and passion for education that makes them great at mentoring interns and less-experienced but promising newcomers.
  • Be so incredibly committed to your product that they will stretch in unexpected ways to make it a massive success.
  • Engage directly with users to turn them into evangelists and help the whole product team learn what they really need to build.
  • See the big picture of the architecture you are building and save the team years of wandering the right way down the wrong paths.
  • Be emotionally intelligent in a way that recognizes when colleagues need to talk about something difficult, or even initiate those conversations that would be easier to avoid.
  • Be passionate about growing the team and help you identify and interview terrific candidates.
  • Read all the blogs and be aware of the bleeding edge of tech. (Bonus points if they have enough taste and self control to know when to actually use the bleeding edge of tech).
  • Challenge you and call you out — very publicly if need be — when you are being a jackass.
  • Love to put on the headphones and knock out impossible features, impossibly fast.
  • Have a sensitivity to user interface that allows them to collaborate unusually effectively with designers.
  • Be a tool builder who will continually make your team more efficient.
  • Communicate effectively to other technical and non-technical teams.
  • Surprise you with futures and prototypes you’d have never thought of.

No candidate is going to bring all of these strengths to the table, but any great candidate will bring some of them. Ideally, your team will grow to include people with a diversity of them over time. To improve your odds, be sure to write job descriptions that communicate actual passion and the flavor of your company. Ask open-ended questions that invite candidates to show you their personality, follow-up about subjective skills in reference checks, and discuss them in your hiring decision meetings.

Now for the really subjective part. There is something else I look for in every hire, a proxy, of sorts, for that long list of soft skills: are the lights on in their eyes? There are plenty of candidates that I talk to that are … perfectly fine. They are solid programmers; they’ve shipped things; they are nice people. But certain people just have that spark, and when you see it, you know that you want to work with them because they are going to make your life and your team way better.

So, tell me, does all this jibe with your experience hiring engineers? Are there other things you look for in candidates? And how do you identify those subjective — but crucial — skills that will never show up on a checklist?

Michael Natkin is the CTO of ChefSteps. We are reinventing the kitchen. And hiring.

ChefSteps Invades NYC

Picture or it didn’t happen, right? The ChefSteps team snapped plenty of images during our invasion of New York City for the James Beard Awards last week. Were we nervous about the awards ceremony? Hell yeah we were. Still, what were we going to do, let a few butterflies prevent us from making the most of one of the world’s greatest food-and-drink cities? Not this crew.

So, from an epic dinner at Wylie Dufresne’s Alder to a morning-after-the-awards recovery session at the amazing Joe Pro Shop in Chelsea—and taking down no small quantity of cocktails in between—we made the most of our few days in the incredible city. And amazingly, we ended up winning in both award categories in which we were nominated, a major honor and an achievement that would have been impossible without you, our fantastic community.

Anyway, here are some of our favorite photos of the trip, along with commentary by the team members who represented us at the awards: Grant Crilly (co-founder), Chris Young (co-founder), Reva Keller (photographer/videographer), Hans Twite (audio engineer), and Rick Wallace (art director).

Drinks at Balthazar

Grant: Balthazar was one of the team’s pregame stops before the happy hour we hosted. I love this place. I stop here every time I am in New York for at least one glass of wine. This time we had a Picpoul from their cellar that was just insane.

Reva: I ate a salad here. It was the first of many beet-based food and drinks of the weekend—guess beets are trending in New York right now.


Pregame Picpoul at Balthazar Left to right: Reva Keller, Rick Wallace, honorary Chefstepper Jen Utley, and Grant Crilly.

Feeding another obsession

Hans: Whenever I go to New York, I make it my mission to see as many musical instrument shops and historic musical spots around the city as I can. My “touristy” activities include walking to Greenwich village to go by Cafe Wha?, and staring longingly at the front of the minimally ornamented Electric Lady Studios. By far my favorite places in the city to see instruments of unique and historic quality are Rudy’s Music SOHO and 30th Street Guitars.


The incredible lineup at Rudy’s Music

ChefSteps community happy hour at Booker and Dax


Community member Odette Plavinskas bonds with Rick and his iPhone.

Chris: I’ve been friends with [Booker and Dax owner] Dave Arnold ever since he and I were the warm-up act for various Food Network stars at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival many years ago. Dave’s a genius—his incredible book, Liquid Intelligence, garnered a Beard this year—and Booker and Dax was really the perfect place to invite our community, since there’s a lot of overlap between its fans and ours. Above all, what made this great was how excited our community members are about what we’re doing at ChefSteps and it gave us an opportunity to talk with them in person. At the end of the day, even as a digital content and technology company, we’re still in the hospitality business. It’s great to hear we’re making people happy.


Booker and Dax owner Dave Arnold plus Chris and Rick.

Grant: The Eater editors were great; it was so nice to meet some of our media partners in person. Many relationships that we have at ChefSteps are digital, so I just love actually talking with people face to face. It was also amazing to watch the Eater team take home three(!) Beard awards this year. What an accomplishment. We are huge fans!


Eater editors Sonia Chopra and Amanda Kludt check out the cocktail menu. Their team took home an amazing three James Beard awards this year.



One of the incredible cocktails at Booker and Dax.

Reva: I was super-impressed to hear about the recipes from the site that our community members had made—ambitious things like Kouign-Amann and Wine Gums. Quite a few people mentioned liking the One Reuben to Rule Them All video, and wanted to know more about Camp. Mostly I took pictures.


Cheers, Grant.

Dinner at Alder


Reva and her camera go behind the scenes at Alder.

Reva: Halfway through dinner, Grant did a very Grant thing and asked Wylie if I could go to into the back and take photos in the kitchen. Unexpected, but super fun! Wylie was very nice and let me hang around while they plated a couple of things. He insisted that I take a picture of their dishwasher and said he was the only one doing any real work. Later: pickled beets and a beet cocktail. (See what I mean about the beets?) Oh, and then there was “leech guy” Mark Siddall—a curator at the American Museum of Natural History—telling Rick and me about something called pu-erh tea that we should try.

Grant: The food was as interesting as Wylie’s food always is, but even more delicious than usual. I kept drinking these amazing dirty martinis that tasted like there was coconut water in them—the bartender thought I was crazy! I had Wylie try, and he said: “Oh yeah, we don’t wash the bar glasses” in the flatest Wylie tone.


There is no coconut water in this drink, Grant.

Rick: Course after course of tiny, amazing bites of food—I remember lots of beet flavor. We talked about a variety of things here, but what sticks in my mind is the series of stories about people driving into swarms of gigantic insects. But that’s what happens when you eat dinner with interesting weirdos.


A standout among an amazing set of dishes at Alder: Chicken Liver Mousse, Almond, Verjus, and Asian Pear.


Seriously, Grant. No coconut water.

Dry-ice ice-cream demo at Saveur


Dry–ice ice cream: breakfast of champions

Chris: I’m a huge fan of Saveur magazine, and although 7 AM came pretty early the day after the happy hour at Booker and Dax and then Alder, I managed to pull myself together and then make a big mess with the dry ice–churned ice cream. Pretty much guaranteed to happen when you get impatient and want your soft-serve ice cream immediately! Think of what happens when you stick a straw into milk and blow bubbles—yeah, that. Except the soft serve–mix is thicker, and sticky. Of course the Saveur folks asked about the safety of dry ice, and I explained it’s really safe as long as you don’t end up trapped in a closed environment with it—since we can’t breath CO2—and as long as there is a way for the gas to escape. What happens if it can’t escape? Let me demonstrate….


That time Chris terrified the entire staff of Saveur.

Grant: I was super-hungover, but still beat Chris to the Saveur offices that morning. It was totally empty when I arrived; folks only started showing up once Chris was done with his ice cream demo—around 10 AM. So then of course he had to make a dry ice bomb. (The last time we did this, mind you, our office went dark from all the dust falling from our 100-year-old ceilings.) He tried three times! The first time he was too conservative with the amount of dry ice, so everyone waited for 15 minutes while nothing happened. Then we tried again and the same thing happened…but this time it was a shorter wait because Chris was now so impatient he approached the growing bomb and opened it slowly with towels. He loaded it with ice and water. A couple minutes later: MASSIVE EXPLOSION. Very, very loud. People in the office were so freaked out. The staff was hiding behind a wall, full of dread.

Dinner at Buvette

Rick: The food was great, but the decor was amazing. I asked Grant if he’d brought this place back from France, (he lived in Paris for a while), but he didn’t seem to think that was as hilarious as I did.


The beautiful food at majorly French-ified Buvette

Two wins!


Pre-ceremony jitters. Everyone has their own way of coping.


Winning for our documentary and labor of love “Wall of Fire” was an unbelievable thrill.

Chris: These were the third and forth Beard awards for a project I’ve played a role in making happen, and I still felt totally elated when we won. When I started cooking over a decade ago, I don’t think I would ever have imagined winning a Beard award. To get two for ChefSteps this year, I feel deeply gratified and thrilled for our team and so appreciative of our community.

Grant: I cried when we won.


Wait, where did that third one come from?

Hans: Shock and disbelief was the general tone of the night following the announcement of the second Beard award. The award photographer was visibly confused as we waltzed out a second time during the ceremony. We cushioned our transition from disbelief into the realization that we won with a steady stream of complimentary champagne.


All smiles in the official James Beard Foundation shot

The morning after


Man at his best?: Hans, Rick, and Chris in recovery mode at Joe Coffee

Hans: I look more horrible then I felt. Sleep deprivation + añejo tequila = saggy old man face.

Chris: That’s Hans realizing that ordering coffee in a paper cup is a faux pas.

What are your favorite places to eat and drink in New York? Tell us in the comments below!

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.


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?

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


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. 


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.


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!



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.


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


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:

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.


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

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.


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.


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, 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.