“Modernist Cuisine” Alumni Create Free Online Culinary School
I recently sat down with Chris Young, the principal co-author with Nathan Myhrvold of the groundbreaking, award-winning Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, when he was in Princeton. He was here to consult with a major flavor and fragrance company as part of one of his new ventures, Delve Kitchen. But while sipping coffee at Small World on Witherspoon Street, we talked mainly about ChefSteps, the innovative free online culinary school that he and fellow Modernist Cuisine alums Grant Crilly and Ryan Matthew Smith have created.
You can (and should) read my main report about ChefSteps at njmonthly.com. Then follow the link back here for additional fascinating detail, below, on why Young and his collaborators left Nathan Myhrvold and the Modernist Cuisine team behind – he had no involvement, for example, with the follow-up book, Modernist Cuisine at Home, which was published on October 8 – as well as the high-profile geniuses that inspired ChefSteps.
Young on leaving Modernist Cuisine and finding the Gates Foundation and Johnson & Wales:
“Modernist Cuisine turned out to be a bigger project than we imagined,” Young says as a bit of an understatement about the six volume, $625 encyclopedia. “The funny thing is that, at the start, Nathan warned me that it probably would not be a fulltime gig.” Myhrvold envisioned a 300-page book describing new cooking technologies like sous vide. “Who knew it would take six years, and thousands of pages? That last year was like the Bataan Death March! For five years that was my life, and they turned out to be even harder than my five years at the Fat Duck,” he says, referring to his work at Heston Blumenthal’s famed restaurant outside of London, where he ran the experimental kitchen. “Then, one year later most people assume you want to write another book. But, to me, I’ve done that. I’ve said almost everything I wanted to say. I needed to step out of the doughnut hole, see what was next.”
“I was offered to jump onto a Gates Foundation project having to do with improving the milk supply in sub-Saharan Africa. So Nathan said OK, you have a lot to offer. And I helped re-form the project. Oftentimes these kinds of projects apply a first-world solution to a third-world problem. They’re two very different worlds. The business model I developed is currently being implemented in field trials in Kenya, and I’m very hopeful that it can help break the poverty cycle.”
“Just as I came off that project last fall, I had started one overhauling the curriculum at Johnson & Wales, which I’m still doing. Many culinary schools are interested in incorporating Modernist Cuisine into their curriculum. I liked the Johnson & Wales model, which unlike others, is not to fly me in to teach an expensive class. We all realized that the only way to make this scalable is not to each students, but to train the faculty. So I basically ran a boot camp. I trained half the faculty (and interacted with 1,000 students). So here’s the Johnson & Wales faculty, some of whom had been chefs for thirty years, acting like kids again! It had an impact. But I’m thinking, culinary school training professional chefs is big, but it’s still a subset of an already small world. Most people do not want to become professional chefs and there are many working professional chefs who will never go to culinary school. How to make a broader impact? I reasoned that rather than another big book, I wanted something more collaborative and engaging – like the way it is when you work in restaurants.”
“Grant Crilly had also left Nathan, and had participated with me in the Johnson & Wales project. Ryan Smith had left, too. He had established a very lucrative photography business. The three of us, we’re friends and in January of this year we found ourselves asking, what do we want to do? From January through March, we were scratching around. We had straightforward consulting contracts, and those provided our only cash flow. We had no wealthy individual behind us.”
Young on the conception of an online culinary school:
Young mentions as a model and inspiration Sebastian Thrun, a professor of artificial intelligence at Stanford and a Google vice president. “Two years ago, Thrun offered his a.i. class at Stanford free online. A couple thousand enrolled within a day! Eventually 125,000 enrolled, and 20 percent completed it all, taking the quizzes and tests. Stanford agreed to give them all a Stanford certificate of completion.” After that, Thun established his free online university, Udacity. “This was a huge influence. We thought that we ought to be able to do the same thing with cooking. You need a way of engaging, like Udacity. You still need step-by-step instructions and photos, but also video. Unlike with a book, if it takes 20 photos to show a step, that’s OK. If it needs a movie, OK, we can do that.”
One that’s free…
Another influence is Gabe Newell, the video game software genius. “We asked ourselves, how do you charge for this?” Newell has said that monetization is the root of all evil. In the video game world the most successful are those that switch to free-to-play, but with added value. Twenty percent of players will spend more on the value-added stuff than if you charged a fee to pay. So, free-to-play equals free-to-learn.” Young mentions the ill-fated attempt of the New York Times to charge for online content. “We figure if we charge, that’s wrong for two reasons: One, it doesn’t work. And two, you’re competing with [the free content on] YouTube. So fine, all the fundamentals are free. 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…”
…and someday soon, open-sourced and self-policing
Once the idea of a free online culinary school was validated, Young addressed the problem of keeping its integrity. He spoke about this problem with Matt Mullenweg of the open-sourced WordPress, whom he invited into the Delve Kitchen to help process a whole pig. “He had ideas on incentivizing and self-policing, and how that works.”
The future of ChefSteps
“What feels wonderful is that it’s truly a grassroots effort. It takes a lot of volunteers, a lot of support. A lot of new content is coming!” The team has lined up a number of guest presenters for the winter. “The point is it’s not just what we want to teach. For example, I am lucky to work with an amazing knife forger, who knows a huge amount. You’ll never see him on Food Network, and most likely you’ll never see a book from him. We can provide a platform for people like him, give him a voice. These people have been an unexpected bonus and a profound inspiration. A big part of our job is curating. Eventually, the hope is, if we can get ChefSteps to where, say, Wikipedia is, maybe someday some phenomenal contributor can teach their own class.”
To read more about Chris Young’s work at Johnson & Wales University, click here.
Watch the Pilot for Greener NJ’s ‘Fresh!’
I was lucky enough to sit in on the dinner produced for and seen in this pilot, which features folks from Cherry Grove Farm, Terhune Orchards, Stults Farm, Chia-Sin Farms, the West Windsor Farmers Market, and Tre Piani restaurant. Check out the first episode here.
The Lawrenceville farm’s outdoor event barn will be the place to get the farm’s own famed cheeses as well as locally produced breads, baked goods, fresh produce, jams, wine, mushrooms, and more, from 11am-3pm. “Dress warm,” the organizers advise.