April 11, 2013
Ninety pounds lighter than he was at his high school graduation, Caen Contee can finally call himself healthy. But it was a long journey: from helping out with his mother’s Brazilian recipes as a child, to being overweight from American fast food in high school, to suffering from bulimia in college.
Now, Contee wants to help other Americans find their healthy by reducing the intimidation factor in home cooking. He and his team today announced Culination, a site with interactive cooking videos.
Today, they also begin raising money on Indiegogo to create a library of over 100 free lessons. Users will be able to cook with their hands, control the app with their voice, and learn techniques like knife skills or how to pop champagne along the way. Now in private alpha with 13 videos, including lessons from an Iron Chef finalist and a Food Network host, the site would launch to the public in September.
“We [as a country] make everything seem as though it’s inaccessible to eat healthy, but it’s really not,” says Contee, who cofounded Culination with Geoffrey Sechter (formerly of the USDA), Andrew Bates, and Robin Barrow. “It’s really that confidence factor which is the barrier to entry.”
Contee learned that confidence from his Brazilian mother, the first of many cooking instructors he would have. As an adolescent, he slowly climbed up the domestic kitchen ranks from watching to making coffee to finally having his own dish: feijoada, a national Brazilian meal of pig parts, black beans, and herbs. Contee became known as the feijoada master in his family.
Completing high school in the United States, Caen was unaware of the perils of American fast food. He ate KFC and Taco Bell weekly and graduated at 265 pounds He had joined the “fast food nation,” the very thing that Culination stands in opposition to. It’s a place where hyperactive workers have no time to make their own meals, and where foods like corn have been grown and modified to be animal food, not people food.
That’s why part of Culination’s goal is to make the origin of food products more transparent. Sustainable brands will be able to create videos featuring their real ingredients and their real farmers, producers, or coffee growers. And 10 percent of the startup’s net revenue will go to nonprofits in the food, health, and sustainability space, who can also produce their own (free) video series on Culination.
In the summer before college, Contee dieted hard and lost around 70 pounds. To keep off such a huge amount of weight, he forced himself to follow a regimented diet that eventually led to bulimia.
“I went from one extreme of not being aware and eating poor foods when I first got to high school to going the opposite. And that’s very much – being honest here – indicative of my personality. I sort of approach everything as this is a point of change, let’s go at it 180 degrees the other way and just improve yourself. It took me a long time to realize it’s okay to compromise, it’s okay to have an occasional piece of cake if you enjoy dessert,” recalls Contee.
To recover his health, Contee supplemented his college education with other studies: traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, medicinal cuisine, and herbs. He actually toyed with the idea of becoming a chef, working at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse and restaurants in the United States and Shanghai.
But his true passion is food education, not just food creation. He believes that cooking shows are entertaining rather than informative; after all, who cooks while watching them? He believes that food can not only help cure many Americans of diseases, but build community. And if his aspirations bear fruit, that community will start on Culination.
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