I’m thrilled to announce that I’m returning to Modernist Cuisine as Technical Director! Although I can’t talk publicly about the projects I’ll be working on as they’re still in development, I’m ridiculously excited about what lies ahead.
It’s been almost a year since I made the bittersweet decision to leave Modernist Cuisine and finally work full-time at Sansaire, after years of intense moonlighting. I’m very proud of my work over the past year: launching the Sansaire Searing Kit and Steak Aging Sauce, expanding retail sales, and building one of the top sous vide brands from scratch.
However, over time, it became clear that Sansaire wasn’t an environment that enabled me to do my best work. Being a first-time entrepreneur, and co-founding a company with another first-time entrepreneur is tough enough. Running a hardware company without outside investment, and shipping worldwide to major retailers with seasonal demand is extra tough. That’s ok – entrepreneurs eat “tough” for breakfast. But, when co-founders don’t share an aligned vision and strategy, that stress becomes pervasive and, in this case, unfixable. It was a painful, emotional, and personal decision for me to resign from active participation in Sansaire. The Sansaire team will continue to produce amazing products, I’m sure, and I wish them all the success in the world.
Starting today, I’m back at Modernist Cuisine, working with a wildly talented group of people on a mission that I will be very proud to reveal in due time. At my previous Modernist Cuisine farewell, Nathan presented me with a cake that read, “Please Come Crawling Back.” It worked.
Today is my last day at Modernist Cuisine. After three and a half years serving as the Director of Applied Research, it’s time for me to turn my attention to Sansaire full-time.
To call this decision “bittersweet” is a gross understatement. This has been my Dream Job, and every moment of my time at MC lived up to the fantasy I conjured when I first heard about the place. I’ve had the most incredible opportunities and the most unimaginable experiences here. I’ve worked alongside ridiculously talented people and learned from the best culinary minds in the world. And, for my part, I’ve made a contribution to books that will forever mark the period in history when the science of cooking became accessible to the world.
My first visit to the Modernist Cuisine lab was five years ago. I visited as part of an open house thrown in honor of the International Food Blogger’s Conference, and although I had spoken with Nathan on the phone once previously, it was our first time meeting in person. He was as effusive and smart as I expected, and way less stuffy. I soaked in every detail of the lab tour (with my jaw dragging on the ground), and I wore a stupid grin for a week after that.
It was crystal clear that this is where I was meant to work. Although he never said it in exactly these words, I think Nathan recognized that I was the right kind of crazy to be at Modernist Cuisine. (Note: Nathan has, on many other documented occasions, pointed out that I am plenty of other kinds of crazy.) When he created an opportunity for me to graduate from “unofficial fan club president” to full-time employee, Nathan was taking a risk that some guy from the Excel team at Microsoft with no culinary training and (I mean this pejoratively) a blog would be a good addition to his team.
Less than two months into my job, I was on a plane to Los Angeles with a steamed omelet laser-etched with Jimmy Kimmel’s face packed in my suitcase. A few weeks later, I was sitting for lunch with the Top Chef judges, designing our new website, and reviewing chapters for the upcoming Modernist Cuisine at Home release. When I opened my eyes next, I was writing code for a motorized microscope mount to shoot focus-stacked photography, designing a museum exhibit, mastering CNC-milled slip-cast ceramics, introducing Ferran Adria at Seattle Town Hall, 3D printing a mold for bean-to-bar chocolate, making liquid nitrogen ice cream on Irish TV, building a robot, laser-cutting a gingerbread house, and convincing Andrew Zimmern to drink dinosaur broth.
Through all of those experiences – and too many others to list – I had the time of my life. The Modernist Cuisine team has grown and matured, and their capabilities, creativity, and energy now are the best I’ve ever witnessed. My team specifically – Melissa, Caren and Gabbie – are individually the kind of people I may spend the rest of my career trying to find and hire; as a team, they’re an unmatched force in the industry. The editorial team is turning the largest bread book project in history into a printed reality, and with Head Chef Francisco Migoya at the helm, the culinary team is cranking out delicious, beautiful, and uniquely Modernist bread that [I believe] will hugely disrupt the world of baking. I’m very thankful to all of these people for allowing me to play alongside you.
Most of all, I want to thank Nathan. Nathan, you have given me my Dream Job, and extended to me the trust, encouragement, and resources to make this the most incredible period of my life. The lessons that I’ve learned from you – some of which I know, some of which I don’t yet realize – will resonate with me for the rest of my career. I am indebted for the opportunity to apply my brand of crazy to your vision for Modernist Cuisine, and I will remember these years (and all that sous vide pastrami) with great fondness.
All the while, during my fantastic voyage at Modernist cuisine, a team of incredible folks have been hard at work bringing Sansaire to life, growing the business, and creating new opportunities to change the way the world cooks. My nights and weekends at Sansaire won’t cut it anymore – we have big plans and hard work ahead, and it’s time for me to be with my Sansaire family full time.
This has been an incredible year. 362 days ago, as of the time of this writing, I walked into Modernist Cuisine headquarters for my first day of my new job. I was excited, nervous, and not quite sure what to expect, or what would be expected of me. I was thrilled that my work on SeattleFoodGeek.com had led to the incredible opportunity to leave Microsoft and work in a job that ran parallel to my passion. I had no idea just how amazing this would turn out to be, and what an indescribable dream of a year would lay ahead. With deference to the art of the humblebrag, here’s a look back at just a few of the incredible things that happened in 2012.
THE Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, and legendary geek hero. We had an intense conversation about the physics of cooking pizza on the surface of Venus, and about what really happens when you decant wine.
Chef Wolfgang Puck, who achieved fame at Spago and invented California-style pizza, and renowned Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard.
Chopped host and former Queer Eye food guy Ted Allen and Barefoot ContessaIna Garten. Ted was intrigued by a number of techniques that our culinary team demonstrated for him in the lab. Much to my surprise, Ina and Nathan had a long conversation about nuclear reactor design – it turns out that, prior to becoming a Food Network icon, she was a White House nuclear policy analyst.
Google co-founder Sergey Brinn, who graciously let me try on his Google Glasses and like-minded chef/mixologist/food geek Dave Arnold. This is a really terrible picture of me and Dave Arnold.
…Not to mention dozens of other incredible chefs, scientists, businesspeople, artists and generally inspirational folks who were wise enough to avoid having their picture taken.
I traveled and I ate
My wife and I made our first pilgrimage to The French Laundry. Ever since I fell in love with food, it had always been a dream to visit this mecca of fine dining. We enjoyed 17 courses, including many of the restaurant’s iconic dishes (oysters and pearls, salmon tartare cornets) and incredible hospitality from the entire staff. In any previous year of my life, I would not have had the opportunity to eat this meal, nor would I have appreciated it so deeply,
I also had my first meal at Alinea. It would be an understatement that dinner at Alinea blew my mind. It would be more apt to saw that dinner at Alinea attached itself to a dozen points on my head, then ran off in opposite directions expanding my brain like a Hoberman sphere. Surrounded by my wonderful friends Jethro, Mindy and Eric (who works for Chef Achatz), we were served 25+ courses, perhaps a dozen wines, and enough caviar to make an emperor blush. That meal has forever changed the way I think about the restaurant experience.
In August of this year, Nathan and the culinary team were invited to cook for Charlie Trotter’s 25th anniversary, which precluded the restaurant’s announced closing by just a few weeks. I was very fortunate to be invited to tag along – although my cooking responsibilities were… limited, I managed to make myself handy as the unofficial event photographer. Throughout the weekend, in between being spoiled with dinners and parties, I got to hang out with chefs Sean Brock and Tetsuya Wakuda, both of whom have every right to be far less humble. I also briefly met Rahm Emmanuel
At the other end of the fussiness spectrum from Alinea and French Laundry, I also had my first meal at Chez Panisse. Some people perceive a tension between Alice Waters’ philosophy on food an the philosophy we extoll at Modernist Cuisine, but that tension is entirely false. We both seek to honor our ingredients and we both believe that food that is grown with more care tastes better. Well, lunch at Chez Panisse proved that within a few bites.
These were just a few of the incredible food experiences I had this year. There were dozens of others, from Momofuku Ssam Bar and NoMad in New York, to Canlis in Seattle, to grabbing an In-N-Out burger in the middle of the night in Hollywood. I feel like this has been a year of culinary rites of passage, and I feel unworthy knowing how many great meals still lie ahead.
I Helped Evangelize Modernist Cuisine
Part of my job (a big part, as it turned out) is spreading the word about Modernist cuisine, and specifically about our books. Sometimes this means getting on stage or in front of a camera, and other times it means doing whatever’s necessary to help Nathan or any other member of the team spread the word.
Here’s Nathan presenting at the American Museum of Natural History for the Modernist Cuisine at Home launch in New York City. We had just come from Google, where Nathan gave another presentation. Although you can’t see me in the photo, I was running the slide deck that night from the back of the room while Nathan was on stage and our culinary team was preparing tasting samples for the attendees.
This year, I also had the honor of officially representing Modernist Cuisine. Do you know what it feel like to go from being a fan of something to being a spokesperson? It feels really, really good. The photo above shows a talk I gave on our newest book, Modernist Cuisine at Home, at Powell’s in Portland.
While Nathan was cryofrying a burger for Jimmy Kimmel, I was just offstage. I actually did this demo, onstage on the Jimmy Kimmel Live set, in a run-through with the segment producers before Nathan arrived at the studio. They recorded my “performance” onto a DVD. That means, technically speaking, that there’s footage of me doing a cooking demo on Jimmy Kimmel Live. I’ll take it!
I also demonstrated liquid nitrogen ice cream and centrifuged tomato water live on Irish daytime TV to promote Modernist Cuisine. I also participated in a Food/Art/Science exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin. With the help of a few student assistants, we made a “wall of centrifuged foods” to illustrate the individual component ingredients that you can only obtain through culinary centrifugation. Unfortunately, I didn’t predict that the temperature created by the backlights in this display would be ideal for active bacterial growth inside the sealed test tubes. Within 24 hours, the centrifuged foods began fermenting. The gas released by the fermentation process caused enough pressure to pop the lids off most of the tubes, sending a spattering of food juice across the room. I called it a “kinetic exhibit” and pretended it was all part of the plan.
In perhaps the most rockstar moment I’ve ever experienced, I spoke to a record crowd of 2,500 fans at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, along with Modernist Cuisine chef Anjana Shanker and our former head chef Max Bilet. Neither before nor since have I seen a crowd cheer and make the sign of the horns in response to the person on stage saying the words “sous vide.”
I think this one unlocks some sort of nerd achievement: I appeared on the NOVA ScienceNOW profile of Nathan and Modernist Cuisine. At the time that NOVA was filming the segment on Nathan, I was our PR manager. We had a few minutes of downtime while we were waiting for someone to arrive for an interview, so they asked if I’d sit in. I didn’t expect that they’d use any of the footage, but when we watched the show, there I was!
I Made a Web Video Series with CHOW.COM
We call it MDRN KTCHN and all 12 episodes of season 1 are live. The show wouldn’t be possible without my awesome production team: Roxanne Webber and Blake Smith, without the fantastic support of CBS Interactive, and of course, without my job as Director of Applied Research at Modernist Cuisine. This show has been an incredible platform for reaching people who are interested in Modernist cooking, and I’m extremely proud of what we’ve created. Season 2 will be off the hook.
This year has been a phenomenal confluence of professional success and personal passion. Every day I work with people who I respect and admire, I’m having a blast doing it, and they pay me for the privilege. I owe thanks to my friends and family, particularly my wife Rachel, who gave me the support and courage to take a risk and pursue my dream job. But I also have an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Nathan, not only for hiring me and giving me these opportunities, but for literally creating the business of Modernist Cuisine. None of what I described above would have been possible without his trust that a food blogger and fanboy with a Microsoft day job could have something to contribute to the incredible work that takes place at Modernist Cuisine.
OK, enough gushing already. 2013 starts soon, and I’ve got big plans…