How to Avoid a Failed Valentine’s Day Cooking Experience With One App: With Kevin Yu

“For fear of either being single for the rest of my life, or perhaps starving to death in a zombie apocalypse, I decided I needed to build something that would help me learn to cook.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Yu, the founder and CEO of SideChef. Kevin is currently based between Shanghai and Santa Monica, leading product development and international operations for the cooking app, SideChef, named one of the ‘Best Apps of 2014’​ by USA TODAY, ‘favorite cooking app’ by the NY Times, and ranked in the iTunes Stores’ Top 10 Food & Drinks apps in over 100 countries. SideChef features a mobile-first community platform, combining interactive step-by-step design and user-generated content to bring cooking into the smart kitchens of the 21st century. SideChef has partnered with over 300 groups including the Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard, Michelin star chefs, and top food influencers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?

Well it really started with a failed Valentine’s Day cooking experience. As someone who had never cooked at the time, I vastly underestimated how difficult it would be to make a 3-course meal for a then-girlfriend. Like when I was cooking soup, I forgot to put the onions into the pan to sauté them at the beginning, so I threw them in raw at the end which was pretty gross. For fear of either being single for the rest of my life, or perhaps starving to death in a zombie apocalypse, I decided I needed to build something that would help me learn to cook.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?

I feel like new stories are created all the time in the ups and downs of a startup, but most recently I was interviewing a product manager candidate and felt like the interview was going pretty well, thus I brought in the tech team to introduce themselves to the candidate. During introductions, to our surprise, my Android developer introduced herself as an iOS developer instead. In simple terms, that’s like saying you speak Chinese, when you actually speak English. Later after the interview, we asked why she did that, in which she replied, “He was hot, so I didn’t know what to say.”

So how exactly does your company help people?

SideChef’s mission is to allow anyone to cook. Our award-winning app is essentially a GPS navigation system for the cooking process, guiding cooks at all levels from start to finish, step-by-step with voice, videos, and photos, as well as connecting to their smart kitchen appliances for precise culinary results. We have over 300 recipe partners on our app for over 6,000 smart recipes. We also work with ingredient delivery partners such as Chef’d to have your ingredients also conveniently delivered.

What makes your business stand out? Can you share a story?

Our small startup team of 20 is very diverse, made up of members from more than seven different countries. Understanding our team’s motivations, values and abilities has been both our greatest challenge and strength, as I believe diversity can either segregate people or produce extraordinary results.Today, our CTO is a master sous vide chef cooking up prime rib regularly on the weekends for dinner parties. Our head of partnerships just finished coding the “Hello, World” program. Our Italian lead programmer has been cooking up Chinese food regularly for his wife and kids. Together, they’ve built an award winning app that’s been in the top 10 food & drink rankings in over 100 countries. Prior to joining SideChef, none of these facts were true.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Food is one of our core human needs and cooking, which is providing for that need, is one of the most powerful ways of showing someone love. This is why at SideChef, as our core mission, we want to allow anyone to be able to do this for themselves and for others, while also making the process fun, inspirational, and educational. With millions of recipes already made by our users, I’m proud to know our team has helped people love themselves and others.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my business,” and why?

  1. Nothing is final. Really. In four years, I’ve seen investors change their minds from ‘no’ to ‘yes,’ employees quit and then come back recharged, competitors go from largest threat to bankrupt, and company tragedies followed by new heights of company achievements.
  2. Be ready for anything. Sometimes you go totally broke. Sometimes you get deported. Sometimes you fly around the world to be on TV for two minutes. Sometimes you also fly around the world multiple times for deals that fall through. Sometimes you get auctioned off for a date by your company for charity. Sometimes nobody believes your business model will work and you start doubting yourself. And sometimes, with a little luck, things come through and it all works out (such as months later signing with multiple Forbes 500 companies on that same model). I’ve experienced all of the above.
  3. The road to success often isn’t pretty. I’m not sure why, but often times people think a business is run as a ‘matter of fact,’ or having a ‘silver bullet’ solution that will equal success — but I’ve noticed people who believe it to be that simple, have never done it themselves. Success is usually a riddled path of failures, learning lessons, grit to persist, staying alive, and through resilience, gaining traction leading to successes. It isn’t at all surprising for me to look at a decision made a year ago and think ‘wow, if I looked at that out of context, it have seemed like a terrible decision,’ yet it probably played an unspoken critical role to getting the company to where it is today.
  4. Surround yourself with good people and empower them to succeed and grow. Our VP of Operations, who is a crucial executive to our business now, once started as our intern, when we used to work out of a three-bedroom apartment.
  5. Knowing when to give up is as important as chasing an opportunity persistently. Running a business is very much about balancing priorities, which are constantly changing every day. At one point, we thought a particular lucrative business partnership would be a make or break opportunity, but they required us to exclude working with 50+ other companies. When it didn’t work out, we actually found that working with those other 50+ companies collectively would easily become the larger opportunity.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love to have a meal with Kimbal Musk, as I’m a huge fan of the farm-to-table movement and would love to engage with him on how technology could play a larger role in the motivations of why people cook. What if people who cooked were as engaged as people who played video games?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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