I stood in front of a nondescript iron gate in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District and rang the doorbell. The scent of bacon-wrapped hot dogs and grilled corn on the cob from sidewalk food carts filled the air, seducing my senses as I waited patiently for someone to let me through. Soon, the door behind the gate opened, and Abe Fetterman, Nomiku's co-founder, escorted me in. We walked down a narrow hallway and up a skinny flight of stairs, making pleasantries and exchanging small talk to relieve the awkwardness. When I emerged from the steps, I was welcomed to the office by Nomiku's other co-founder, Lisa Q. Fetterman. There, in a small modest office surrounded by boxes, laptops and wires, she introduced me to one of the most recognized food science writers in the country: acclaimed author of On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee.
Of course, I wasn't invited here just to meet McGee, who happens to be one of Nomiku's advisors, but also to learn all about the all-new Nomiku. It's a brand-new immersion circulator (a device that moves water around a vessel so that the food cooks evenly at a precise temperature) that not only promises to make perfectly cooked food via sous vide (which is a fancy way of saying cooking vacuum-sealed foods) -- but also to let you do so wirelessly via an app. That's right, the new Nomiku actually has built-in WiFi that hooks it up to the internet. You can use the app to set and monitor the temperature of the water, and also view recipes from the app right on the new Nomiku's 2.4-inch IPS LCD display. What sort of recipes? Well, recipes such as sous vide sticky ribs from Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino and sous vide halibut from Hugh Acheson, another well-known name in culinary circles. Oh yeah, and if you're concerned about the old Nomiku being made in China, this new WiFi-enabled Nomiku will be manufactured right here in the Bay Area.
But let's back up a little here for a bit of history. We first saw the original Nomiku a couple years ago at a HAXLR8R event in San Francisco. The curiously shaped tubular device was the first immersion circulator we saw that we could actually envision ourselves using in our own home. All you needed to do was to clip it to a pot you already own, fill the pot with water and you could cook via sous vide just like the professionals do on Iron Chef. "Circulators are wonderful," McGee told us. "They provide really precise temperatures ... They're like slow cookers, only better and more versatile."
Most immersion circulators at the time cost anywhere around $500 to $2,000, so at $299, the original Nomiku was a bargain. Since the initial Kickstarter success of the original, there've been a slew of rivals, like the Anova and the Sansaire which sell for about $100 less and even came to market earlier than the Nomiku due to the latter's regulatory struggles. Still, Lisa Fetterman interpreted the competition as a flattering sign that they were onto something special. Besides, because the Nomiku was so much smaller than the competition, it gained fans among professionals such as Cosentino and other restaurateurs, who valued its smaller footprint and portable form factor.
After spending months traveling back and forth to Shenzen, China, and learning how to create one of the original Nomiku circulators from scratch -- they actually lived right next to their factory during the process -- the Fettermans and fellow co-founder Wipop Bam Suppipat grew more confident that they could build a version of the circulator without having to make it in China. Abe tells us that making it in China wasn't terribly ideal, as you typically had to order a huge production of everything. "If we wanted to change something, it was really difficult," he said. "In the end, we just wanted to do everything ourselves."
They initially wanted to get the new version of the Nomikus manufactured by Factorli, an initiative founded by Jen McCabe to build hardware for startups in the US. Unfortunately, at the very last minute -- we're talking late yesterday afternoon -- they found that Factorli had closed its doors. The new gameplan? To rent a warehouse in the Bay Area and plug away there instead. It's an audacious idea, but it's one that Lisa Fetterman is extremely gung ho about. "We're so excited to manufacture in the Bay Area," she wrote to us in an email. "Let's bring it back to the Bay!"
As for the design of the new Nomiku, it's actually one that they came up with way back in 2012, during the launch of the original model. Why didn't they just make it then? For a few reasons: They weren't entirely confident of the product just yet; they needed more testing; and they simply weren't sure if a front-clip design would fly. Now, of course, they think the front-clip design is much better. "You no longer have to reach over a pot of hot water to change the temperature," said Lisa Fetterman.
Indeed, the new Nomiku's design is better than the old in many ways. Not only is it clipped on the front for easier access, but it also has that aforementioned, much wider 2.4-inch touchscreen LCD, a rotating outer dial for manual temperature control, a removable bottom for easy cleaning, a minimum water level of only 1.5 inches (it was previously 3.5 inches), an improved temperature stability of 0.01 degree Celsius and a much more powerful 1,200W PTC heater, which Lisa Fetterman said will ensure faster heating and the ability to cook more food at the same time. And that WiFi connectivity we mentioned earlier? It's actually powered by Spark Core, an open-source WiFi effort that symbolizes the Nomiku's roots in hardware hacking (the Nomiku's predecessor was a DIY sous vide kit called The Ember).
Unfortunately, however, I wasn't able to see the new Nomiku in action, as it's still in prototype stage -- Suppipat was too busy mending aspects of the prototype to even speak with us at length. And therein lies the catch: Just like the original Nomiku, the new one needs some crowdfunding love before it can take off. The company launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign just a few hours ago, with a goal of $200,000 to make it all happen. The reasoning for this is to gauge whether or not there really is a big enough demand before the company commits to making it.
McGee happened to be an early fan of the original Nomiku, so he immediately agreed to come on board as an advisor several weeks ago when the team asked. Cosentino is another advisor of the new Nomiku. One of the reasons the Fettermans brought McGee on board as an advisor was to gain additional insight as to what they could do with the new circulator. "The wired aspect of it, the fact that it connects to the internet ... makes it more than just a simple appliance," said McGee. "It opens up a whole other venue of possibilities."
One of those possibilities, as we mentioned, is a connected app that'll control the temperature remotely. Called Tender, the app also lets you scour recipes from professional chefs as well as those posted by the Nomiku community. You're encouraged to come up with your own recipe by taking pictures and posting your instructions to the app as well. Similar to Tumblr, you can repost recipes from others and augment them with your own comments. Another advantage of having the app, Lisa Fetterman said, is that you can get tips and tricks from the community. Want to know if a 64-degree egg is better than a 63-degree one? You can dig in and find out.
We should note that other sous vide and circulators have apps too -- the latest Anova circulator uses an app with Bluetooth, while the Mellow water bath has built-in WiFi. The latest Nomiku does face tough competition as sous vide machines become more and more accessible to the home cook, but its latest front-clip design, new minimum height level and loyal following amongst professionals might give it a leg up.
And, who knows, perhaps some day you can send a message to McGee himself via the Nomiku app and have a specific cooking question answered. Since I was right there in front of him, I asked if it was better to use a cast iron pan or a blowtorch to sear sous vided meats. His answer was that either would work, but he prefers to use a pan for meats he's cooled down in the refrigerator so that the meat could have some time in the pan to build flavor without overcooking. The blowtorch, on the other hand, is best for a quick browning when you want to enjoy it there and then. Oh, and another hot tip? In order to quickly heat up a cast iron pan, simply put a shiny side of aluminum foil on its surface. It should get up to the desired temperature in just a minute or two.
"Conventional cooking can give good results, of course," said McGee. "It's just really difficult and you have to babysit it ... Immersion circulators like the Nomiku [are] really kind of a no-brainer. It's the only appliance you can really trust. It's the best possible combination of a stove and an oven."
If all of this makes you feel like getting a sous vide machine of your very own, there's good news: The new Nomiku is more affordable than the original. The final version is set to retail for $249, but if you get in on the Kickstarter early enough, you could get one for as low as $129. And that, as McGee tells us, is cheaper than both a toaster oven and a cooktop.