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Chris Young, principal co-author with Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine—that groundbreaking, 2,438-page, innovative bible of cooking in the 21st century—was in Princeton recently. Over coffee at Small World, we talked about ChefSteps, the new free online culinary school he has launched with fellow Modernist Cuisine alums. Its step-by-step lessons use video, photographs and precise instructions that go far beyond what any physical book can offer.
In fact, 30,000 people signed up the first day the beta version of the ChefSteps.com website went up. That number jumped to 129,000 after an eater.com post on September 26.
“So the idea of a free online culinary school was validated,” said Young, left, in a bit of understatement. The lessons are aimed at professional chefs, students in brick-and-mortar culinary schools and, not least, home cooks.
Response has been global. “We’d get an email from Siberia, saying, ‘I could never afford to fly to Paris to go to school, so thank you!’ We’re clearly resonating with people, but this raises other issues, like, hey, our course is in English. It would be nice to hear from the Spanish speaking world. How to make people volunteer to translate and how to make it a self-policing open source? I can’t know if the translations are all correct.”
After creating the acclaimed, six-volume Modernist Cuisine, Young wanted to do something for a much broader audience.
“The challenge of Modernist Cuisine was, how do you reach out to everyone?” he said. The price ($625) was a barrier, as was the perceived “cheffiness” of recipes requiring equipment like $500 immersion circulators and anti-griddles.
“We wanted something more engaging, more collaborative," he said. "There was a bunch of people who were against [teaching] sous vide” because the equipment is expensive.
Still, the first ChefSteps course is on sous vide cooking. Sous vide simply means “under vacuum.” It involves sealing meats in vacuum pouches and cooking them for long periods of time in water held to precise temperatures. The results are amazingly tender and flavorful. Professional kitchens can spend thousands on sous vide equipment, but that isn’t necessary, Young said.
“We show that if you’re a home cook, a $12 thermometer and a zip-lock bag are all you need. A scientific approach to temperature takes all the uncertainty out of cooking. Sous vide requires a measured use of heat, and a tool like a thermometer lets you add just the right amount, simplifying your cooking life. It doesn’t have to be expensive.”
As proof, Young pulled out his smart phone and showed me the video lesson he had uploaded to ChefSteps that morning on cooking salmon sous vide.
Future content on the site, he said, will be decided by the online school’s student body. “We’re going to start with what we think is right. But 90 percent of our job is listening to people. It’s a collaboration.”
As for cost, “the fundamentals will always be free”—meaning the lessons themselves. In time, ChefSteps may offer “value added” products through an online store.
“Maybe you’ll want to buy equipment through us, or you’d be OK with us having sponsors’ ads on the site, or you’ll pay for a certificate of completion. Our users will vote, will tell us what is of value to them, what recipes they want to see, what structure works best for them.”
The ChefSteps team creates the school’s lessons in a 4,000-square-foot kitchen/laboratory at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. “We have TV screens on the outside walls to show off what we’re doing,” Young said.
The venture is paid for in part by the consulting that Young and his Modernist Cuisine alums Grant Crilly and Ryan Matthew Smith do for clients such as major flavor and fragrance companies.
For more on Chris Young’s path from Modernist Cuisine to ChefSteps – including his work for the Gates Foundation and Johnson & Wales University read Pat Tanner’s blog at dinewithpat.com.