Chris Young took the temperature on current kitchen innovation and decided the time was right to get back to the business of inventing devices to make home cooks smarter and food taste better.
The longtime chef and onetime co-founder and CEO of high-tech Seattle cooking startup ChefSteps, Young is moving beyond the sous vide craze and the “Joule” device he created to capitalize on it. Young’s new company is called Combustion Inc. and the first product is a smart thermometer and timer for better gauging when food is perfectly cooked — no water needed, no meat submerged in a plastic bag.
“If you can really understand time and temperature and how to manage it, it’s like a cheat code for better cooking,” said Young, who previously collaborated with former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, the Intellectual Ventures chief, on the epic Modernist Cuisine cookbook. Young started ChefSteps in 2012 and it was acquired by kitchen appliance giant Breville Group in July 2019.
He had planned to take 2020 off, travel abroad with his family and not do anything. Then COVID-19 hit.
“I got bored,” Young said. “And it turns out I like inventing things and I still love the kitchen.”
He claims his new device is a smarter take on the wireless thermometer. Young has fit eight digital sensors into a sleek probe, designed to collect and calculate data from multiple points inside a cooking steak or flank of salmon. Gathering the key temperature at the surface of food and other points, and not just at the center where the tip of the probe rests, allows for a gradient reading. The device’s algorithmic tech can even deduce the size of a piece of meat and how evenly it’s cooking. Watch Young talk temperature in the YouTube Video below:
A cook looking to make a medium rare steak at around 135 degrees Fahrenheit can set that temperature on the accompanying timer. The probe transmits its readings to the timer via Bluetooth, including when the steak should come off a grill and how long it should rest before it’s really done.
“You tell us where you want to get to so we can sort of calculate the route,” Young said.
There’s no need to fumble with a smartphone app or connect to the internet — although Combustion Inc. will have that tech, too.
“We wanted to make this something that even if you’re kind of not into [Internet of Things] kitchenware, this is still incredibly useful and works just as an everyday thermometer,” Young said. “So many IoT devices require you to download an app and then you’ve got to pair it and then you’ve got to create an account. We ditched all of that.”
Young’s opinion of tech in the kitchen has evolved a bit from his days of sous vide, the technique of heating water to precise temperatures to cook immersed food evenly over extended periods of time. Having an app and an ecosystem was great to teach people about such a new method, and it was a necessary component for ChefSteps and the Joule.
That experience of selling hundreds and hundreds of thousands of IoT devices and having tens of millions of meals cooked with them taught Young about which stuff gets in the way in the kitchen.
“You already know how to use your grill. You already know how to use your frying pan. I don’t want you to have to download an app to stick a thermometer into a piece of food and figure out the temperature,” Young said.
The Combustion Inc. thermometer won’t be alone in the market of smart devices trying to offer a better digital read on food temps. But Young said thermometers from Yummly and Meater, for instance, are failing to gather all the necessary information for a perfect meal.
“We’re trying to make a thermometer that nobody’s made before. We’re trying to make it a third smaller than all the other thermometers on the market that honestly feel a bit like jamming a pencil into your food,” Young said. “It’s got to survive the grill, it’s got to survive the dishwasher, the deep fryer. It sounds simple, but making electronics happy at 300 degrees Celsius is not easy.”
About 20 globally distributed people are contributing to Combustion Inc., including a few employees, freelancers, people Young worked with at ChefSteps and others he wanted to work with in cooking or hardware design.
The thermometer, which Young hopes to have in people’s hands by this summer, will sell through the Combustion website and interested buyers can sign up now to get notified. The device “won’t be the cheapest but won’t be ludicrously expensive,” Young said. “I do want this to be something that people feel is a good value.”
The plan is to make other kitchen devices, but Young wasn’t sharing what types, except to say that there is a greater need for appliances that have a more software-centric approach — so they can potentially connect with his thermometer.
It’s not easy to make it longterm with hardware, and ChefSteps wasn’t alone in running into trouble in the kitchen as it grew. Seattle-based Sansaire shut down during development of its own sous vide device in 2018.
But, to borrow a cooking term, Young said his career innovating in the kitchen “wasn’t quite done.” He felt there was an opportunity to do some new things and take steps toward building back his community, making practical products that solve real problems.
“In a certain sense, this product is a response to all of my friends who texted me going, ‘How should I cook this? Or what temperature for this?’” Young said. “Having something that guides you to getting a result, as good as I could get with 20 years of professional cooking experience — I think that’s kind of awesome.”