It’s 11 a.m. and five men are peering at a bright orange air hose. The sun glints off a silverized fire-protection suit, which is lying on the ground next to a bubbling athletic hydrotherapy tub, while a team of L-39 jet aircraft, part of Seattle’s Seafair celebration, howls by overhead. The question of the moment: Will the plastic air hose survive its proximity to the day’s main event, a 10-foot-long wall of flame that will consume half a cord of firewood to cook a couple hundred pounds of meat? It will, is the consensus of the engineers, and construction of the apparatus resumes.
The staff of ChefSteps — an energetic team of creative culinary-minded engineers — have convened here on the rambling grounds of a handsome home overlooking Lake Washington, to put on the latest installment of an annual edible spectacle. Chris Young, one of the ChefSteps founders, has been doing this for several summers now, starting when he was at Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold’s company, developing the 2,500-page Modernist Cuisine cookbook. “Each time, we’ve been able to outdo what we did the previous year,” Young says. The ChefSteps staff and a crew of comrades from Seattle’s tech-minded community — including author Neal Stephenson, “fire artist” Rusty Oliver, and Nathan Pegram, an engineer who worked on a mosquito-killing laser project for Intellectual Ventures and now builds hardware for ChefSteps — were here till late last night constructing the steel structure where the grilling will take place.
This is just a hobby for the group. ChefSteps, founded last year by Young, Grant Crilly, and Ryan Matthew Smith, all alums of the mammoth Modernist Cuisine project, is in the education business. For a speedily growing audience looking for an accessible way to learn the science-minded, innovative cooking techniques that Myhrvold dubbed “modernist cuisine,” the small company creates painstakingly researched and documented recipes, presented through a collaborative web platform that they’ve built in-house, and illustrated with vivid, step-by-step video tutorials.
Their kitchen, where they develop recipes and film their videos, was designed from the outset to appeal to the public eye. It’s located in the heart of Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, and tourists gape nonstop through the plate-glass windows at the gleaming, bustling kitchen. Last year, Tim Ferriss — “sort of a friend,” says Young — borrowed the space to film a video trailer for his book The 4-Hour Chef. The location also gives the chefs immediate access to the city’s freshest produce, and a rooftop garden where they can cultivate their own.
Using the glorious natural light of the kitchen, Ryan Matthew Smith, who helped create the unique visual style of Modernist Cuisine, shot the first ChefSteps video, which went live in September 2012: a step-by-step showing how to cook salmon sous vide at 104°F. This received close to 40,000 views in the first 48 hours, and the school was off and running. Among the team’s first realizations was that they would need to build their own software tools to present their content the way they wanted to. Michael Natkin, who had worked on the computer effects in Terminator 2 and helped develop Adobe After Effects before writing a best-selling vegetarian cookbook, joined the company in November to lead their software development.
The site contains a rapidly growing database of recipes developed by the kitchen crew, from strawberry soda to English muffins, but it’s much more than a recipe library. Recipes are accompanied by clear, appealing walkthrough videos, and every page is interactive: Click any ingredient amount to edit it — double the flour, say — and every other ingredient automatically changes to match. The Fork button on the upper right of every recipe page is a metaphor borrowed from software development, not gastronomy: clicking it instantly “forks off” a duplicate, independent copy of the recipe, which you can edit, store, and share.
Members of the site can enroll in structured courses, like a 41-lesson sous vide course, which includes quizzes and homework — all free of charge — and pursue topics of interest in the online forums, which the team monitors obsessively. As ChefSteps refines its plans to grow into a profitable business, it takes a very focused interest in what the user base wants. This month, the company will release its first for-pay course, a thorough tutorial on a topic chosen by user vote: French macarons.
When the Modernist Cuisine project started, sous vide was an obscure term; now, with over $30 million worth of the books sold to an unexpectedly massive public, sous vide circulators and chamber vacuum sealers populate the shelves of Williams-Sonoma, and Amazon sells technical ingredients like gellan gum and transglutaminase. The audience for ChefSteps is the same as for these: avid experimenters who take a technology-driven, leading-edge approach to cooking, and want the form of their culinary education to match.
Charging users for premium content is only the most mundane of ChefSteps’s business ambitions. The company plans to make its software — at the heart of which is a semantic representation of recipes as manipulable data — open to its users for anyone to publish content, from a single recipe, to a structured meal, to a complete curriculum. Moving beyond that, the expanding hardware arm of the company is working on appliances that can also make use of the software, with a built-in open-source library of times, temperatures, and culinary heuristics. “You could take a recipe someone blogs about, and it can be seamlessly loaded into a cooking device that lives on your countertop.”
The hydrotherapy whirlpool, which was designed for soaking athletes’ sore limbs, has been turned into an improvised sous-vide bath, outfitted with four PolyScience immersion circulators and filled with about 100 gallons of water. Two whole legs of beef and pork (the beef cured for two weeks beforehand in a pastrami brine) have been sealed in plastic and cooked in the bath overnight. Now they’re hung in front of the fire on a custom-built motor-driven rotating rack, along with five chickens and a 40-inch king salmon.
A gas manifold built into the steel allows compressed air to be blasted from a battery of cylindrical tanks, via that orange hose, directly into the heart of the fire, maximizing airflow when the time comes. The original plan was to use pure oxygen, but after weighing the explosion hazard against the possible benefits, the team opted for the safer air. A backing of thin Durock cement board sits directly behind the logs, where its white surface reflects the radiant heat straight forward at the meat.
Around 4:30 pm, the team confers and determines that it’s time for the final phase: opening the air tanks, to amp up the temperature and put a final crisping on the exterior of the meat. By now, a hundred or so guests have gathered on the back patio overlooking the spectacle. Nathan Pegram puts on the aluminized suit and hood so he can approach the fire, and quickly loads on the final helping of logs. When he dashes back to safety, his pants legs are steaming. The high sign is given, and the first tank, hooked to the hose feeding the manifold, is opened. Air blasts from dozens of tiny holes straight into the fire, which roars and doubles in size. Everyone backs away another 10 feet. After just a few minutes, all four air tanks are empty, and the logs are nearly consumed. The rack of aromatic meat is carefully wheeled away from the flames, and its cargo unloaded onto tables and carved for consumption, as a line of guests forms that curves halfway around the house. Although the day is Seattle-gray, the next day a number of participants will report sunburns: The enormous fire’s ultraviolet radiance was comparable to an afternoon on a sunny beach.
A shorter version of this story appeared in the October 28, 2013 issue of Fortune.