Kait Freeberg
Special to Mustang News

First, the smell.

Aromatic scents of sweet onion and warm chicken stock fill the kitchen.

A young man wears white socks, freshly pressed brown Eddie Bauer pants and an oversized gray Cal Poly hoodie.

“Mmm mmm mmm, risotto,” he says.

He sings soft, melodic notes to himself as he moves his creation around in the pan.

“I’m goofy, I know,” he says.

[divider]

This young man and cooking enthusiast is Eric Veber, a mechanical engineering junior who thought of a smart appliance that would lend a helping hand in the kitchen.

The idea came to him this past summer. FoodKey, as he calls it, will allow consumers to cook their food and control the exact temperature of it through a Wi-Fi connection. FoodKey allows a user to cook steak, chicken or any other food to an exact temperature. This tool will make sure the food is not under- or overcooked.

FoodKey can also be used for sous vide style cooking. Sous vide, French for “under vaccum,” is a method of cooking in which a chef would “simply seal the ingredients in a plastic bag and place them in a water bath … or any other cooker that can set and hold a target temperature to within a degree or two,” according to Modernist Cuisine. Once the food reaches the target temperature, all it needs is a quick pan sear and it is ready to be served.

Arlene Grant-Holcomb, director of the Didactic Program and Dietetics at Cal Poly, thinks anything that will help a consumer cook more food at home is good.

“If a smart appliance is easy and safe to use, then I am all for it,” she said.

The goal for appliances is that they get the food hot enough to meet food safety guidelines, Grant-Holcomb said.

“This would really appeal to the generation of people who are in college right now,” she said. “They have grown up with computers and tablets. Older generations — it might be harder to get them interested.”

Often times a recipe will call for low heat, but Veber argues low heat may vary between users, causing a discrepancy in the recipe’s success.

Enter FoodKey.

Smart appliances, which will become a $26.1 billion market by 2019 according to Pike Research, have been gaining traction this year, especially in the kitchen. From LG’s HomeChat to Samsung’s Wi-Fi-enabled refrigerator, smart kitchen appliances are growing more prominent every year.

“This kind of technology fits into society right now,” said Jake Disraeli, innovation coordinator at the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “It’s a huge trend, and it’s a cool problem to solve.”

Veber said FoodKey will have predictive timing, a fail safe and a built-in timer on the app he plans to create.

He said you don’t want to be staring at your pan, babysitting it to make sure everything goes right. You should be able to walk away and do other duties around your house, with the ease of mind that your food will come out to perfection.

“It is like a third arm,” Veber said. “It is not to replace the chef, but to allow the chef to use it like a sous chef. It is not like a robot from the Jetsons.”

[divider]

“Oh yeah, cheese, cheese, cheese,” Veber says as he stirs freshly grated cheese into his risotto simmering in the pressure cooker.

He checks on his chicken, which he had put inside a plastic bag into his crockpot a few hours before. His self-created thermostat controls the temperature of the water in his crockpot through a thermocouple cable.

The chicken simply sits for four hours in the warm water at a perfect 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I will just leave that in there until the risotto is done,” he says

[divider]

In Fall 2013, Veber and a small team worked together at a startup weekend to build a functioning prototype: a simple square box with a few wires coming out of the side and a digital screen display that allows the user to see the temperature. It may not sound like much, but he thinks it is cooking of the future.

Now, he uses the same prototype while cooking.

“Ideally, I would make everything I eat — nothing preprocessed, like a Jimmy Dean breakfast bowl,” he said.

Veber started blogging about his cooking creations on his website, such as the sous vide chicken breast and parmesan risotto.

Now, he is setting up for an Innovation Quest competition, the finalists of which were determined on April 25. Veber is working on a more advanced prototype of his product, which will allow him to take his creations from the crockpot to the stovetop. Though he is currently working on his own, Veber is looking for help from a web developer to devise the smartphone app that will sync with his prototype.

Veber plans to sell the hardware for the appliance to the consumer, and the app would be included in that price. Veber said a New York-based mobile accessories company, iLuv, has expressed interest in his product. Though he imagines keeping FoodKey, Veber thinks teaming with iLuv could be a unique opportunity.

“They don’t have products like mine,” Veber said. “It’s a market they want to go into.”

They are interested in co-developing the tool with him.

[divider]

Grabbing a fork from his freshly washed silverware, Veber pokes it into the lightly salted sous vide-style chicken and cuts off a small piece.

“That’s the bomb diggity, damn,” he says.