The Sansaire Story
Newsflash – we live in a city where being called a geek or a nerd is hip. What was once a derogatory term is now one that is proclaimed loudly and proudly by its members. Seattle is home to so many technology and innovation companies that we are chock full o’ proud geeks wearing their new found hipness as a badge of honor.
So why is it that food geeks haven’t achieved the same level of respect on the scale of nerddom? While techno and gamer geeks are lauded – ‘foodies’ are often derided by professionals in the food world. Most restaurateurs and chefs I’ve talked to joke about people playing with their phones in restaurants and scoff at those who are taking pictures of their food and posting them on Instagram from the dinner table. It created an odd juxtaposition as those are the same people paying for and promoting their food!
Here’s the news – food geeks are cool too. We are so into eating and ‘the art of food’ that we want to share our experiences and knowledge with everyone we know. Notice the volume of media space dedicated to food? It’s overwhelming. Food geeks spend the same amount of time debating traditional vs. modernist cuisine as techno-geeks might spend hours debating the pros and cons of gaming platforms. It is a noble obsession. And we all eat, every single day.
Meet THE Seattle Food Geek
If you are a foodie and live in the Seattle area then you have probably heard of Scott Heimendinger aka ‘The Seattle Food Geek’. Scott v1.0 grew up in LA and went to study Information Systems at Carnegie Mellon – his ‘dream nerd school’. After graduating and spending a year with IBM and another 6 at Microsoft, he realized that his true passion was in food. On the side, he launched what was then known as ‘Scott’s Food Blog’ (later re-named SeattleFoodGeek.com) as his “little place of narcissism” to experiment with food and photography to explore and evolve his cooking skills and tastes.
Getting Into ‘Modernist Cuisine’
When I asked Scott about his first sous vide experience he recalled, “Ordering a steak with a sous vide egg on it at Maria Hines’ restaurant Tilth – it just blew my mind. It was my first food ‘wet dream’.” He asked the server about the preparation and was hooked.
He went home and devoured all the literature he could find online and discovered there were no ready-made sous vide machines available. People were using re-purposed PolyScience lab immersion circulators that cost $1200 – and then had to worry about their previous uses (like if the lab handled ebola). He decided that it shouldn’t cost that much to heat water and built his own for about $75 from parts obtained mostly on Amazon. Then he documented the process and put it up as DIY instructions on his site. The post caught on like wildfire when Make magazine (makezine.com) published it. Scott said, “It was a huge badge of honor for any geek.”
Soon after his DIY post had gone viral among food geeks he’d read an article about Modernist Cuisine in the New York Times and about this guy with a lab working on these huge books in Bellevue, WA. That was none other than Nathan Myhrvold – founder of Modernist Cuisine. He said, “At the time, I had bought all of these tech gadgets and was doing experimental cooking with my friends Jethro and Eric in my basement. When I heard about Nathan and Modernist Cuisine I decided I had to meet him. So I worked my way into an interview with him for SeattleFoodGeek.com.”
In the summer of 2011, when his Norwegian boss from Microsoft took a month off he thought no one would notice if he left for a week to do an internship at Modernist Cuisine. After a 30 course meal he told Nathan, “I need to come work for you – it’s going to get awkward if I keep showing up here.” And so he became the Director of Applied Research in January of 2012 which is his current ‘day job’ where he turns research insights into products and services. In reality he says, “I do what ever Nathan is interested in at that time.” For example, he created the photography for a travelling Modernist Cuisine museum exhibit. He also managed the partnerships with Baking Steel which he says is “an awesome product – the best way to make pizzas in a home oven.” Hence, Scott v2.0 was born!
To Cook Without Air?
Sous vide is a French term meaning ‘under vacuum’. It is used for a method of cooking food sealed in an airtight container, usually a plastic bag, in a water bath at precise temperatures over a longer than normal period of time.
When I asked Heimendinger about why sous vide cooking techniques were superior he replied: “Until recently there was an enormous disconnect between the way people cook food and the way food cooks. Nobody had taken the scientific perspective to understand temperature relationships, chemical reactions, etc. Once you understand how proteins break down based on temperature it becomes obvious that this is the primary thing you need to control and sous vide allows you to do that precisely.
I also spoke with Maxime Bilet, co-author of the Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. His perspective on sous vide cooking was similar, “The biology is really interesting – how you relate blood temperature and the structure of the protein of that particular animal is fascinating. You use lower temperatures to cook protein that has a lower blood temperature.”
When I asked Maxime why methods like grilling or searing aren’t superior he said, “You can have the most beautiful piece of fish in the world and if you sear it you are burning the hell out of all the oils and amino acids so it will smell fishy. Whereas if you poach fish in a sealed environment, you will cook it without burning up the aminos and oils and it will taste wonderful.”
Inventing the Sansaire
After the DIY post became so popular it occurred to Heimendinger that there might be a business opportunity. In his spare time he built a business plan and was kicking the idea around. Then he got an email from two UW grad students who had seen his post asking if he’d be interested in joining them in a business plan competition. He agreed and while they didn’t win it got the entrepreneurial juices flowing. The students took the reins with Scott as an adviser and took a year to build a prototype, source components and find a factory in China that could do production.
Around the same time Kickstarter was emerging as a real force in raising capital. When I asked Scott about building the campaign he said, “So much work goes into prepping for Kickstarter and I had the model all wrong in my head. I thought we’d put in all of this effort to get ready, launch it, then have 30 days to exhale. The more accurate model is up until Kickstarter we were pregnant and then we gave birth to this screaming child that needed constant attention!”
The team agreed to make a go of it and filmed the requisite video in Scott’s kitchen, put together their materials and kicked off the campaign on August 6th, 2013. Their target was 100K in 30 days. What happened next exceeded their wildest dreams – it took only 13 hours and 4 minutes to reach that goal. By the end of the 30 day campaign they raised over 823K!
With some help from Kenji Lopez-Alt and his writings about the Sansaire at SeriousEats.com, and through their partnership with local cookware company Sur La Table – product sales have been beyond expectations as the Sansaire has now been shipped to customers in over 65 countries.
The Slow Boat to China
When I asked Heimendinger about working with Chinese manufacturers he had this to say, “It’s a big fucking pain in the ass. We get better each time we do a production run and now we’re #6 but it’s still really hard. We work with a company that has offices in Seattle and full time people in China. In principal it solves the logistics problems but there are so many things that you can’t anticipate that it is difficult to manage. You’d think they’d make decisions with good judgment on our behalf but no. Think of everything that can go wrong and it will. It’s sort of a Murphy’s Law type of thing. Read Poorly Made in China and you’ll get the general idea.”
Is Sous Vide a Panacea for the Palate?
It can’t all be good can it? Heimendinger was quick to name his top 3 for sous vide prep – eggs, salmon and steak. As far as the best thing he’s ever made sous vide – he shared, “Egg yolks are the most magical – you can create textures that you cannot through traditional cooking. Cook an egg at 65 Celsius for 45 minutes and you get this yolk that is creamy, fudgy and totally incredible.” He added, “if you really want to gild the lily – take the egg out of the shell, run water over it, wash the white away and – being super careful – bread the yolk in panko and give it a quick deep fry. You’ll end up with a little perfect sphere of goodness.” Wow.
The worst thing – a kiwi. He says, “it turned to mush but also just smelled like shit. Broccoli produces this really sulfurous smell. Really bad. We also had whole cloves of garlic in a bag and they just smelled like feet.”
When I asked Scott where the Seattle Food Geek moniker came from he gave all the credit to his mom. “She helped me conceptualize it and carve out a niche at the intersection of technology/engineering/cooking which had so much appeal to me.” Geek mom’s unite!