Duncan Werner from ICA Kitchen

Today's interview is with Duncan Werner from ICA Kitchen, makers of the SideKIC immersion circulator for home cooks.

What prompted you to start a sous vide machine company? How did you go about designing and refining the SideKIC?

It was really a confluence of a couple of different things. I've always loved to cook; but for a long time I was really more of a baker than a cook. Baking gives you an appreciation of precision. Baking is all about time and temperature. When I switched from baking to cooking, I kept that focus in mind.

I also love to tinker, and I love to build machines. When I first learned about sous vide cooking, almost immediately I started building various cookers. And when I did, I was really impressed. I was amazed that you could get such dramatic results with what is - really - such a simple technique. To me, one of the amazing things about SV is how easy it is to get spectacular results.

I was a surprised that there wasn't a machine available at a reasonable price. After building various machines for myself, I built a few for other people who wanted to try it as well.

And that was really the genesis of it. I knew that people wanted to try this, but felt that it was either too complicated or too expensive. So I figured that if we could build a machine for a reasonable price, we'd be able to reach a good number of people.

Where do you view yourself in the sous vide market? What type of cooks are you targeting the SideKIC for?

On this question we're pretty clear: we're targeting home cooks who want to experiment. We're not targeting professionals; they have plenty of options. But there didn't seem to be an option for the "advanced" home cook.

Here's how I would characterize the SideKIC if I were marketing it (which I am): the SideKIC is easy to use, gets great results, and all at a reasonable price!

At $170, the SideKIC is priced closer to a temperature controller than a circulator. What's your secret?

The basic answer to that is that we started with a price in mind, and worked backwards. I felt that in order to reach the market I wanted to, we had to have something that was under $200 (I was really shooting for $150 - it turned out to be impossible, although if we can get enough volume I'm hoping that it will drop to that level).

When you start with a price, you have to make tradeoffs, and we did. My original machines had all sorts of ridiculous features, just because I like to play with that stuff - bluetooth (so I could control them with my phone), touch screens, and so on.

But in building a practical machine we tried to focus on what was important, and drop the unnecessary stuff.

More specifically, compared to a temperature controller we have a lot of advantages. For one, we build in a particular type of temperature sensor. That means we only have to build software (and hardware) to support that sensor. A generic temperature controller, on the other hand, will have to support a variety of thermocouples, thermistors, &c, each of which has its own requirements.

Similarly, because we know we're using a specific heating element, we can design for that; we don't have to build generic hardware that can support a variety of devices. And in fact in some respects we're better off here - because we know what kind of heater we're controlling, we can use proportional (rather than bang-bang style) control, for better temperature regulation.

So by designing around a particular set of hardware, and not needing to be generic, we can get more out of less. Another part of this is software - we do a lot in software that you might ordinarily do in hardware.

Typically you'd think that to build something inexpensive, you would have to do it off shore. But it turns out that we have a lot of advantages by building it locally as well. We build every machine here in San Francisco.

Now that your first unit is out and getting good reviews, what's next for ICA Kitchen?

ICA Kitchen is a starting point for a variety of things I want to do, some kitchen related and some not. I'm really interested in home automation; I think you should be able to control everything from your phone or your computer. I'm interested in robotics; I think it's about time that we had physical machines as adept as the software we rely on every day. So I see the potential for ICA to move into any of these spaces.

All that said, going back to sous vide, the other day I had a kind of crazy idea for how to build a chamber vacuum. I can't believe how expensive these are (although I think I understand why, and that's what I think we can fix).

We normally suggest a Foodsaver-style vacuum for people, and while these are pretty good, I think there might be a market for an inexpensive chamber vacuum. I'm going to spend a couple of days in the shop and see if this works - if so, that might be the next thing.

What is your favorite meal to prepare sous vide? What is the most amazing sous vide meal you've eaten?

When I built my first circulators, I spent a lot of time experimenting with cooking meat. I tried different different temperatures, different cooking times, and so on. I tried various cuts; I tried taking things that were traditionally tough and cooking them for 48 hours; and all that.

This of course works great. You can cook briskets and tri-tips for a long time and they turn out amazingly well. I really encourage people to try this.

But what I've found over time, as I've had a circulator available to me, is that it's really become just another tool in the toolbox. I don't focus on sous vide as a technique specifically; rather, I think of it as a way to prepare things as part of the overall cooking process.

For example: In Chinese cuisine, a lot of cooking involves preparing the protein separately from the other ingredients; then preparing a sauce; then combining everything. Often this involves deep frying the protein, to cook it fully before it's prepared with a sauce.

I discovered (largely by accident) that I can prepare really spectacular Chinese dishes by using SV cooked proteins instead of deep frying or wok frying them. Try this with any Chinese recipe that traditionally involves deep frying chicken or pork. The traditional cooking technique uses deep frying in order to ensure that the chicken (or pork, or whatever) is fully cooked before it's used in the final dish. Deep frying is a good way to do this but it's error prone - it can become greasy, it's easy to overcook or undercook, and so on. If you use a protein that's been cooked SV, you get the same effect but you can generally ensure that it's cooked perfectly (and usually with less effort).

So I view sous vide as a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself.

Another answer to the same question: burgers (lowbrow, I know, but just try it). I love burgers, but I live in an apartment and I don't have a barbeque, and pan-frying burgers is awful. 90 minutes at 131F makes the best burgers I've ever had (just make sure you have good quality ground beef). I usually keep a couple vacuum-packed in my freezer just in case I get home late and need something (relatively) quick.

I've had a lot of sous vide meals over the last few years, some of them great, some just OK. I don't think I could point to one "most amazing".

The meal that got me started, though, was a Korean short rib. I guess you would call it Kalbi, although it wasn't actually grilled. It was really amazing, and I asked how it was cooked - the answer was SV, which led me to learn about that, and build my first machines, and so on.

I never asked about time and temperatures on that one. At the time I didn't know enough to ask. But I've been experimenting, and I'll get it eventually!

Where do you think the future of sous vide is headed?

Boy, I have no idea - but I mean that in a good way.

When you build something, you never know how people are going to use it. In our specific example, we designed the SideKIC for people to use in bowls and cooking pots. But almost immediately, people started using it in coolers. It never even occurred to me that this would happen.

The same thing applies to techniques. Someone invents something, but they can't determine what anyone else will do with it.

With sous vide specifically, I think we can say that people will use it to cook proteins to specific temperatures. But beyond that, who knows? I look forward to finding out.
Jason logsdon headshot This article is by me, Jason Logsdon. I'm an adventurous home cook and professional blogger who loves to try new things, especially when it comes to cooking. I've explored everything from sous vide and whipping siphons to pressure cookers and blow torches; created foams, gels and spheres; made barrel aged cocktails and brewed beer. I have also written 10 cookbooks on modernist cooking and sous vide and I run the AmazingFoodMadeEasy.com website.
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