Take a two-inch thick boneless rib-eye steak. Coat with a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary, a quarter-ounce of dried porcini mushrooms (finely ground), a tablespoon of olive oil, and a sprinkling of black pepper. Vacuum-seal in a Ziploc bag and submerge in water heated at a constant 57°C (135°F). Leave for 3 hours and 15 minutes. Remove from bag, sear briefly on a skillet, and serve.
That’s the basic recipe for sous-vide porcini and rosemary rub steak. The idea that the meat will be tasty and melt-in-your-mouth tender, even though the water was never more than lukewarm, may sound completely foreign. And so, actually, is sous-vide—the French-derived idea of cooking food in airtight bags for long periods in a low-temperature water bath.
But today sous-vide is sweeping the kitchens of home gourmets faster than a Rachael Ray episode. That’s partly thanks to endorsements from celebrity chefs like Ferran Adrià and molecular gastronomy geeks like Nathan Myhrvold. And it’s partly due to a new wave of home sous-vide technology priced for real people’s kitchens.
The newest sous-vide device on the market is from Nomiku, a San Francisco startup that set out to create an “immersion circulator” that’s cheap enough for home cooks. The Nomiku device costs $359, and the company is distributing the first 500 units this week to supporters of its 2012 Kickstarter campaign. (Nomiku set out to raise $200,000 on the crowdfunding platform, and ended up with $586,000—a record, at the time, for a food-tech project.)
Interest in sous-vide is cresting these days, and creating opportunities for entrepreneurs, because the technique is reputed to cook items more evenly, trapping juices inside and making food more flavorful. “Eating sous-vide is like tasting the brightest corner of heaven,” says Nomiku co-founder Lisa Fetterman. “After my first sous-vide food I said, why would anybody live the rest of their lives not eating it? It would be like seeing in black and white.”
The only problem is, few people have the equipment needed to keep a water bath at a constant temperature for hours on end. In the past, aficionados used repurposed laboratory thermal circulators; today, finally, a few models of consumer-grade sous-vide circulators are hitting the market. Fetterman says she and her husband, Abe, left their previous jobs because they thought they could build an affordable circulator that anyone could use.
“We wanted to fundamentally change the way people cook,” Fetterman says.
I first met the Nomiku team in June 2012, when they were finishing up a 111-day session as part of the HAXLR8R accelerator program for hardware startups. The program is based mostly in Shenzhen, one of the capitals of China’s contract manufacturing sector. The Fettermans and their co-founder Wipop Bam Suppipat, a Thai native with a background in cooking and design, had just spent several months in workshops there, using 3D printers and other rapid-prototyping technologies to perfect their model device. Even though they hadn’t figured out how to mass-produce the prototype circulator and their Kickstarter campaign had barely begun, they showed a drive and energy that convinced me they’d succeed in bringing the device to market.
And now they have—albeit a bit behind the original schedule (the company had originally hoped to distribute the first units by December 2012). Manufacturing delays are absolutely typical for small, crowdfunded hardware companies, which face the tricky task of translating their initial designs into something their Chinese partners can actually build at scale. “We ran into an obscene amount of problems,” Fetterman says. “It was a disaster every week, from different governments wanting different metals in the heating element—the Canadians wanted brass, we wanted aluminum—to communications issues in the factory.”
But this Monday the company finally reached a long-awaited milestone—clearing customs for the first shipment of 500 Nomiku circulators, which they call “noms” for short. You can pre-order a Nomiku yourself at the company’s website, but you may have to wait a bit for them to deliver it, since the first 1,500 units area all earmarked for Kickstarter backers who contributed $299 or more.
Fetterman says one of the attractions of sous-vide is that it’s easy—you just throw a bag of meat, fruit, or vegetables into the water for a few hours. Another is that the food comes out evenly and safely cooked (as long as you’re careful about the vacuum seal and holding the water temperature at a constant level above 52°C, the temperature that kills bacteria).
But could it really change the way Americans cook? That depends on how well Nomiku and its competitors can market the whole concept, and how quickly they can bring down prices.
Immersion circulators for professional kitchens can cost $700 to $1,200 or more. But Williams-Sonoma now sells a Chinese-made immersion circulator from PolyScience for $399. And this summer a second Kickstarter project to build a sous-vide circulator, the Sansaire, raised even more money than Nomiku. The Sansaire is expected to cost only $199.
Fetterman thinks Nomiku, despite its middling $359 price tag, will stand out from the growing sous-vide crowd in several ways. The Nomiku circulator is smaller than the PolyScience and Sansaire units. The heating element inside is made of PTC anodized aluminum, which is more expensive than other types of metal, but keeps temperatures more stable (the electrical resistance of “positive thermal coefficient” materials increases as they’re heated, meaning the device acts as its own thermostat).
The impeller that keeps water circulating in the bath is nearly silent. (While Fetterman and I were talking, we poached an egg, and I couldn’t hear the device at all.) And the power brick for the Nomiku device is outside the body of the circulator—it sits on the counter next to your water bath. Fetterman describes that as a safety feature: “Why would you want your power unit above the steam?”
The controls for the device are extremely simple—basically, there’s a small touch screen that you use to turn the device on, and a big knob you spin to set the temperature. “If you know how to use a faucet you should be able to use it,” Fetterman says.
Finally, the Nomiku device just looks cool, with its Kermit-green knob and a nice ergonomic curve at the top. “I know everybody says their product is the most beautiful,” Fetterman says. “But come on, we definitely are the most beautiful.”
There’s also a heartwarming story behind Nomiku. In the late 2000s, Lisa Fetterman, who was then Lisa Qiu, worked for the Hearst news aggregation website LMK.com, but was laid off when it was sold. Her interest in the food business led her to management positions at several top restaurants, including San Francisco’s Saison. Her fiancé Abe Fetterman was a theoretical plasma physicist working at Lightsail Energy, a Khosla Ventures-funded Berkeley startup working on a compressed-air system for grid-scale energy storage. Their dates included hackerspace sessions where they learned how to program Arduino microcontrollers.
Together, Qiu and Fetterman formed a company called Lower East Kitchen to sell Ember, an $80 DIY electronics kit that transforms kitchen appliances like deep fryers or coffee makers into sous-vide cookers. HAXLR8R admitted Qiu and Fetterman to its first class of startups on the strength of their idea for turning the Ember into a more complete, self-contained appliance. But joining the program would have meant moving to China, and Fetterman decided he didn’t want to leave Lightsail.
So they turned down the opportunity and went back to their day jobs. Well, not exactly “day,” in Lisa’s case. “I worked 5:00 pm to 3:00 am, and one day, Abe had a talk with me, and he said, ‘We never see each other these days.’ And I said, ‘You know how we could see each other? If we go to China together.’ He didn’t even read the contract [with HAXLR8R], he just signed it, and we begged them to let us back in, one week before the program started.” (Lightsail continues without Fetterman.)
Near the end of the four-month accelerator program, Qiu and Fetterman took a break to travel to Thailand, where they discovered that an old friend, Wipop Bam Suppipat, had some relevant skills: an industrial design degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and a cooking degree from the French Culinary Institute. They persuaded Bam to join them as a design co-founder, and he accompanied them back to Shenzhen, where the trio worked together to finish the prototype circulator.
A week before the HAXLR8R demo day in San Francisco (where I met them), Qiu and Fetterman flew to New York to get married. But there was an important business angle to the trip: they were able to persuade their wedding photographer to help them shoot the launch video for the Nomiku Kickstarter campaign.
Now that manufacturing is underway, the Fettermans are focused on marketing the Nomiku, getting ready for their first child (due this fall), designing a second-generation device, and raising the capital needed to scale up the whole operation. So far they’ve raised $875,000, in addition to the Kickstarter funding, mostly from 500 Startups and SOS Ventures, the same fund that supports the HAXLR8R program.
The conclusion that Fetterman draws from the whole experience: building a hardware company from scratch still isn’t easy, but until recently, it would have been impossible for a team as small as Nomiku’s. “Prototyping is easier than it’s ever been in the history of man,” she says. “Normally it would take years and $25 million to do the work that we did for $15,000.”
Which is also turning out to be a great thing for lovers of kitchen gadgets and other types of consumer hardware—and for anyone who likes a tender steak.
Here’s Nomiku’s original Kickstarter video.
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