We live in a city where being called a geek or a nerd is hip. Seattle is home to so many technology and innovation companies that we are chock-full o’ proud geeks wearing their newfound hipness as a badge of honor. So why haven’t food geeks achieved the same respect on the scale of nerddom? Most restaurateurs and chefs I’ve talked to scoff at those who take pictures of their food and post them on Instagram from the dinner table. It creates an odd juxtaposition, as those are the people paying for and promoting their food! Here’s the news—food geeks are cool too. We spend the same amount of time debating traditional vs. modernist cuisine as techno-geeks might spend 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, you have probably heard of Scott Heimendinger, aka the Seattle Food Geek. Scott v1.0 grew up in L.A. and studied Information Systems at Carnegie Mellon, his “dream nerd school.” After graduating and spending a year at IBM and six at Microsoft, he realized that his true passion was food. On the side, he launched what was then known as Scott’s Food Blog—later renamed SeattleFoodGeek.com—as his “little place of narcissism” to experiment with food and photography and explore and evolve his cooking skills and tastes. Asked where the moniker came from, Heimendinger gives all the credit to his mom: “She helped me conceptualize it and carve out a niche at the intersection of technology, engineering, and cooking which had so much appeal to me.” Geek moms unite!
The Seattle Food Geek Meets “Modernist Cuisine”—and Jerry-Rigs a Sous Vide Machine.
Heimendinger‘s first sous vide experience was, he recalls, “ordering a steak with a sous vide egg on it at Maria Hines’ restaurant, Tilth—it just blew my mind.” He asked the server about the preparation and was hooked. Sous vide—French for “under vacuum”—is 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. It gives you more control over the cooking process, and can make for perfectly cooked, moist meat especially.
He devoured all the literature he could find online, and discovered there were no ready-made sous vide machines available. People were using repurposed PolyScience lab immersion circulators that cost $1,200—and then had to worry about the machine’s previous uses (for example, if the lab had handled ebola). So he built his own, for about $75, from parts obtained mostly on Amazon. Then he documented the process and posted DIY instructions on his site. The post caught on like wildfire when Make magazine (makezine.com) published it. Heimendinger says, “It was a huge badge of honor for any geek.”
Soon after his DIY post went viral among food geeks, he read a New York Times article about modernist cuisine and about a guy in Bellevue with a lab working on these huge books—none other than Nathan Myhrvold, co-author (with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet) of Modernist Cuisine. “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 Myhrvold and Modernist Cuisine, I decided I had to meet him. So I worked my way into an interview with him for SeattleFoodGeek.com.”
Later in 2011, Heimendinger did a one-week internship at Modernist Cuisine in Bellevue and told Myhrvold “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 2012, his current “day job,” where he turns research insights into products and services. Hence, Scott v2.0 was born!
Steak cooked with Sansaire sous vide machine (left) versus old school cooking methods (right).
To Cook Without Air?
Asked why sous vide cooking techniques are superior, Heimendinger replies, “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 Bilet, founder of the Imagine Food space set to open Friday at 1001 Western Ave. His perspective on sous vide cooking is 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.”
According to Bilet, methods like grilling or searing are inferior: “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 this might be a business opportunity. In his spare time he built a business plan and kicked the idea around. Then two UW grad students who had seen his post asked if he’d be interested in joining them in a business-plan competition. He agreed, and while they didn’t win it, it got the entrepreneurial juices flowing. The students took the reins with Heimendinger as an advisor, and in a year built a prototype of his DIY sous vide machine—dubbed the Sansaire—sourcing components and finding a factory in China that could do production.
Around that time, Kickstarter was emerging as a real force in raising capital, and Heimendinger turned to it for financial support for his project. “So much work goes into prepping for Kickstarter, and I had the model all wrong in my head,” he says. “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 Heimendinger’s kitchen, put together their materials, and kicked off the campaign on August 6, 2013. Their target was $100,000 in 30 days. What happened next exceeded their wildest dreams: It took only 13 hours and four minutes to reach that goal. By the end of the campaign, they’d raised over $823,000.
With some help from blogger J. Kenji López-Alt and his writings about the Sansaire at SeriousEats.com, and through their partnership with local cookware company Sur La Table, product sales have exceeded expectations. The Sansaire has now been shipped to customers in over 65 countries.
Heimendinger’s Top Three Sous Vide Preparations—and the Worst.
It can’t all be good, can it? Heimendinger is quick to name his top three foods for sous vide prep—eggs, salmon, and steak. The best thing he’s ever made sous vide? “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 adds, “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.”