How Thousand-Year-Old Eggs Led Me to Start My Own Sous-Vide Business

published Mar 28, 2016
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(Image credit: Courtesy of Nomiku)

When I first came to the United States in 1994, I was 7. Having spent my childhood in Shangdong Province, in eastern China, I didn’t know you were supposed to change your clothes every day. Consequently everybody thought I smelled and very few people were brave enough be my friend, let alone sit next to me. You can imagine how thrilled I was when a nice girl from my class took pity on me and came over for dinner.

Of course, since this was a special occasion, my family served her a special dish: green- and gray-colored “thousand-year-old eggs,” made by preserving duck eggs in clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for some period of time between several weeks and several months. It’s an acquired taste. She took one bite and didn’t speak for the rest of the evening.

(Image credit: Emily Han)

I thought for sure I was going to face an onslaught of teasing when I went to school the next day. Dragging my feet in the morning to school, I fantasized about moving to a different school district. But when I finally got there, a bunch of kids surrounded me shouting, “Lisa! Lisa! Can we go over to your house to eat weird food?”

That incident pretty much internalized for me that food connects people and also that I could be good at connecting people through food. Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with helping people have great food experiences.

In college, I studied journalism and American studies, but on the side, I worked at Babbo, Jean Georges, and a litany of other high-profile restaurants. I would do pretty much whatever they asked because I was so enamored of the drama and art of food.

I was shocked to find that many of these fine-dining restaurants relied on a huge hulking piece of laboratory equipment. The device, called an immersion circulator, used a precise temperature method called sous vide to cook the most gorgeous food I’d ever had. The precise temperature allowed only the desired chemical reactions to happen. Pears would cook in their own juice and become like custard after a few hours. Steaks became juicy and tender, the result of the fat and collagen melting slowly into the muscles.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Lisa Fetterman)

I became fixated on saving up money to buy one and I told everyone I knew about sous vide — including this plasma physicist I was going on a date with. He said to me, “I can just make you one.” His name is Abe and he’s now my husband, baby daddy, and the co-founder of Nomiku.

We created the first prototype in his little Lower East Side apartment. We visited hackerspaces, communal spaces where tech-y types meet to share ideas, build things, and learn from each other. Everywhere we went people asked us: “Why don’t you just make the machine ready-to-use?”

(Image credit: Courtesy of Nomiku)

So, we moved to China to be a part of the first class of Haxlr8r. The company’s mission is to invest in and accelerate hardware startups — like us. We created our second prototype in three months and begged our wedding videographers (literally a week before our wedding) to help us make a Kickstarter video. It went on to become the highest-funded project in the food category, raising $582,000 in 30 days.

Today, we’ve brought manufacturing back to San Francisco and are currently shipping our WiFi product from our second Kickstarter campaign. We are still excited to have people try the most delicious food they have ever eaten in their lives. Some people may think sous-vide cooking is weird — and let’s be honest, it is a little science-geeky — but who says weird is a bad thing? As I learned back in elementary school, weird is interesting and it can make you friends, too.