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>

Week 43

I’m reading a few different books right now, one of which is The Experience Economy, which talks a lot about adding theatricality to your service to create an experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about that with our interfaces and how we can make it more satisfying to users when they do things we like them to do: cook food, practice techniques, take courses (and cook that food), and add recipes. These are all things we want people to do on a regular basis because it’s the best way to get better. Practice quenelles with crisco! You can upload those pictures, too; it’s important for people to learn the how of getting better at cooking, and practicing is part of that. We’re going to make it feel more satisfying to do that as well.

We launched the knife sharpening course last week which has gotten a lot of uptake quite quickly. There’s a dozen pics that are proof positive that Steppers have some kick-ass, sharp knives. We’re about to get hooked up with some really sweet knives and sharpening kits, so stay tuned for that. I definitely need to do some sharpening, so can’t wait to get some stones. And probably a new knife.

I was making myself some coffee one day in the staff kitchen and I really don’t have any idea how to make good coffee on our crazy awesome La Marzocco machine, and Grant just laughs at me (in a nice way) and says, have you not had a lesson? I had one from Ryan a while back, but I forget a lot of things (my 1.5-year-old son kicks me in the head while he’s sleeping sometimes). So he gives a quick run through and I realize again that I am exceedingly lucky to have had that lesson, on a whim, on an average day at work. But I don’t get to play back a video or written documentation to show me exactly how to perfect my technique. Everyone in the ChefSteps community, however, does and even has the access to the chefs if you have questions about what you’re doing. I think that is pretty amazing.

Week 42

Polls? Yes. One of the harder parts about being a sole designer at a startup is that you have try really hard to adhere to what your core product is, and it’s easy to lose focus on that because of all the cool features your team thinks of. The social design explosion is a great article about determining your feature set, and we’re looking at what makes sense and what doesn’t for our users. We wanted to introduce polls because they are adding an extremely great way for users to essentially help shape the curriculum here and ultimately be a place where cooks can learn what they want. And what’s our core mission? Making you a better cook.

So voting for new content is currently where it’s at here at ChefSteps. Make sure you head over and vote on your favorite new thing that our kick-ass kitchen crew will work on. We’re probably going to open up some other social features coming up soon, but don’t look for the deluge of social features to encroach on the great content that we’re putting out.

Last week I changed up the default avatar on everyone’s profile with something pretty generic, but also lets you know that it should be an avatar. There’s a lot of gray boxes out there! Make sure you update your avatar and bio by clicking on the profile link on the navigation bar at the top right. It’ll help you stick out of the crowd.

Last thing for all you designers out there working on digital products: I’ve been working on an email engagement plan to get more awareness on all things we’re working on at ChefSteps. A couple of awesome things that have made my life easier are mailmatic and pre-mailer (comes packaged with mailmatic). It allows me to design and code emails using SASS and HAML and automatically converts them to HTML-style email (like 1990’s code). Pretty awesome. I really want to make the first 30 days of a user’s experience at ChefSteps really amazing (and of course, after that, too), and an email engagement plan is part of that. If you have suggestions on how to make your experience better, please let me know.

That’s it for now. On to 43!

ChefSteps Is Hiring: Software Developer

ChefSteps is an incredible place to work. I don’t believe there is any place else in the world that brings together this level of culinary, food science, videography, design and technological talent under one roof. We are a small, entrepreneurial startup where the right person has the opportunity to shape the direction of the company, and ultimately, the future of food on the Internet.

If you are the person we are looking for, you are a true software unicorn, the rare creature that is able to design and implement large projects in a self-directed fashion, assimilating whatever technologies are most appropriate, and striking the right balance between writing beautiful code and shipping it rapidly and iteratively. When pointed at a target, you eliminate obstacles  and just make it happen – usually in a way that is more awesome than originally envisioned.

If you have the track record to show that you can learn new languages and libraries fast, you don’t need to have used everything we are built on now. But it is certainly a positive if you know some or all of Ruby on Rails, HAML, CoffeeScript, JQuery, Angular.js and Heroku. It also helps if you are passionate about food.

Our team is based in Seattle, in 4000 square feet of amazingly cool space below historic Pike Place Market. We are open to a remote developer as long as you can spend an initial chunk of time on site and visit here frequently.

Want to apply? Please drop a note to jobs@chefsteps.com and include the following:

  • Links to places on the web where we can see awesomeness that you’ve built (including any github repos you’ve made major contributions to)
  • What you’d change about the current chefsteps.com
  • If you have a current resume, let’s see it

Want more info?

Week 4(1)

I’m jumping ahead in time here, because it’s really week 41 since ChefSteps launched, and weeks 40 and 39 just kind of disappeared into the abyss and now we’re looking at week 41 and there’s a ton of stuff to highlight:

Michael was hard at work on getting Beta testing up on some User-created Recipes — If you’re interested in being a beta-tester, please let him know. More at the forum. He was also hard at work on gallery pages which have gotten some UI upgrades: You can now filter by recipe skill level (easy/intermediate/hard) and any new content on the site at all is accessible through this page — just hit “any” in the filter and you should see everything from newest to oldest.

Google Chrome

Huy was busy with getting a nice upgrade to profiles: Notifications show up if anything you’ve uploaded has been starred or commented on by other users as a badge up in the top right, and in your timeline, we call those things out with a little “new” badge as well. Pretty sweet. He’s also working on some yet-to-be-released new homepage stuff, so keep on the lookout.

Another big feature from Huy: Uploads now have integrated commenting, so that you don’t have to log in to Disqus in order to comment on other people’s uploads. Here’s a few nice uploads folks have done to get you started: Baselerd’s Salmon 104, Xavi Meros Asencio’s Cod brandade gnocchi, Jeff Minuk’s delicious looking Pomme Rösti with poached egg. Go ahead and click through and comment away; these dishes are really beautiful so kudos to those folks that have uploaded.

I did some work on the About page, which got a little facelift and introduces you to the team and links out to the jobs page, which, I should mention: We’re looking for some help! Check out the open positions. You could be here!:

I also revamped the footer to get everything organized a little bit more and to better emphasize the main areas of the site. We’ll get around to doing this for the main navigation too, once we get a few other awesome new features sorted out.

Lastly, we also made it easier to share links for recipes and things out to others by just clicking the email button in the share panel below the videos. Please share liberally! We’ve got some more great things coming up soon from both the content and website worlds. Stay tuned!

Cheers,
-t

Culinary Gift Ideas and Cool Stuff We Like

If you’re looking for a great gift for the culinary aficionado in your life, we have a lot to offer, but we also want to share some different gift ideas based on the multiple interests of our founders and other team members.

If the person you’re shopping for is a fan of learning new and better ways of cooking (and has an inner mad scientist), they’ll get a big kick out of experimenting with one of our new Modernist Pantry spherification kits. Our online spherification course is free and our videos offer easy step-by-step demonstrations, plus there is plenty of expert support from our friendly culinary community if things go awry. We also have a list of Kitchen Tools and Equipment Under $99 at our store along with other great gift ideas like our House Rub 01.

Modernist-Pantry-Professional-Spherification Kit-ChefSteps

When Grant Crilly isn’t wearing a chef’s apron, he’s rocking some freediving gear and pursuing a fresh seafood dinner. There are no complaints from any of us at ChefSteps, as we’ve been the recipients of amazing fish and chips, fish tacos, and fresh fish for own grills at home. Here is Grant’s list of freediving/spearfishing gear from the guys at Sporasub America: dive suit, fins, mask, dive watch, and speargun.

Grant-Crilly-Free-Dive

Following the dive buddy rule, somebody has to keep an eye on Grant, and who better to do that than Ryan Matthew Smith with his GoPro HERO3. Check out this underwater shot captured during one of Grant and Ryan’s recent spearfishing adventures.

Spearfishing

If you’ve got a grilling/bbq fanatic in your midst, we suggest you consider the item on Chris Young’s wish list, a fire proximity suit. In this photo, he’s wearing a suit borrowed from friend, Rusty Oliver of HazardFactory, but since Chris is a “go big or go home” believer when it comes to fire, we’re all interested in him having his own suit. If your favorite chef needs protection from similar grilling flare-ups, you might want to wrap one of these up for them.

Chris-Young-Fire-Tornado-ChefSteps
Our audio director, Hans Twite, performs a dual role with his mad skills as composer of soundtracks for ChefSteps videos and resident bartender. He could really use a tool belt to hold the Zoom H4n 4-Channel Handy Recorder (perfect for capturing family stories) and the Bernzomatic TS8000BT High Intensity Torch Head for charring cinnamon sticks for a Churchill’s Breakfast cocktail.

Hans-Twite-Torch-Zoom-Recorder-ChefSteps

On a quieter front, our CTO and kimchi provider, Michael Natkin, stays busy producing thousands of lines of code on our behalf. We happily provide him with endless cups of rocket fuel when he’s here at ChefSteps, but since there’s very little time for sleep when aiming for lofty startup goals, we’re hoping that the aroma of coffee brewing at home comes from a Technivorm Moccamaster and the pungent odor of his latest batch of kimchi stays put in a Harsch Gartopf Fermenting Crock Pot.

Michael-Natkin-Coffee-ChefSteps

Ed Starbird, our director of business operations, is a fan of the UP by Jawbone. UP is a system, wristband + mobile app, that tracks sleep, physical activity and food intake so you can make smarter choices and feel your best. We’re all witnesses of Ed’s tireless activity on behalf of ChefSteps and if the UP takes a few things off his tracking list and helps him out, we’re all for it!

Ed-Starbird-ChefSteps

Cheers!
Chris, Grant, Ryan, and the rest of the ChefSteps team

Weeknote 2

Hey we missed a weeknote, but that’s because we were super-busy last week getting things ready for spherification, which we rolled out on Monday! I’m going to let Chris Young do the heavy-lifting on talking about the spheres course sometime soon, but for now, just wanted to highlight a few things from the design-side that we introduced along with the new course.

Hey, look at my profile! Lots of new features on this page:

  • A new bio picture for you to upload your photo and make the site a little more community-oriented.
  • Badges – We have two so far with plenty more coming. It’s a fun thing to do for us, and we have lots of ideas of new ones to come. I modeled the knife for the Stay Sharp badge after one of Grant’s knives. It’s pretty badass.
  • Course progress – Any course you enroll in from now on should show up here and if you leave the course in the middle of it, just go back to your profile to pick up where you left off. Should be handy for the longer courses (looking at you, sous vide).
  • Uploads – If you’ve finished the spherification course already (or you look at the course landing page where we highlight student creations), you’ll notice that we’re now offering the ability for you good folks to show off the delicious nosh you’ve been making. You can also like everyone’s photos there and comment! I noticed Brendan has even pushed a recipe into the uploads… Nice one.
  • Timeline – Just to show all the activity you’ve done on the site and when you joined! Obviously, as we add more features, those events will be captured here and we hope to be able to give you a good place to see all the things you (and your buddies on ChefSteps) have been up to.

Oh yeah, you’ve probably also noticed those billboards. We’ve got the new one for the spheres on the front page with spheres dropping. I think it’s pretty sweet and kind of mesmerizing; I’ll be staring at it all weekend.

Phew. A lot of stuff. It’s been a great week, guys. Hope you thought so too. More excitement next week. Have a good one!